- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 9, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) - Keith Olbermann returned to MSNBC on Tuesday after a two-day suspension for violating a network rule on political donations that he said was “probably not legal,” seeming to relish the attention.

He aired jokes that Jay Leno and Jon Stewart had made about his situation, flashed stories about himself and said he wished he could thank individually all 300,000 people who signed an online petition seeking his reinstatement.

“It still feels like a universal hug,” he said.

The cable news network’s top-rated host 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, and said Olbermann hadn’t sought such permission.

“It’s not a stupid rule, here or anywhere else,” Olbermann said. “There just needs to be a debate about it and it needs to be adapted to the realities of 21st Century journalism.”

He said the donations were made legally and became publicly known. “If I had given the money to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, you would have never, ever known,” he said.

He apologized to Jesse Kelly, Gabrielle Giffords’ opponent in Arizona congressional battle. Kelly was featured in the now-defunct “worst persons in the world” segment of “Countdown” after Olbermann had given money to his opponent. Olbermann said he should have disclosed the donation on the air or, “better still, just dropped him from the segment.”

An MSNBC spokesman had no comment on Olbermann’s show. Management from MSNBC and parent company NBC News haven’t publicly discussed Olbermann’s actions or its rules for political participation. Such rules are common with news organizations, designed to preserve the appearance of fairness: some journalists are so strict about it that they won’t even vote. But questions have been raised about whether they make sense for commentators who make no secret of their opinions.

Olbermann opened his first show back mischievously. The camera showed an empty desk, then he slowly edged his way into the picture, saying, “Oh, hi. What’s new?”

He said he read over the weekend some opinions that the brief suspension was a publicity stunt.

“This was not a publicity stunt,” he said. “`Course, if I had known all this was going to happen, I would have done this years ago.”