Time for a Rules Change? ‘A lot of news viewers think journalists are biased, anyway’

By Gail Shister 

MSNBC’s sudden suspension of top-rated Keith Olbermann has spurred a debate about the relevance of network rules against staffers contributing to political campaigns.

Olbermann, whom MSNBC president Phil Griffin once labeled as the network’s “rock star,” yesterday was suspended indefinitely without pay for having contributed $2,400 each last week to the campaigns of three Democratic congressional candidates. NBC News guidelines prohibit such contributions without prior approval.

Given today’s hyper-partisan political climate, some media experts say it’s time for the rules to change. At MSNBC (blue state) and Fox News Channel (red state), for example, every prime-time host espouses a clear political bias. Moreover, that bias drives their viewership.


“I am shocked, shocked, to learn that Keith Olbermann is a Democrat,” deadpans Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Requiring employees to be politically agnostic makes sense when they work for objective news organizations, Jones says. However, MSNBC and Fox “don’t follow that standard [in prime time], and it’s absurd to pretend anything else. It’s a fig leaf that doesn’t cover anything.”

Rich Hanley, director of graduate programs at Quinnipiac University’s School of Communications, goes so far as to call the rules “quaint and disingenuous,” particularly in light of Fox owner Rupert Murdoch’s recent $1 million-plus contributions to Republican groups.

At MSNBC, where Olbermann is paid to give opinions, the irony is inescapable to Hanley: “It’s funny how a network that calls itself ‘the place for politics’ pulls a host for being political.”

The solution, according to Hanley, is for cable to follow the model of a newspaper op-ed page and make a distinction between daytime and nighttime lineups. Before opinion-driven programs, they could run a simple disclaimer that would distance the host’s views from their own.

“Prime time could become the op-ed page of cable news,” says Hanley. “It just needs to be labeled as such.”

Exiled CNN anchor Aaron Brown is troubled by partisan media, but he says NBC “is entitled to make policy, even if it doesn’t make much sense in this instance. It just shows how crazy things are.

“At least Fox doesn’t pretend it is fair and balanced. Oh wait, it does.”

Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, prides himself on being Old School, but acknowledges there is a strong argument to be made for updating the rules.

“There’s no easy answer,” he says. “The rules are gradually ceasing to have the desired effect. There’s so much partisanship out there now, and a lot of news viewers think journalists are biased, anyway, whether they’re overtly political or not.”

Still, “there’s more to lose by changing the rules than by not changing the rules,” Lichter explains. “To say there’s no difference between partisan and non-partisan journalists sends a message that difference doesn’t matter.”

In a way, Olbermann’s suspension follows the script.

Here’s why: For inspiration, he keeps in his iPod a clip of the infamous “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” rant by Peter Finch’s crazed anchorman, Howard Beale, in the 1976 film “Network.”

Beale’s bosses embraced his insanity until ratings fell. Then they had him shot to death on the air.

Olbermann’s bosses embraced his tirades until he suddenly became a political liability. Then they took him off the air. Which to any broadcaster, is a kind of death.

In his favor, though, Olbermann has played Lazarus numerous times in his checkered career. No reason to believe he won’t rise again this time, too.