I have to admit, Olbermann’s show is the commentary show that I watch the most (save for “The Daily Show”), although I stopped watching for a while back when he was going too far over the top. Snarky and informative (in partisan, tidbit form) is OK, but it’s too easy to “go Fox News,” if you know what I mean. As liberal as I am, I consistently find myself taking Olbermann’s claims with a grain of salt, or even sometimes just discounting a lot of what he says, knowing it for hyperbole or enthusiasm (if it can be called that). But it is snarky and often fun, and though filled with stuff that goes too far, it also covers much which is spot on. Like any other opinionated source, you simply have to check more unbiased sources first to substantiate what was said before accepting them as fact.
All that said, Olbermann’s suspension was a bit of a shock. You usually do not just yank your #1 primetime host off the air unless it is a damned important reason, and contributing to three midterm races does not seem to rise to that level. Yes, it’s a network policy, but it’s a questionable one at best. Yes, he did violate it–but immediate indefinite suspension makes you wonder if no intermediate penalties even exist. A one-week suspension, an on-air admission and apology, a fine, or something else along those lines might seem more in line. But doing what MSNBC did (a) seems over the top, (b) makes both Olbermann and the network look worse than need be, and (c) gives delicious fodder, not to mention “aid and comfort” to their chief competitor, Fox News. It doesn’t seem to make sense.
Let’s take a look at the policy itself. It is, in theory, intended to apply to journalists. Their policy says, “Anyone working for NBC News who takes part in civic or other outside activities may find that these activities jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest.” Now, as far as that does, penalizing Olbermann is just stupid–everyone knows that he is not impartial. For the serious reporting that Olbermann sometimes does, I don’t think many people mistake Olbermann for a journalist. He’s a commentator, an opinionated pundit, and to a certain degree a comedian. Yes, he appears on MSNBC’s election broadcasts, but so do lots of people who are partisan pundits.
The policy does not forbid political activity, but it does go on to say that anyone who participates in politics, including donations, “should” inform the network before doing so–and Olbermann didn’t. So, he’s caught, yes? Well, aside from the “should” part of that policy making the solidity of the policy questionable, we come to a point of reasonableness here: the policy is supposed to be there so the network can avoid embarrassment if a supposedly impartial journalist is caught making partisan campaign contributions–but in this case, MSNBC knew full well that Olbermann is anything but an “impartial” journalist. It’s like Comedy Central yanking Jon Stewart off his show because he was funny off the air as well.
Many are pointing to what Fox News does as justification for Olbermann, but as far as I am concerned, that’s irrelevant. Fox is Fox, and it does not apply to Olbermann and what MSNBC does. Many point to contributions made by right-wing MSNBC personalities Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan, but I can find no mention that they failed to inform the network of their contributions, supposedly the main reason Olbermann was suspended.
Instead, the central point is that even though Olbermann did break the rules, it was a pro forma thing–a matter of form and not substance, like spelling correctly but forgetting to cross your “t”s and dot your “i”s. In which case, immediate and indefinite suspension is way over the top in terms of punishment. It is simply out of scale with the infraction.
That, in turn, suggests that there is more to the story than we know about. And that may become clearer when one begins to learn about the fact that MSNBC is in the process of changing hands, being bought by Comcast–an organization with distinctly right-wing ties. That the head people at MSNBC who have cultivated Olbermann are no longer there, and the new heads may not be as enthusiastic about their primetime lead as the old ones were, and may be angling for a reason to demote or slap him down some. That, of course, is conjecture, but that’s what we’re left with in trying to figure out this overblown and self-injurious act of bizarreness.
On a side note, Kevin Drum tweeted that this was bringing the left and the right together, and while there do seem to be some on the right defending Olbermann–most notably Bill Kristol–most of the commentary I have seen from the right is simply smug and happy.