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'If Olbermann's Donations Are Bad, What About GE's?' | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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'If Olbermann's Donations Are Bad, What About GE's?'

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the media watchdog group that goes by the appropriate acronym FAIR, invariably sets the right standard when it comes to debates over journalism and media.

And they have hit the mark with their response to the controversy that has spun up following NBC's decision to place MSNBC host Keith Olbermann on indefinite suspension after it was learned that he had made campaign contributions to three Democratic congressional candidates. Olbermann was set to return to the airwaves Tuesday, but the issues associated with the suspension remain valid and significant.

Fair gets to the core question when it asks: "If Olbermann's Donations Are Bad, What About GE's?"

Here is FAIR's analysis:

MSNBC host Keith Olbermann has been placed on indefinite suspension without pay in the wake of a Politico report (11/5/10) that revealed Olbermann had donated $7,200 to three Democratic candidates, in violation of NBC's standards barring employees from making political contributions.

A journalist donating money to a political candidate raises obvious conflict of interest questions; at a minimum, such contributions should be disclosed on air. But if supporting politicians with money is a threat to journalistic independence, what are the standards for Olbermann's bosses at NBC, and at NBC's parent company General Electric?

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, GE made over $2 million in political contributions in the 2010 election cycle (most coming from the company's political action committee). The top recipient was Republican Senate candidate Rob Portman from Ohio. The company has also spent $32 million on lobbying this year, and contributed over $1 million to the successful "No on 24" campaign against a California ballot initiative aimed at eliminating tax loopholes for major corporations (New York Times, 10/1/10).

Comcast, the cable company currently looking to buy NBC, has dramatically increased its political giving, much of it to lawmakers who support the proposed merger (Bloomberg, 10/19/10). And while Fox News parent News Corp's $1 million donation to the Republican Governors Association caused a stir, GE had "given $245,000 to the Democratic governors and $205,000 to the Republican governors since last year," reported the Washington Post (8/18/10).

Olbermann's donations are in some ways comparable to fellow MSNBC host Joe Scarborough's $4,200 contribution to Republican candidate Derrick Kitts in 2006 (MSNBC.com, 7/15/07). When that was uncovered, though, NBC dismissed this as a problem, since Scarborough "hosts an opinion program and is not a news reporter." Olbermann, of course, is also an opinion journalist—but MSNBC seems to hold him to a different standard.

 Two years earlier, the Washington Post reported (1/18/04): "NBC chief executive Robert Wright has contributed $8,000 since 1999, including $3,500 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and $1,000 to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Andrew Lack, a former NBC News chief, gave $1,000 to Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) while NBC president, and Wright contributed $1,500—after the House committee Tauzin chairs held hearings on the networks' election night failures. NBC spokeswoman Allison Gollust said the network allows its executives to make contributions and that Wright "does not make any decisions specific to news coverage."

Wright, however, was reported in a recent New York magazine piece (10/3/10) to have told then-NBC News chief Neal Shapiro to move to the right of Fox News in response to the September 11 attacks: "We have to be more conservative then they are," the magazine quoted Wright.

MSNBC's treatment of Olbermann is also in sharp contrast to Fox News' handling of Sean Hannity, who was revealed by Salon (9/23/10) to have given $5,000 to the campaign of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R.-Minn.), a Tea Party favorite—without Fox expressing any public disapproval. Hannity has allowed Republican candidates to use his Fox program for fundraising (Mediaite, 10/17/10); as Salon noted, Hannity was this year's keynote speaker at the National Republican Congressional Committee's annual fundraising dinner.

If the concern is about how giving money to politicians threatens journalistic independence, then companies like NBC should explain why their parent companies can lavish so much money on political candidates or causes with no concern about conflicts of interest or the need to disclose these donations to viewers. The lesson here would seem to be that some of the workers shouldn't make political donations, but the bosses are free to give as much as they'd like. Anyone who watches Olbermann's show knows what his political views are. So what do the far larger contributions from GE tell us?

What I like about FAIR is that their sound analysis is always linked to a call to action.

In this instance, FAIR says: "Ask NBC and MSNBC to explain their inconsistent standards regarding political donations." Readers can do just that by e-mailing MSNBC President Phil Griffin at phil.griffin.nbcuni.com and  NBC News President Steve Capus at steve.capus.nbcunic.com

They can also learn more about FAIR and its terrific work at www.fair.org

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