…for political contributions to three Democratic candidates during the recent election cycle.
There’s already been a ton written about the facts of this event – and an even greater amount speculated about it – so I won’t bore you with long excerpts or a zillion links. The basic facts are: NBC News – like most news organizations – has standards of professional ethics they expect their journalists to adhere to. One of those standards concerns political contributions by employees. It states that on-air personalities are allowed to donate to political campaigns and candidates, but before they do so, they must ask and receive permission from the head of the network.
Keith Olbermann had never previously donated money to any political candidate, but he did so three times in the recent 2010 midterm election cycle. Apparently, he did so without asking nor receiving the permissions required of him by his contract. Early Friday morning, POLITICO published a story that was a run-down of which major figures had donated to which candidates, and Keith’s donations were among these. When MSNBC’s President, Phil Griffin, learned of this, he suspended Olbermann indefinitely.
Sounds pretty cut-and-dried, right? Olbermann violated his contract, and was suspended for it. Not so fast. First, questions immediately arose concerning whether the strict rules which are rightly in place for NBC News applied to its sister station MSNBC, which is, like other similar outlets, not a “straight” news format but rather a news-based opinion channel. That might seem like a fine hair to split, but there’s a reason why they put the op-ed section all together in one place in the New York times: because you’re expected to understand that what appears there is not reporting, which should be as objective and free from controversy or taint as possible, but opinion, which may concern current events, but is one person’s – or one organization’s – take on those events. Almost immediately after word of Olbermann’s suspension leaked out, questions arose about whether the policy even applied to MSNBC hosts anymore, either officially or whether it should apply, given that the MSNBC hosts’ political leanings are not exactly secret; in fact, those leanings are to some degree their stock-in-trade.
How bad is MSNBC’s decision to suspend Olbermann for this specific reason? As always, opinions will differ, and your mileage may vary. But let me put it this way: when everyone from declared Socialist Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders to notorious arch-neocon pundit William Kristol agrees it was a mistake and calls for Olbermann’s immediate reinstatement, it’s a good bet that the brass at MSNBC blew it. Sanders and Kristol (along with hundreds of other voices, famous and not) run down many of the reasons why Keith’s infraction – if it even truly was an infraction (did those NBC News policies even apply to him?) – is minor enough that Phil Griffin’s reaction, while within his rights, was a ridiculous overreaction. I’d like to talk about a point that I hadn’t seen anyone make…until I heard one of the best minds in the business weigh in, mirroring my own thoughts very closely, but also adding things I hadn’t thought of, either. Which mind? Let me explain…
At its inception, MSNBC had begun as much more of a “straight” news channel, birthed to compete with CNN and FOX in the 24-hour news market on cable. Olbermann’s program, Countdown, launched in 2003 as much more of a “straight” news show itself. But Olbermann was the first to see the need (and the market) for a channel with a strong set of reliably progressive commentators. At a time when it was neither politically nor professionally wise to do so (the dark days of Bush-era 2004), Olbermann convinced his show’s producers – and network boss Phil Griffin – to allow him to change the format of his show to express much more of his own simmering outrage at the Bush administration’s blunders and crimes. It worked. And as MSNBC saw the truth in Olbermann’s predictions that there was a market for such analysis and outrage among disaffected liberals and other reality-based dissenters from the group-think of the Bush juggernaut, a market where viewers could be attracted and money could be made, they slowly but steadily began to fill their evening lineup with some of the best talent from progressive radio and print journalism (as well as TV).
First to receive a show in the wake of Olbermann’s successes was Rachel Maddow. Today, Rachel needs no introduction (especially not from the likes of me)…but at the time Olbermann convinced the brass at MSNBC to hire her, she was known only to people like me, who made up the audience of now-defunct liberal radio network Air America Radio (if you even lived in a city where they were on the air at the time). Rachel still keeps an on-air audio clip from Rush Limbaugh from back in ‘04 or so where he says “has anyone EVER heard of Rachel…Maddow…Maddow” (trying two different pronunciations for her name, because he’d never heard of her before, either). Today, Limbaugh probably wishes he had been able to remain ignorant of both Rachel’s name and especially of her insight and analysis – as, I’m sure, do a lot of other conservatives, both in the media and in traditional party politics. Rachel has gone on to become a shining star in her own right at MSNBC, in the time slot right after Keith’s “Countdown,” and a veritable scourge of hypocrisy, greed, corruption and simple stupidity, wherever it exists. Which, as she ably points out, is often, these days, on the right.
Let me pause for a moment so I am as clear as I can possibly be: Rachel Maddow’s success is due, in its entirety, to her own excellence as a researcher, broadcaster, and especially to her ability to sift through the news to provide viewers relevant, important takes on issues which, often, no one else had previously managed to quite capture and make sense of in the way that she does. Despite the fame she’s quite deservedly already achieved, Maddow is still a rising star, and I’ve yet to see the ceiling on where her talent can take her. She deserves every last bit of the praise that is heaped upon her for her work. With talent and dedication that stellar, it’s entirely possible that Rachel’s voice would have found its way into the public consciousness in as large a way as it has done, even if she had not landed a show at MSNBC when she did.
But it’s not a certainty.
Rachel Maddow owes none of her success to Keith Olbermann; since launching the Rachel Maddow Show, she has earned it all on her own merit. But I personally have seen too many equally outstanding people in too many different fields of endeavor who have not achieved the renown their talent should have garnered them, because they never got the right “break,” because they simply were never at the right place at the right time, to not at least wonder whether Rachel would be where she is today without Keith Olbermann. There’s no way to know for sure about this, of course, but without Keith’s recognition of her surpassing talent and strong progressive voice, and his adamant insistence that she be given a chance to take that voice to a wider audience at MSNBC, Rachel Maddow today might still be one of the best and strongest voices…on progressive radio. Like Thom Hartmann – a name I will bet most of you who are not political junkies have never heard. Or Ed Schultz, whose name I will also bet you never knew until he, too was given a television program on MSNBC with the help of Keith Olbermann.
Would Rachel Maddow be any less talented, would her analysis be any less perspicacious and trenchant if she were still, today, a relatively-unknown radio host? No. Of course not. But what would be different – very different – is that Rachel’s ability to influence the public dialogue about and understanding of national politics would unquestionably much less. The point here is not so much to delve into the minutiae of the roster of people to whom Rachel Maddow might owe some of her success, but rather to point out that MSNBC today is literally, as guest-host (and rising star in his own right) Cenk Uygur said a couple of weeks ago when he guest-hosted Countdown on a night when Olbermann was off, “the house that Olbermann built.” Without Keith Olbermann, MSNBC would today be just another 24-hour cable news outfit with falling ratings, distinguishable from CNN only by the letters in their acronym and the music sting which accompanies their “breaking” news alerts. Olbermann is, as several commentators have noted, the only MSNBC host who keeps FOX News from total dominance of the “most popular cable news shows” list. He is literally the face of the current, successful, incarnation of MSNBC.
Is Keith indispensable, unable to be replaced? Of course not. No one is. If Keith died tomorrow, the channel would either find someone to host the show in his place or develop a show to replace Countdown. But Keith is not dead. He’s as ready to continue his duties as he was last week (although perhaps he may be having second thoughts now). So what does perhaps the sharpest mind in political analysis have to say on the subject of her friend and mentor Keith Olbermann’s suspension from the network which employs both of them? It was good enough (as Rachel’s stuff almost always is) that I thought you should see it in its entirety.
As much as I love Rachel Maddow, yesterday, I called the network directly (you can too, right here: 212-664-4444 ) and told them that although it pains me to give up watching Rachel even temporarily, my personal “suspension” of MSNBC would last exactly, to the minute, as long as their suspension of Olbermann. If you watch MSNBC, I strongly urge you to consider doing the same, by telephone, fax or email: let them know that they will pay with ratings and thus, revenue. Make Phil Griffin realize what nearly everyone from all sides of the political spectrum have already tried to tell him: that although Olbermann may have screwed up, he, Griffin, has made by far the worse of the two blunders. Reinstate Keith. Now.