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SHEFFIELD: Olbermann ethics fiasco

Who can figure out what MSNBC was trying to say?

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 9, 2010

MSNBC's publicity stunt over the weekend is a puzzling blunder, a wasted opportunity to bring ideological balance and openness to an overwhelmingly left-tilting industry masquerading as an objective one.

By suspending liberal host Keith Olbermann for donating to three Democratic congressional candidates in violation of company policy, the network initially showed its commitment to upholding some standards of transparency.

Perhaps the worst part of Mr. Olbermann's behavior was that he donated the maximum amount under law - $2,400 - to Rep. Raul Grijalva, Arizona Democrat, on Oct. 28 - then interviewed Mr. Grijalva on air that night without disclosing the transaction. Mr. Olbermann was suspended on Friday, but has already returned. He's apologized to his viewers, but now wants his own apology from his bosses.

If anything, the reinstatement deflates the yarn from leftist conspiracy theorists who claimed the suspension resulted from the sinister influences of Steve Burke, chief operating officer of Comcast and a former fundraiser for George W. Bush. Mr. Burke will head the network, pending government approval of a financial transaction between Comcast and MSNBC's parent company, General Electric, giving Comcast control of NBC Universal.

What MSNBC could have done instead of caving to pressure from the Michael Moore crowd is to seek greater ideological diversity in its programming. Perhaps this would have helped a network that consistently places last in ratings among its cable news peers.

Mr. Olbermann was selected to anchor midterm election night coverage along with overtly partisan Chris Matthews (who flagrantly insulted Rep. Michelle Bachmann, Minnesota Republican, to her face that night) and ideologue Rachel Maddow. What the network should have done instead was put in objective reporters like Chuck Todd or Savannah Guthrie, or at least brought in a conservative commentator to help even things out.

Replacing Mr. Olbermann permanently with a conservative host would have been MSNBC's chance to bring ideological balance to an industry that overwhelmingly favors progressive and Democratic causes over conservative and Republican ones. Yes, MSNBC does have Republican host Joe Scarborough, but his voice is drowned out by overwhelming opposition.

Multiple studies have catalogued this bias, including historical data showing journalists vote Democratic by huge margins. An eye-popping 81 percent of elite journalists voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in every election between 1964 and 1976, according to researchers from George Washington University and Smith College. More recently, a 2005 study from the University of Connecticut found journalists by nearly a 3-to-1 margin openly favored presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, over George W. Bush. The media's love affair with then-candidate Barack Obama has also been well-documented.

With overwhelming evidence suggesting that journalists are out of synch with the general public, it's no surprise that Old Guard media gatekeepers are becoming increasingly irrelevant, thanks to the advent of blogs, social media and open-source tools.

Even left-leaning journalists who do strive for objectivity engage in sins of omission rather than sins of commission. By the nature of their backgrounds and beliefs, these journalists are missing important stories that otherwise would be reported under a more balanced system.

The proliferation of alternative means for spreading information is helping to break the oligopoly formerly held by a few networks and newspapers. Goliath has finally met his David. What is problematic about the outcome of the Olbermann case is that MSNBC executives haven't realized this.

Quotas or affirmative action for conservatives aren't the answer; what the media honchos should be doing instead is openly acknowledging that a bias exists so that viewers know what they're getting. This was how journalism was conducted in bygone eras; the more recent, false veneer of objectivity is patronizing to viewers and readers who recognize the facade.

Carrie Sheffield is a former Washington Times editorial board member and a recent graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

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