MSNBC suspends Olbermann after donation to Dems disclosed

By Daniel Tencer
Friday, November 5, 2010 13:55 EDT
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Update at bottom: Comcast denies any links to Olbermann suspension

News network MSNBC has suspended host Keith Olbermann indefinitely after a news report stated he donated to the campaigns of three Democratic candidates.

Mediaite quotes MSNBC President Phil Griffin as saying, “I became aware of Keith’s political contributions late last night. Mindful of NBC News policy and standards, I have suspended him indefinitely without pay.”

Reaction to the suspension has been swift. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) described it as “outrageous that General Electric/MSNBC would suspend Keith Olbermann for exercising his constitutional rights to contribute to a candidate of his choice. … This is a real threat to political discourse in America and will have a chilling impact on every commentator for MSNBC.”

It was announced on Friday afternoon that Chris Hayes, Washington editor for The Nation, would be filling in for Olbermann this evening. Hayes later withdrew, however, explaining on Twitter, “OK: I’m not filling in on Countdown tonight because I didn’t feel comfortable doing it given the circumstances.”

A emergency petition from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee had over 95,000 signatures as of 8:30 PM on Friday, and a Facebook page devoted to getting Olbermann reinstated on the air has also been formed.

“Keith Olbermann, one of our best voices on the left, has been silenced by MSNBC. Tell Phil Griffin, who’s been trying MSNBC be more like Fox News, to bring Keith Olbermann back!” the group exhorts.

Shockingly enough, even neoconservative writer William Kristol has come to Olbermann’s defense, calling for Republicans to stand up for the liberal anchor.

“Perhaps Olbermann violated NBC News ‘policy and standards,’” Kristol wrote. “But NBC doesn’t have real news standards for MSNBC—otherwise the channel wouldn’t exist. It’s a little strange to get all high and mighty now.

“But there’s now a Republican House, and perhaps GE is trying to curry favor by dumping Olbermann?”

Kristol’s comments left conservative blogger Michelle Malkin aghast. “Pardon my MSNBC-like incivility, but are you freaking kidding me?,” sha asked. “Hoping Kristol’s tongue is firmly planted in cheek, but plenty of people are taking him seriously.”

Malkin also managed to slam both Olbermann and his employer at the same time, writing, “Unlike Fox News (pay attention, Media Matters Soros-bots), NBC ethics guidelines (yes, they do have them) bar their employees from making political contributions. (FNC’s real-world, pro-free speech rules allow donations as long ‘as long as the activity does not interfere with or impair the performance of the employee’s duties for the Company.’)”

Politico reported Friday:

Olbermann, who acknowledged the contributions in a statement to POLITICO, made the maximum legal donations of $2,400 apiece to Conway and to Arizona Reps. Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords. He donated to the Arizona pair on Oct. 28 — the same day that Grijalva appeared as a guest on Olbermann’s “Countdown” show.

Grijalva, a prominent liberal who was just declared a winner in his race Thursday night, was in a tight contest against tea-party-backed candidate Ruth McClung when he appeared on “Countdown” — one of several appearances he made on the show.

According to a run-down of news networks’ campaign contribution policies that MSNBC itself published, the network and affiliated network NBC require top management’s permission to donate to political campaigns.

“MSNBC.com employees who take part in civic or other outside activities, including participation in political campaigns or public events such as speeches, marches and political rallies, or who publicly espouse controversial positions, may find that these activities jeopardize their standing as objective journalists,” the policy states. “MSNBC.com employees should report any such potential conflicts in advance to, and obtain the prior approval of, the Editor in Chief or his designee.”

Any donation that “could create the appearance of a conflict of interest due to the employee’s responsibilities at MSNBC.com … must receive the prior approval of the section Executive Producer or Editor in Chief,” the policy states.

The policy also states that MSNBC employees can’t be candidates for office without management approval.

Olbermann’s suspension comes after a season of controversy over donations from news organizations and journalists to political campaigns. Fox News parent News Corp. took criticism from many on the left for its $1-million donation to the Republican Governors Association, and another million-dollar donation to the US Chamber of Commerce.

A study of political donations found that no fewer than 30 Fox News personalities “endorsed, raised money, or campaigned for Republican candidates or organizations” in the latest election cycle.

In the debate, MSNBC has been among the most aggressive news organizations in pursuing journalists’ political donations. MSNBC.com, which is separate from the network, compiled a list of journalists who have donated to campaigns over the past three years. It showed 143 journalists who have donated to campaigns, including numerous reporters from ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, the New Yorker and Newsweek.

But several MSNBC reporters made the list as well: Joe Scarborough, host of Morning Joe; Rachel Schwanewede, a TodayShow.com producer; and travel columnist Joel Widzer all reportedly made political contributions.

Duncan Black at Eschaton reports that right-of-center MSNBC contributor Pat Buchanan has contributed to four Republican campaigns in recent years, and made one donation to the America First National Committee.

“Did Pat Buchanan get approval for his?” he asks.

MSNBC’s list of donation policies shows that the New York Times, ABC and CBS all forbid donations. (Reporters from all those organizations appeared on the list of donors.) Newsweek forbids donations “generally,” while Reuters “allows contributions for journalists not involved in political coverage.”

Fox News “allows campaign contributions, as long as the money doesn’t come from corporate funds,” MSNBC reports, noting that funds from corporate sources “wouldn’t be allowed anyway under federal law.”

UPDATE: Comcast has issued a statement denying that its purchase of NBC had anything to do with Olbermann’s suspension. Comcast’s statement, via Crooks and Liars:

The joint venture between Comcast and GE has not yet received regulatory approval. Comcast is not in any way involved with decisions made currently by NBC News. We have pledged that when the transaction is concluded, Comcast will abide by the same policies for NBC’s news and public affairs programming that have been in place since GE acquired the company in 1986. Comcast is committed to the independence of NBC’s news operations.

We hope to acquire NBC Universal in the coming months, but by law we play no role in current operations. Mr. Philip Anschutz is not the chairman of Comcast Corporation, nor is he on its board, or in any way involved with the management of the company.

Muriel Kane and Stephen C. Webster contributed to this report. Updated from an original version.

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