MSNBC Draws The Line At Keith Olbermann

The cable channel MSNBC has suspended top-rated host Keith Olbermann after it was disclosed that he gave money to three Democratic candidates this fall. Host Scott Simon asks NPR's David Folkenflik what the incident tells us about MSNBC.

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(Soundbite of TV show, "Countdown with Keith Olbermann")

Mr. KEITH OLBERMANN (TV Host): Good evening from New York. This is Thursday, November 4th...

SCOTT SIMON, host:

MSNBC has suspended its top-rated host, Keith Olbermann. Mr. Olbermann was suspended yesterday indefinitely without pay for making political contributions to three Democratic candidates.

NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us from New York.

David, thanks for being with us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Of course.

SIMON: David, tell us about the three contributions Keith Olbermann made.

FOLKENFLIK: Olbermann gave contributions of $2,400 apiece to Jeff Conaway, who's the attorney general of the state of Kentucky - he's the Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in that state this year - and two beleaguered Democratic members of Congress from Arizona.

SIMON: And what does this decision tell us about MSNBC?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think it's pretty revealing about the definitional tension between MSNBC, the cable news channel, and its parent, NBC News. The channel has increasingly gone hard left, in large part because of the success of Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" program in opposition to then-President George W. Bush. And it's gotten its best profits in its best ratings in its entire history. That goes against the grain with the by-the-book traditions of NBC.

But nonetheless, even Olbermann, who's clearly an opinion host, is subject to the policies of NBC News. It was that policy he violated that says they can't contribute to political campaigns.

SIMON: Now, Fox News apparently treats this matter differently.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. I mean it makes a distinction in that it says, look, we don't let our opinion hosts anchor a political coverage. Though I will say though, on big primary nights or on election night, like this past Tuesday, viewers may miss that distinction as their programs do pop up.

But nonetheless, there's no precise prohibition against contributions from their opinion hosts, their prime time biggies like Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity. And Hannity is important because this year he too has given money to candidates.

SIMON: David, how has the decision to suspend Keith Olbermann been received? I mean I got the emails on Friday (unintelligible) I had nothing to do with it.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, right. I mean this is the policy. It was violated. There's not much doubt about that. And it's a policy that a lot of traditional journalists believe in, the notion that there should be some professional detachment from those you cover, even if you're an opinion journalist like, say, an op-ed columnist for a major American newspaper.

But there's a divide between what a lot of journalists may feel and like what a lot of people in the public or in more modern media outlets, new media, might feel. They'd said, look, Olbermann is not hiding anything, he's clearly a liberal, he's been up front about that, why should it surprise us that he would make some financial support for the kinds of candidates he's clearly offered far more robust support for on his very program?

And I think that's reflective of a certain fundamental debate that's roiling the industry right now. That is, do you strive for that sense of distance from those you cover or do you strive instead for transparency, for being clear with those who listen or watch or read you, about what you believe and what you do?

SIMON: David Folkenflik in New York, thanks so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

SIMON: This NPR News.

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