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MSNBC's suspension of Olbermann a laughable declaration of principle (updated)

Keith Olbermann with TV critics in summer 2007. Photo: Ed Bark

Keith Olbermann's indefinite unpaid suspension for making unauthorized contributions to Democratic candidates is both laughable and sad.

Laughable because what did parent corporation NBC Universal expect?

Sad because MSNBC's parent company has allowed the network to become a full-blown liberal counterweight to the conservative Fox News Channel. Why? Because there's more money to be made with bombast than by adhering to old school objectivity. And Olbermann's Countdown program has been in the vanguard of MSNBC's makeover into a left-centric platform during early evening and prime-time hours.

Caught in the middle is CNN, which has fallen far behind both FNC and MSNBC by clinging to a fair and balanced approach that FNC long has preached but never really practiced. Its news anchors and commentators rightly should be suspended for any financial support of political candidates. But MSNBC's discipline of Olbermann is akin to fining the New York Yankees for pirating rival teams' star players. It's what the Yankees do.

Olbermann's suspension, announced Friday, came after he told Politico that he had given the maximum legal donation of $2,400 apiece to three Democratic candidates -- Reps. Raul M. Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and Kentucky attorney general Jack Conway, who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate against Tea Party hero Rand Paul.

MSNBC president Phil Griffin, who has orchestrated the network's march toward partisanship, said in a statement: "Mindful of NBC News policy and standards, I have suspended him (Olbermann) without pay."

NBC News indeed still strives to be objective under the direction of president Steve Capus. Otherwise George W. Bush wouldn't be doing a prime-time special Monday night with the network's Matt Lauer in the interests of selling his new book.

But MSNBC is no more a part of NBC News than Sean Hannity is a card-carrying member of the ACLU. In fact, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams and his predecessor, Tom Brokaw, conspicuously stayed away from MSNBC during Tuesday's mid-term election coverage. NBC instead expanded its coverage into late night hours, preempting both Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon to give Williams and Brokaw a safe haven. Meanwhile, MSNBC hammered away at the Republicans all night, with Olbermann in the company of fellow liberals Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell and Ed Schultz.

Maddow, on Friday's edition of her program, addressed the Olbermann situation by assailing Hannity's financial contributions to Republican candidates and Fox News Channel's decision to put potential presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee on its payroll. FNC allows its batch of partisan hosts to make political contributions. The only shock wave in that respect would be if Hannity actually gave money to a Democrat. Come to think of it, he might be suspended for that.

As previously noted in these spaces, I'm no fan of either FNC or MSNBC. Both have contributed in no small part to the polarization infecting this country. The people be damned. Republicans plot to make President Obama look bad at any cost. Democrats likewise dig in their heels. It's only getting worse, and FNC and MSNBC bear some responsibility for that. The public good? Don't make me laugh.

Olbermann, who has burned bridges with previous employers, can now play the part of martyr for however long it takes for MSNBC to bring him back. But his network long has forfeited any right to suddenly get all sanctimonious about news ethics.

If anything, MSNBC should require its prime-time hosts to make contributions to Democratic candidates. The network has significantly increased both its ratings and its profitability by positioning itself as both a Fox News Channel basher and Democratic Party cheerleader. So in reality, what did Olbermann really do wrong? He was simply giving back.


MSNBC announced Sunday that Olbermann will return to Countdown on Tuesday, Nov. 9th.

The network's president, Phil Griffin, said in a statement: "After several days of deliberation and discussion, I have determined that suspending Keith through and including Monday night's program is an appropriate punishment for his violation of our policy. We look forward to having him back on the air Tuesday night."