This just in: MSNBC host Keith Olbermann supports Democrats. According to a report in Politico this morning, Olbermann made the maximum legal donations to three Democratic candidates last month, one of them immediately after he appeared on Olbermann’s show.
This is potentially a problem for Olbermann, because it looks as though he violated an NBC News policy prohibiting its staff from making political contributions. Which is an issue for NBC management and their human resources department. (Update: MSNBC has suspended him indefinitely for the donations.) But for the rest of us, how exactly does it change the perception of a partisan opinion host and commentator when we find that he makes political contributions that support the political opinions he regularly gives on air?
As you know if you’ve read me regularly, I’m far more libertarian than most of my colleagues in journalism about political activity by journalists: I think journalists should be free to be politically active, to contribute and to disclose their votes, as long as it’s done with transparency.
If there’s an issue here, I suppose it’s that Olbermann (to my knowledge) did not publicly announce the contributions. But on the other hand, come on; this makes Olbermann look not one bit more or less opinionated or objective (or not) than he already did. Even from the “perception of objectivity” standpoint this doesn’t much make sense, as a policy or controversy, for a professional opinionator. And yes—though this should go without saying—this goes for conservatives, libertarians, Whigs, Free-Silverites or anyone else as well.
If Olbermann were using his show to fundraise for candidates, that would seem to implicate MSNBC at large, but that’s an entirely different issue from making legal donations as an individual. I’ve certainly been willing to criticize Olbermann before, and the blatantly partisan midterm-night coverage of he and his fellow MSNBC stars on Tuesday night does not exactly make him look like a neutral broker, if anyone thought that in the first place. But that all has to do with his on-air actions, which are far more relevant to his value as a journalist than whether he—or any on-air personality—puts his money where his mouth is.
Update: By the way, I don’t want to ignore the hypocrisy issue here; Olbermann has been critical of the donations by Fox News’ parent company, News Corp., to groups trying to defeat Democrats. I don’t think it’s 100% analogous: Olbermann’s donations reflect on his political interests—which again are pretty obvious—whereas an entire corporation’s donations reflect on that entire corporation’s political interests. (If Olbermann had criticized, say, Bill O’Reilly for a political contribution, he would be a total hypocrite; if he has, I’ll gladly note it, but I haven’t yet seen an example.) But regardless, the News Corp contributions don’t bother me, either: I’d rather have Rupert Murdoch’s political bias documented in financial records than have it hidden.