AJR logo     

    
 AJR  Features :    * WEB ONLY    

From AJR,   September 2010  issue

Keith Olbermann? Partisan? No Way!   

Web exclusive
A highly political TV host contributes to candidates. Posted: Fri, Nov. 5 2010


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

The news that MSNBC's Keith Olbermann contributed to the campaigns of three Democratic candidates has to be the most shocking development since Lindsay Lohan's last arrest.

Watch "Countdown" for five minutes and it's clear that Olbermann is a fierce partisan who uses his program to bolster liberal causes. It's an approach that has worked big time, hugely increasing MSNBC's audience during Olbermann's time slot.

In fact, Olbermann's M.O. evolved into a business model for MSNBC. Its wall of left-leaning primetime programs gave the longtime also-ran among the three cable news (or "news") networks an identity and pushed it past the pioneering, but now awfully vanilla by comparison, CNN.

I was equally stunned by the news awhile back the Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., parent of rightwing warhorse Fox News Channel, had contributed $2 million to the Republican cause. Let's face it: neither Fox nor MSNBC is really a news organization, at least not in the traditional sense.

Their primary mission is to espouse political causes. They preach to the converted. They fire up the base. They buttress the views of their viewers. They are not monoliths, of course. That's not what Fox's Shepard Smith does, for example. But they are much more partisan megaphones than old-school, straight-down-the-middle news outlets.

And that probably shouldn't be a surprise in a nation as fiercely polarized as this one is. They are both a reflection and a reinforcement of the angry and overheated political culture. The situation is dicier in MSNBC's case because of its relationship with NBC News, which remains in the news business.

Clearly the powers that be believe it's worth the risk. But it makes embarrassments like this one inevitable. MSNBC President Phil Griffin suspended his old friend Olbermann without pay indefinitely for violating the ethics code of NBC News, which bars staffers from taking part in political activity. But that's the problem with having a news organization and a political force so closely entwined. Political activity is what Olbermann and Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz do for a living.

A postscript: I was bemused by articles this week discovering that Olbermann never has any guests on his program who deviate from the liberal orthodoxy. Really? That's been his approach from the get-go. His bÍte noire, Bill O'Reilly, has some liberals on his show, often for the fun of beating them up.