NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In a move highlighting how uneasily cable news opinionating still sits with "straight news," MSNBC said Friday it had indefinitely suspended Keith Olbermann, arguably the linchpin of its prime-time lineup, without pay after becoming aware of donations he made to political parties. Such donations apparently violate the policy of NBC News, MSNBC's parent.
Politico reported earlier in the day that Mr. Olbermann had made donations to three Democratic congressional candidates. Mr. Olbermann, who regularly expresses a strong liberal view during his program, told Politico that he gave a maximum legal donation of $2,400 to Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona as well as Jack Conway, the attorney general of Kentucky.
That put Mr. Olbermann in violation of NBC News policy, MSNBC president Phil Griffin said later on Friday. "I became aware of Keith's political contributions late last night," he said in a statement. "Mindful of NBC News policy and standards, I have suspended him indefinitely without pay."
Mr. Olbermann's case is a thorny one, however. Many journalism organizations prohibit reporters, analysts and other contributors from participating in political campaigns, donating to candidates or taking certain other steps. NPR recently reminded employees, for example, that its policy forbids employees from participating in marches and rallies involving issues that NPR covers -- and that its policy applied to Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. But those outlets strive for objectivity, and certainly for the appearance of it, while the majority of hosts on MSNBC's prime-time lineup do not.
Mr. Olbermann's popularity comes precisely from his partisanship. And his network's talking heads have tilted enough to the left that Chris Matthews recently said Democrats would be watching MSNBC on election night.
Who thought Olbermann was impartial?
So the question is: Should a cable-news host who is encouraged to take a liberal stand -- thus disclosing any bias -- be punished for supporting candidates likely to further his beliefs? And if Mr. Olbermann's donations are in violation of NBC News policy, should the clearly partisan MSNBC remain under its aegis? Or should NBC News find a policy that accommodates a partisan subsidiary?
Mr. Olbermann told Politico that he had not made such contributions in the past and that he had not encouraged others to donate to the candidates.
NBC's written policy appears to be something less than iron-clad, although the spirit is clear. According to a report on MSNBC.com, NBC News policy states, "Anyone working for NBC News who takes part in civic or other outside activities may find that these activities jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest." The policy adds: "Such activities may include participation in or contributions to political campaigns or groups that espouse controversial positions."
Big money for MSNBC
Mr. Olbermann's "Countdown" program drew $13.1 million in the first eight months of 2010, according to Kantar Media, up slightly from the nearly $12.4 million "Countdown" drew in the year-earlier period. Many advertisers on the cable-news channels make deals that place their commercials across specific parts of the day – early morning or prime-time, for instance- rather than only in certain shows. In 2009, MSNBC took in approximately $131.5 million in ad revenue, according to Kantar.
Like other TV-news programs, Mr. Olbermann's top sponsors hail largely from the pharmaceutical industry, which often pitches its wares at the older spectrum of TV watchers. For the first ten months of 2010, "Countdown's" top sponsors included Pfizer Inc., Eli Lilly & Co, and Nissan, according to Kantar Media.