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Keith Olbermann campaign donation scandal raises larger issue about the role of news media

Opinions Editor

Published: Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Updated: Wednesday, November 10, 2010 18:11

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A conservative-leaning FCC operating during a rather conservative era in American politics abolished the Fairness Doctrine in 1989. What spawned from this decision was a variety of conservative and liberal pundits on radio stations and television programs who were more than willing to share their ideological beliefs. The Fairness Doctrine required such programming to present alternative perspectives on issues, but such mandate has long since been abandoned. Some political media critics would argue that the abolishment of the Fairness Doctrine has led to a highly polarized, if not hostile, political environment that we’re faced with today.

Last Friday, notorious liberal TV personality Keith Olbermann was suspended indefinitely without pay from his show on MSNBC, Countdown, for donating to three Democratic candidates in the recent midterm elections. Somewhere in Fox News headquarters, Bill O’Reilly is likely having a celebration, as he and Olbermann are often quarreling back and forth on their programs. NBC News policy requires journalists to have prior approval from the company president before engaging in such behavior. MSNBC TV President Phil Griffin stated that he discovered Olbermann’s campaign contributions just days after the election results came pouring in.

For obvious reasons, this decision has come under much scrutiny from his counterpart, Rachel Maddow, as well as other liberals. Lt. Dan Choi, a fierce advocate for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, used his Twitter account to state his boycott for MSNBC and refusal to stop by for future interviews. A petition started by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, with hopes of helping Olbermann be reinstated, has already garnered nearly 300,000 signatures online.

Despite my moderate-conservative political leanings and opinions regarding Keith Olbermann’s commentary, I too found myself hoping that Olbermann could return to Countdown every weekday night. Late Sunday night in a surprising change of events, Phil Griffin announced that Olbermann is scheduled to return to “Countdown” on Tuesday. According to the Washington Post, Griffin felt that two days off the air was “an appropriate punishment for his violation of our policy.”

Beyond the bitter name-calling and partisan bickering that has resulted from Olbermann’s mishap lies a deeper issue most Americans tend to overlook. Lt. Dan Choi and Rachel Maddow aren’t grasping at the big picture. This controversy raises important questions and highlights a phenomenon much larger than Keith Olbermann or MSNBC. To what extent can, or should, political pundits and news networks become directly involved in partisan affairs? Obviously it seems to be unethical for any prominent journalist or media conglomerate to donate to candidates, but considering the reality of the political arena today and the evolution of news media, ethics is simply thrown out the window. Most of my fellow conservatives would quickly deny the fact that Glenn Beck is largely responsible for the rapid growth of the Tea Party movement over the last year. Fox News pays Sarah Palin to be a frequent contributor, and as 2012 approaches, it appears more and more likely that she will run for president.

There is no doubt that political pundits on both sides of the aisle are guilty for becoming actively involved in the political process beyond the usual screaming and shouting every night. Partisan programming is only dangerous to those who are either uneducated or blinded by their ideology. Because Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC don’t frequently remind audiences about the differences between political commentary and news coverage, the average American may believe the words of Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann and Sean Hannity to be the word of the land. The only force strong enough to steer pundits away from political engagement are the audiences. If viewer ship declines as a result of such bitterly partisan programming, then news networks will quickly alter their content.

In fact, it can be argued that partisan programming is good for democracy because it inspires people to become involved in their government. However, in the year 2010, finding fair news coverage about touchy political issues can be an exhausting and arduous task. Often times, politically engaged Americans must search through multiple news media outlets just to get the story straight. Because the Fairness Doctrine will probably continue to gather dust in the Library of Congress, Americans now have a responsibility to understand the difference between fact and opinion.

Also, news media outlets have a responsibility to only use their power for news coverage and the promotion of ideas, not for being a part-time PAC for their preferred candidates or political party. Most importantly, multi-billion dollar media conglomerates should only engage in lobbyism and influencing policy outcomes when it directly pertains to the interests of their company, not the interests of the American people. 

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