Yet the principle of journalistic independence is more important now than ever, said Bob Steele, director of the Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University in Indiana.
Prime-time opinion hosts are journalists as well as commentators, Steele said. They host news programs, make decisions on what stories to emphasize, what guests to bring on, and what questions are asked, he said.
“There’s a huge difference between having a belief and becoming an activist,” he said, “and when you contribute to a campaign with your money or your energy, you’re an activist.”
Donations to some Democratic candidates by a commentator who clearly supports Democrats may seem simple. But why these candidates in these states and not others? What if these candidates get involved in primaries?
In other words, it can get messy.
For NBC News, there’s also the risk of having its journalists associated with activist hosts. Olbermann and Maddow are clear in their opinions on MSNBC, but veteran NBC journalist Andrea Mitchell hosts a daytime hour on the network. So do White House reporters Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie.
The question of whether MSNBC is an opinion network or news network seemed particularly hard to answer on election night. In the 2008 political season, MSNBC went back and forth between having Olbermann serve as a news anchor or commentator on nights of big political news; on election night this year, Olbermann was one of the hosts. Chris Matthews was an anchor, too, and he put some tough questions to GOP guests like Bachmann. But beyond asking tough questions, he wondered aloud whether Bachmann was under “hypnosis,” and some of MSNBC’s personalities were heard laughing at their guests’ responses.
Some journalists may also get mixed signals when they see corporate overseers active in political campaigns. Fox’s parent News Corp. donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association this summer. Steele noted there’s a long tradition of political activism among owners of news organizations in this country.
Beyond the decision on Olbermann’s future, some broader thinking on these issues appears in the offing.
“I would really struggle if I were running one of these organizations to figure out where the journalism fits in,” McBride said. “It’s obvious that journalism still has some role in these organizations, but it’s not sure where it figures in anymore.”