Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Olbermann weekend

The World Series was over, people were privately contemplating the end of the year, and Friday, like any other Friday in any early November, took on the attributes of an autumn day, set to end a minute or so earlier than the day before. There’s downtime like this even in today’s ravenous 24/7 news cycle. Barring some big-ass force majeure event and/or an act of God, weekends are generally quieter for news than the workweek. Generally.

But major media news broke early in the day: Keith Olbermann, author, essayist, sports commentator and point man/lightning rod anchor of MSNBC’s “Countdown” program, had been suspended indefinitely without pay from the network for making three donations last month to the campaigns of three congressional candidates during the just-ended election cycle.

What’s followed in the digital domain has been a direct reflection of how the mediasphere has evolved in recent months and years — and how much it hasn’t changed at all.

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The story, first reported in Politico at 6 a.m. EDT on Friday morning, asserted that Olbermann was suspended indefinitely without pay for making campaign contributions to Arizona Reps. Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords and to Kentucky Senate candidate Jack Conway.

In a statement to Politico, Olbermann admitted making the maximum legal donations of $2,400 apiece to each campaign. Somewhat problematic from the standpoint of optics was the fact that he contributed to the Grijalva and Giffords campaigns on Oct. 28 — the same day Grijalva appeared as a “Countdown” guest.

MSNBC President Phil Griffin said in a statement Friday: “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."

“NBC has a rule against employees contributing to political campaigns, and a wide range of news organizations prohibit political contributions — considering it a breach of journalistic independence to contribute to the candidates they cover,” reported Politico’s Simmi Aujla.

Some in the media have come down on Olbermann, or engaged in a barely concealed schadenfreude, for his donations and an apparent lapse in professional ethics. But there’s been a conflation of two dissimilar situations that’s starting to cloud how the Olbermann issue is being reported, and accepted.

Olbermann has been taken to task by some pundits for apparent hypocrisy in condemning News Corporation, parent of Fox News, for making separate million-dollar donations to the Republican Governors Assoiciation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce while he was doing much the same thing.

Only Olbermann wasn’t doing much the same thing. The careful observer recognizes the difference. His donations were made as a private citizen exercising his right to contribute to the campaign(s) of his choice.

News Corporation donations to those two groups were made for the purpose of advancing the agenda of virtually every conservative political campaign; they were made in the name of the company, written on a company check, with all its obvious potential for abuse and lobbyist influence fueled by seven-figure sums — a fact of life for the foreseeable future, thanks to the Supremes’ Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision.

Millions of dollars from News Corporation; $7,200 from Keith Olbermann … not exactly the same on the impact scale. That fact’s already being lost on certain voices in the public square, voices who hew to the idea of an inflexibly absolutist, church/state-style firewall between the fourth estate and the democracy it inhabits, between journalists and the world they live in.

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Regardless of all that, Olbermann apparently did violate NBC News policy on such matters. In part, that policy reads: “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. Such activities may include participation in or contributions to political campaigns or groups that espouse controversial positions. You should report any such potential conflicts in advance to, and obtain prior approval of, the president of NBC News or his designee.”

But people have been pushing back on Olbermann’s behalf from everywhere. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke up in a statement: “At a time when the ownership of Fox News contributed millions of dollars to the Republican Party, when a number of Fox commentators are using the network as a launching pad for their presidential campaigns and are raising money right off the air, it is absolutely unacceptable that MSNBC suspended one of the most popular progressive commentators in the country.“

In a Friday tweet, DCDebbie cut to what may be the chase in the matter: “Keith Olbermann = ardent supporter of net neutrality. Comcast, the SECOND largest US Internet provider takes over MSNBC. Co-ink-ee-deenk?”

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One thing is unsettling. Politico reported that they found Olbermann’s donation to Grijalva in a Federal Election Commission filing. Under FEC rules, a donor may contribute a maximum of $2,400 to a candidate per general election campaign, and, clearly, donor identities are recorded. Olbermann, as sharp a knife in the media drawer as there is, must have known that. Did he forget about that when he wrote the checks to the three campaigners?

Or did Olbermann do this accidentally on purpose? Is this Olbermann’s strategy for forcing a showdown with management on the eve of NBC Universal’s acquisition by Internet and cable giant Comcast? Is Keith lookin’ to get out?

And if he is, what happens to MSNBC if he leaves? With the prime-time Olbermann tentpole gone, what would happen to that demographically critical audience? For all her velocity into the teleculture, Rachel Maddow can’t hold down the Olbermann spot yet; she’s still building her audience and establishing her voice. Lawrence O’Donnell, the consummate political insider with his own show, is too new as the “Last Word” host to build a schedule around.

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And if Olbermann does bolt, where would he go? Any number of scenarios might arise.

It'll never happen, but just for the sake of cocktail conversation, suppose Olbermann ties up with CNN. Envision this theoretical prime-time lineup: David Shuster (formerly with MSNBC, dismissed early this year in another policy-breach flap) followed by Olbermann (probably with the “Countdown” staff and concept in tow) followed by CNN fixture Anderson Cooper’s “360ยบ” program, followed by Piers Morgan (soon to be the host of a talk show in Larry King’s current slot). A lineup like that could be, from MSNBC’s point of view, a very heavy challenge to overcome.

The twitterverse ain’t having any. On Friday night and into Saturday morning, the tweets came so thick and fast about Olbermann (most in support of the “Countdown” anchor staying put at MSNBC) that the Twitter whale was lifted from the water, the sign of a Web site over capacity.

Much of the thinking followed Evel Pants’ view: “OK MSNBC point made now bring back @Keith Olbermann. He didn’t do anything unforgivable and let the punishment fit the misdemeanor.”

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But in some ways, maybe the damage has already been done, and irreversibly. Long-time “Countdown” viewers will surely note that Olbermann’s on-air comments have lately been punctuated by snippets of Paddy Chayefsky dialogue extracted from Sidney Lumet’s “Network,” the celebrated film on television and corporate power — the film that ushered into the cultural lexicon the phrase “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

Has Olbermann been telegraphing a punch? Is he the character of Howard Beale? Will he be dispatched next year to the “Valhalla” of the boardroom, where Arthur Jensen — played by Brian Roberts, the chairman and CEO of Comcast — will tell him, in no uncertain terms, that he has meddled with the primal forces of nature?

Robert Stein, writing in the blog The Moderate Voice, finds that connection, too:

“The angry anchorman in the 1976 movie gets high ratings for a while and, when they drop, network honchos have him killed on camera.

“As the Keith Olbermann saga unfolds, the only new wrinkle is doing him in offstage with fine print instead of bullets. In the face of declining ratings, a pending change of ownership and a Republican tide rising, the left-leaning “mad as hell” style is obviously expendable.”

And if NBC thinks he might be expendable, is Keith Olbermann mad as hell — mad as hell enough to leave?

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We were hunkering down for a sleepy weekend, one made an hour longer by the rollback of our clocks to daylight standard time. Just the bathrobe and the breakfast and the cable remote. Now, we’ve got a cliffhanger to contemplate next week, one with big implications for journalism and information in a 24/7 age.

Apbikiniteam, on Twitter, was incredulous last night. “Wow, Keith Olbermann is still trending. He isn’t this relevant when he’s ON the air.”

Considering the changes in Washington announced on Tuesday, and how the outcome of the Olbermann saga may have an effect on the voices and viewpoints you can access with that cable remote, the Apbikiniteam may be more astute than they think.

Image credits: Olbermann, MSNBC logo: MSNBC. News Corporation logo: © 2010 News Corporation. CNN logo: © 2010 CNN. Still from "Network": © 1976 MGM.

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