Sorry, MSNBC, You Still Have Some Explaining To Do

keith olbermann

Rachel Maddow confirmed on her show last night that the reason Keith Olbermann was suspended was that he did not ask permission from management to make political donations:

“The reason that resulted in Keith’s suspension is that, here at MSNBC, there is an explicit employee rule against hosts making contributions like that. You can do it if you ask in advance and management tells you ‘O.K.’

Maddow also confirmed that MSNBC believes its rules regarding political contributions make MSNBC “better” than FOX News:

Let this incident lay to rest forever the facile, never-true-anyway, bullpucky, lazy conflation of Fox News and what the rest of us do for a living. I know everybody likes to say, “Oh, that’s cable news. It’s all the same. Fox News and MSNBC, mirror images of each other.” Let this lay that to rest forever…

Well, sorry, it’s not clear at all that the suspension makes MSNBC “better” than FOX. And MSNBC still has some explaining to do.

First, MSNBC needs to explain what it means that management needs to “approve” political campaign donations.

If MSNBC had a blanket policy that no one at the organisation could donate to political campaigns, that might make sense. This would be the network’s attempt to avoid the appearance of bias, even when the bias is freely acknowledged (and enjoyed) by everyone who watches the network and several people on the air (including Maddow and Olbermann).

But MSNBC does NOT appear to have this blanket no-donation policy. Instead, it has a “donations only with permission” policy. This raises many new questions, starting with this one:

Which political donations are OK? 

Specifically, what criteria does management use when deciding whether it’s OK for Olbermann or Maddow to donate to their favourite candidates?  Do the candidates have to be Democrats? Do they have to be candidates that management personally supports?  From a viewer’s perspective, this rule raises more questions than it answers.

Secondly, MSNBC needs to explain what it is trying to accomplish by having this particular bizarre rule.

Rachel Maddow argues that “political donations are OK if approved by management” makes MSNBC obviously better than FOX, where hosts are explicitly allowed to make donations.

But, frankly, as viewers, we’d rather know explicitly that the hosts had made political donations–and what those donations were–than to wonder whether the hosts had made donations that happened to be “approved by management.”

So we actually disagree with Maddow here: We have no idea why “political donations are approved by management” makes MSNBC’s policy better than FOX’s.  Again, if MSNBC’s policy were instead “political donations are banned,” we might be able to understand that position.  But that’s not the policy.

Then, lastly, MSNBC needs to explain why it thinks “political donations are OK if approved by management” is a better strategy than FOX’s “go ahead and donate all you want.” 

FOX’s ratings are crushing MSNBC’s.  MSNBC’s ratings, meanwhile, are crushing CNN’s.  In other words, the MOST PARTISAN network is watched by the most people, and the LEAST PARTISAN network is watched by almost no one.  And now MSNBC seems to be congratulating itself for being more like the least partisan network.  Is that what its viewers really want?

Again, if Keith Olbermann broke a network rule, we have no problem with his being punished (though “indefinite suspension without pay” seems a bit harsh).  But we don’t understand the logic behind the rules.   MSNBC needs to explain them.

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