There was a flap in the politico/media world last week when it was learned that a national cable TV commentator had made a financial contribution to a Democratic candidate whom he had mentioned that night on his program.
No, not Sean Hannity, a political partisan who routinely funds right-wing campaigns. This time, it was Keith Olbermann, host of the MSNBC prime time program “Countdown.” He was handed a two-day suspension after it became known that he had contributed to the political campaigns of three Democrats on the Nov 2 ballot. The candidates he donated to include Jack Conway of Kentucky, who ran against the eventual winner, Republican/Tea Party candidate Rand Paul; and two Arizona members of Congress, Reps. Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords.
Olbermann said he had gone online to make the donations from his home on Wednesday night, just hours after he had belittled the candidacy of Giffords’s Republican opponent, Jesse Kelly.
Late last week, MSNBC network president Phil Griffin announced the suspension, saying the donations violated the network’s policy – which doesn’t prohibit employees from donating to political candidates but requires them to obtain prior approval from NBC News executives.
On Tuesday night this week, Olbermann was back on his show, and spent some time discussing the issue, including an apology for three things: inflicting the “drama” on his viewers; being unaware that “NBC had rules about getting permission for making political donations”; and having Jeffords’s opponent in his broadcast, and later donating to her campaign.
Olbermann has solid support from his liberal/progressive viewers, who mounted an online “Bring Back Keith” campaign said to have garnered more than 300,000 signatures. The commentator said on his return that the donations, which became known publicly within 24 hours, were legal and within his rights as a citizen. He contrasted them with the current growing practice of donations to political action groups like the United States Chamber of Commerce, which then channels funds to political committees. If he had taken that route, he said, “You would have never, ever known.”
He said viewers can take one lesson from the episode: “I gave, and you found out, and you judged me, for good or ill,” he said.
It was an unfortunate sequence for Olbermann, an even worse one for the network news division of NBC, which historically has been an impartial, non-partisan gatherer and reporter of news and information.
But impartiality is not the hallmark of the basic cable channels that claim to be “news channels.” Fox News has become little more than a megaphonic cheering section for conservative and right-leaning politics, now even hiring former and potential Republican candidates to play roles as expert commentators; and MSNBC, for 15 years seeking an audience niche, has settled into a liberal/progressive perspective. In the middle, CNN, which pioneered the 24-hour- TV news format, struggles to maintain an audience, as the other two increasingly play to the national political divide.
But it is not news that drives these networks, but ratings. Yet despite all the chutzpah, total prime time viewership of the three reaches three million daily, or less than 1 percent of the population. Sadly, “cable news” is becoming the modern day equivalent of supermarket pulp magazines – heavy on the flash, light on the substance.