By Chris Daly
So, Keith Olbermann of MSNBC has already nearly served his sentence for donating a total of $7,200 to Democrats.
First things first: The conditions under which he works are not a matter of theory, or constitutional interpretation, or wishful thinking, or anything else. He has a contract, which requires him to abide by NBC News policies. Any time a journalist accepts a check in return for full-time employment, he or she is no longer a free agent. If you take the money, you accept the rules. If you don’t like them, you can quit (and regain all your freedoms, except the freedom to cash those paychecks). So, that part of this flap is a no-brainer.
Still, we may want to step back from that and ask the broader question: In general, is it a good idea for journalists to donate to political candidates? (And a corollary: is it an equally good idea for reporters as for columnists or other opinion-mongers?)
Opinions vary (as they should). Some journalists have never bought into the ideal of political neutrality. There is a long tradition of advocacy journalism in America — in fact, it goes back much further in our history than the professional/objective model.
Fox News, for example, apparently does not impose a no-giving rule on its talent. Thus, not only did Rupert Murdoch donate to conservatives this season, so did Sean Hannity — without any punishment.
Back to Olbermann and MSNBC. He broke a company policy and got punished. That was the company’s prerogative, but was it a good idea? Was it hypocritical?
I would say there is a blatant double-standard, based on the track record of political donations by NBC executives. Find out about NBC president Robert Wright here. Go to the FEC records to see the donation record of Wright’s boss, Jeffrey Immelt, the chairman and CEO of GE (which still owns NBC).
It seems to me that an argument can be made for banning and for allowing donations. What I can’t see is why it is OK to ban donations by the help but allow donations by the top brass.