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Glenn Halbrooks

Keith Olbermann Suspension Provides a Lesson to Media Professionals

By November 5, 2010

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Just when you thought media hype over the 2010 elections was dying down, MSNBC has indefinitely suspended Keith Olbermann for making political contributions to candidates. As host of the Countdown news program, Olbermann is one of the cable news network's most recognizable personalities.

A picture of Keith Olbermann
Keith Olbermann has been suspended indefinitely for campaign contributions.
Photo © Getty Images
MSNBC says Olbermann made contributions to three Democratic candidates running for Congress, which would violate NBC News policy. According to MSNBC, Olbermann has confirmed making the donations, which total a combined $7,200.

Every media professional should be wary of making any political contribution or getting involved in a political campaign or cause. If you think political activities are your personal business, you should check your employment contract or talk with your supervisor before slapping a bumper sticker on your car, sticking a sign in your yard or pulling out your checkbook. Your employment may depend on it.

Some will claim that NBC News must have a bias against the Democratic Party for suspending Olbermann. The party isn't the point. Journalists should know that any action that could be interpreted as political bias toward any candidate or party can't be tolerated.

But that's just the problem in Olbermann's situation. Is he a journalist or a TV personality? That line has become all too blurry in recent years, especially on the cable news networks.

While it might have been in Tom Brokaw's DNA not to become involved in a political campaign, Olbermann's job function is different. He is paid to present his opinion, and with his background in sports, he grew up talking about coaches who needed to be fired and professional players that should be cut from the team. His opinion is a vital part of his on-air persona.

Oprah Winfrey made it known early in the 2008 presidential campaign that she supported Barack Obama. Clearly she is a host who is free to do what she wants, especially on her own TV show.

But when you work for someone else, you abide by their rules, which differ depending on the company and your job title. Questions are now being raised about possible contributions by MSNBC's Joe Scarborough and Fox's Sean Hannity, who are also both paid to bring their opinions to America.

It's not just about money. I have long wanted to attend various campaign rallies, not to do a news story, but just to listen to the candidate, see the crowd and take it all in. But for a newsperson, even attending an event implies more than interest. It suggests an endorsement.

These days, it wouldn't take long for a photo of you at a rally to be plastered on the Internet without your knowledge. You'd find out when you were called into your boss's office and asked to explain yourself. That's part of the personal freedom you give up when you decide to work in media.

Update Monday, November 8: Olbermann will return to MSNBC after a two-day suspension

Update Saturday, November 20: MSNBC host Joe Scarborough has now been suspended for making political contributions

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