Keith Olbermann’s abrupt departure from MSNBC last week really frosted progressive spines because, coming just days after the midterm elections, it felt like the second shoe dropping: It wasn’t enough that we can’t count on the Democratic Party, we can’t even count on MSNBC’s primetime line-up. Even though Keith’s suspension lasted only two days (and was maybe even self-imposed), everybody knows that the only big media outlet that mans-up to the Fox Republican Party every day is for sale, to cable giant Comcast. Was a Keithless Countdown just a trial balloon, as more than 300,000 petitioners demanding his return feared?

Keith’s return Tuesday night will undoubtedly break ratings records and polish his status as a tribune of the left, possibly making him, in the end, even more secure at his post. But his suspension did seem unfair, and scary. It was only the most recent in a series of corporate disciplinary actions against journalists that, one way or another, usually redound to the right’s favor. When CNN axed Rick Sanchez and Octavia Nasr for supposedly anti-Semitic remarks, it was succumbing to conventional neocon wisdom; when NPR fired Juan Williams for supposedly anti-Muslim remarks, Fox News rode in like a white knight, offered him a $2 million contract, and self-righteously campaigned to defund the (minimally) federally funded public radio net. After all that, Olbermann’s disappearance seemed to fulfill Bill O’Reilly’s prediction that, once the election results were in, the MSNBC hosts “may commit suicide.”

Fortunately, as the weekend wore on, it became apparent that Olbermann’s suspension was just another of NBC’s endless squabbles with its talent, more about Keith showing respect for the suits than a change in partisan direction. (We hope.) MSNBC has spanked its talking heads before, from David Shuster (suspended for taping a pilot with CNN) to Donny Deutsch (briefly suspended for criticizing, believe it or not, Keith Olbermann). But this time, MSNBC prez Phil Griffin, having consulted with outgoing NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker (the genius who welched on a deal with Conan O’Brien in favor of Jay Leno), lost the support of the all-important stand-up comic demographic (more on that later). Moreover, the scolded employee received a sudden outpouring of affection, a welcome boost for Olbermann, who’s been somewhat eclipsed of late. NBC would never let Keith pack his fans into a rally on the D.C. Mall, but he could get at least as many people to sign a petition for him, and that’s something.

But the larger pattern for liberals is icy clear nonetheless. From Obama not putting single-payer on the table to his firing of Shirley Sherrod for fear of what Fox News might say to the Democrats preemptively caving to the GOP on tax cuts for the rich, it’s painfully obvious that when Fox Republicans growl, Dems and the mainstream media back down.

The problem comes down to the fact that one side wants to play by the rules while the other side doesn’t believe in rules. MSNBC slapped Olbermann’s wrist for breaking NBC News’s rule forbidding journalists from making political donations without prior approval from the network’s president. (On Sunday, Mike Allen of Politico, which broke the story of Keith’s contributions, reported that Olbermann said he didn’t know he had to get permission and refused to make an on-air mea culpa.) Yet, even discussing the fine points of Olbermann’s transgressions gives lie to the notion, aided in no small part by Jon Stewart, that MSNBC is the leftwing equivalent to Fox News.

Which is so ridiculous, both in terms of intent and result, that it makes you want to scream. Not only did News Corp. president Rupert Murdoch give $1.25 million to the Republican Governors Association and another $1 million to the GOP-linked U.S. Chamber of Commerce but, as Media Matters reports, “During the 2009-2010 election cycle, more than 30 Fox Newsers have endorsed, raised money, or campaigned for Republican candidates or organizations in more than 600 instances.” Most notably perhaps, Sean Hannity, whom Christine O’Donnell bragged was “in my back pocket,” donated $5,000 to Michele Bachmann’s PAC.

“Heck,” Rachel Maddow said in an eloquent defense of Olbermann and MSNBC, “there are multiple people being paid by Fox News now to essentially run for office as Republican candidates….They can do that because there’s no rule against that at Fox. They run as a political operation. We’re not….We are a news operation and the rules around here are part of how you know that.”

This business of avoiding rules and professional standards of all kinds, of course, is a basic tenet of the GOP—they don’t like mine safety regulations either, or environmental protection rules, or banking laws, or even the Geneva Convention against human torture. Democrats have been trying to cage the Republican Party behind the bars of the law since Richard Nixon. During the Reagan years, they passed the Boland Amendment outlawing aid to the Contras, who were losing a civil war in Nicaragua. So Reagan set up Ollie North to run guns to Iran in a totally wacky attempt to fund them “privately.” (Fox News has given Ollie his own show, War Stories.)

Nobody ever went to jail for violating the Boland Amendment. Creating cut-outs that escape government regulation and then undermine the rule of law throughout entire sectors of the economy has since become a basic tool of conservative politics. In the ‘90s, hedge funds set up an unregulated “shadow banking system” that was so profitable envious commercial banks marshaled lobbyists to tear down the regulations that had kept banking safe for 50 years; the capitalist crash of 2007 was the result.

Fox, as the current Harper’s cover story by Marvin Kitman points out, is itself a kind of off-shore cut-out. In the 1990s, Republicans helped Australian Rupert Murdoch circumvent U.S. communications law so he could purchase a series of media properties that foreigners weren’t allowed to buy. And ever since, Fox News has been undermining professional standards and laboring mightily to wean American journalism away from what is quaintly called “the public interest.”   

The election aside, the last week or so has been a dizzying period of soul-searching for some of the non-Fox media. At his Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the Mall in Washington, Jon Stewart suggested that Olbermann and Ed Schultz were mirror images of Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck. Last Monday, Olbermann announced that he was going to indefinitely suspend his “Worse Persons in the World” segment because Stewart’s rally reminded him that “the tone needs to change.” Tuesday was the election. On Wednesday, Stewart kept pushing his thesis, telling Fox’s Chris Wallace that MSNBC is “making a mistake by becoming equivalent to Fox…” (Even Wallace didn’t buy it.) Friday, the Politico story broke, Olbermann was gone, and Stewart received two knock-out punches—from Maddow, indirectly, and from Bill Maher, right to the kisser: 

With all due respect to my friends Jon and Stephen, it seems to me that if you truly wanted to come down on side of restoring sanity and reason, you’d side with the sane and the reasonable–and not try to pretend that the insanity is equally distributed in both parties. Keith Olbermann is right when he says he’s not the equivalent of Glenn Beck. One reports facts, the other is very close to playing with his poop. And the big mistake of modern media has been this notion of balance for balance’s sake, that the left is just as violent and cruel as the right, that unions are just as powerful as corporations, that reverse racism is just as damaging as racism. There’s a difference between a mad man and a madman.

It makes me want to vote for Bill.

UPDATE: Wow. Last night, Stewart responded, defensively, to Keith, Rachel, and Bill’s charges about his false equivalencies, right down to enacting the knock-out punches mentioned above. More later.