Ted Koppel waded into the controversy this week over the suspension of Keith Olbermann for making unauthorized political contributions to Congressional candidates; writing a piece in the Washington Post decrying the trend in cable news toward entertainment and partisanship. Senator Jay Rockefeller also jumped on the bandwagon yesterday, expressing the wish that Fox and MSNBC would both just go away, for the benefit of more civilized political discourse.
Olbermann responded with his usual sense of self-importance and self-righteousness here. This kind of counter-attack, in which he mocked what he called the "false god of utter objectivity," and criticized the traditional media for missing the Iraq story (a classic way of distracting attention from Koppel's point), seems to me only to feed into criticisms of his style. Instead, it might have been more appropriate to have taken the opportunity to try to consider and absorb some of Koppel's points, and calmly reflect on legitimate questions about the values of objectivity and truth in news. It might have also been a good idea actually to address the ethical dilemmas posed by journalists' campaign contributions, which are forbidden at many news organizations.
I don't question the right of cable stations to run opinion shows, but when Mr. Olbermann also appears as the anchor of an election night broadcast, he is assuming a reporting role that we traditionally associate with "objective" journalism, to the extent that can be attempted. When he interviews congressional candidates, he ought to at least disclose that he has contributed to their campaigns, or to their opponents' campaigns, and should make no pretense of objectivity. We should understand when an interview is being conducted by a supporter or opponent of the interviewee.
Maybe I'm in no position to criticize, being a practitioner of what could be viewed as yet a further debasement of journalism, but like most bloggers, I don't make any pretense of engaging in real journalism. I try to be truthful, but I have to rely on the shrinking pool of real journalists for information, and all I'm stating here is what I think. Cable news networks might be doing the same, but the difference is that they have adopted the trappings of television journalism. If they do that, it seems fair to ask that their practitioners be held to at least some of the ethical standards of journalists.
A lot of fans of Keith Olbermann leapt to his defense last week, viewing his suspension as an unfair silencing of a powerful liberal voice by the new more conservative owners of the network. And maybe that's what it was. And maybe the rules he was suspended for breaking were unclear and were not applied fairly. Still, it seems a legitimate question whether news show hosts like Olbermann should be required to adhere to some ethical rules. And it also seems right to raise questions, as Jay Rockefeller is doing, and as Jon Stewart has also done, about whether the open partisanship of two competing cable networks is really serving the cause of informed debate. Fox and MSNBC instead seem to serve more as a vehicle for reinforcing the views of their fans, rather than giving them something to think about.
Isn't it a bit of a stretch for Keith Olbermann to compare himself to such icons as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, and the younger Koppel, that he invoked as models? Yes, those journalists did veer from objectivity at times, and perhaps those were some of their finest moments. But those moments were powerful because those journalists started from a position of authority and at least attempted objectivity. Walter Cronkite did not smirk and snarl his way through his newscast every night the way Olbermann does. Keith seems to think that what he does is more honest than the false veneer of objectivity which can conceal a lot of biases. But because Walter Cronkite generally used a more neutral, authoritative tone of voice, the moments when he felt compelled to express his own point of view were much more powerful.
UPDATE (11/19/10): Contrast Joe Scarborough's reaction to being suspended for the same violation.