MSNBC’s chief executive Phil Griffin said late Sunday that after several days of deliberation, he had determined that two days off the air was “an appropriate punishment for his violation of our policy.”
The left-leaning cable network’s most popular personality acknowledged donating $2,400 apiece to the campaigns of Kentucky Senate candidate Jack Conway and Arizona Reps. Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords. NBC News prohibits its employees from making political donations unless an exception is granted in advance by the network news president. In this case, Olbermann’s bosses didn’t know about them until being informed by a reporter.
“We look forward to having him back on the air Tuesday night,” Griffin said in a statement.
Liberal groups had taken on Olbermann’s suspension as a cause. An online petition calling for his reinstatement, run by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, had exceeded 300,000 signatures Sunday, and Michael Moore had tweeted his support. The committee’s Adam Green said Griffin was repeatedly e-mailed updates on the petition drives.
“Progressives proved that when one of our own are targeted, we will have their backs,” he said.
Left unanswered is the question of why Olbermann would do something he undoubtedly knew would be provocative, or whether he was trying to make a statement against NBC’s policy. He did not immediately return an e-mail message seeking comment Sunday.
On his Twitter page, Olbermann wrote: “Greetings from exile! A quick, overwhelmed, stunned THANK YOU for support that feels like a global hug.”
The incident raised questions about how long-standing rules designed to preserve the appearance of objectivity for news organizations fit at a time that cable news networks, most prominently Fox News Channel and MSNBC, have increased their popularity through prime-time programs that dispense with any notion of impartiality.
“What we’ve seen in the last five years is the rise of these personalities that eclipse the journalism that these organizations do,” said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute journalism think tank.
Many mainstream news organizations take these rules dead seriously. National Public Radio subjected itself to some teasing this fall when it issued a memo forbidding its personnel from attending comic Jon Stewart’s rally in Washington last month, but NPR didn’t want reporters seen at an event that some people could interpret as political, unless the reporters were covering it.
Olbermann’s fans note that he’s made no secret of his support for Democrats on his prime-time “Countdown” show. So why should he be suspended for putting his money where his mouth is?
McBride said she wouldn’t be surprised if some news organizations drop these rules in the next few years, or at least carve out exceptions for certain personalities. Fox News seems to have effectively done this. Prime-time host Sean Hannity made a $5,000 donation to Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann’s PAC this summer; Fox says he’s a conservative talk show host, not a journalist. Part-time commentators the network has hired like Karl Rove and Sarah Palin continue their political work while drawing pay from Fox.
“It’s getting harder and harder to draw the lines in general,” McBride said. “The public doesn’t spend a lot of time differentiating between commentators and journalists.”