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11.05.10

Olbermann Should Apologize

The famously feisty MSNBC anchor got caught donating to Democrats—and was suspended by his boss. Howard Kurtz on the liberal talking head's hypocrisy—and why it's not as bad as Fox News.

So is Keith Olbermann now the Worst Person in the World?

No, but he made a really dumb mistake.

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By donating to three Democratic candidates while covering the midterms on MSNBC, Olbermann crossed a bright journalistic line—even for a commentator whose partisan sympathies are no secret.

The network had no choice but to suspend him, even though he's the biggest draw on NBC's cable channel. "Mindful of NBC News policy and standards," MSNBC President Phil Griffin said in a statement, "I have suspended him indefinitely without pay."

The real forehead-slapper here is that Olbermann donated the legal maximum, $2,400, to Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva on Oct. 28—the same day he interviewed the congressman for Countdown. Viewers, of course, had no way of knowing.

As first reported by Politico, Olbermann also donated the maximum to Arizona Rep. Gabriella Giffords and to Jack Conway, the Kentucky Republican who lost his Senate race to Rand Paul.

It's hard to fathom what Olbermann was thinking, because he must have realized that the donations would show up in federal election records and eventually be made public.

What's more, Olbermann has used the issue of political donations to rip his arch-enemies at Fox News. He pounced on Rupert Murdoch when News Corp., Fox's parent, gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association and another million bucks to the GOP-backing Chamber of Commerce.

Now Olbermann, who's not shy about caustic criticism, faces the inevitable charge of hypocrisy.

His mistake is not in the same league as what some Fox contributors have done. Karl Rove raised about $50 million in recent months for an independent group supporting Republican candidates. Dick Morris has raised money, spoken on behalf of candidates and refers to Republicans as "we." Sarah Palin barnstormed the country on behalf of her favored candidates, often of the Tea Party variety.

And one full-time Fox News host, Sean Hannity, has attended GOP fundraisers. Fox allows such activity for talk-show hosts and contributors, whom the network doesn't consider journalists. I've written about this from time to time; few people seem to care.

At CNN, where I host a weekly media program, James Carville and Paul Begala are contributors who also sign fundraising letters for the Democratic Party. If it were up to me, I wouldn't allow any of that.

The real forehead-slapper here is that Olbermann donated the legal maximum, $2,400, to Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva on Oct. 28—the same day he interviewed the congressman for Countdown.

On MSNBC Friday night, Rachel Maddow noted that Hannity had interviewed Rep. Michele Bachmann after donating money to her campaign—without disclosing this on the air, despite a statement by Fox that he would do so. Maddow, an Olbermann protégé, did not quarrel with the MSNBC rule barring political contributions but said “the point has been made” and “we should have Keith back hosting Countdown.”

But Olbermann delivers nightly lectures on how he and MSNBC uphold journalistic standards and Fox does not. Now he's handed his critics a very sharp sword.

It's hard to overestimate Olbermann's importance to MSNBC since his second stint with the network began in 2003. He is the network's most highly rated host and has led its march to the left, which has enabled MSNBC to repeatedly beat CNN in prime time, even though both networks trail Fox by a wide margin. That's why Olbermann got a four-year, $30 million contract back in 2008.

It must have been tempting for MSNBC to let Olbermann off with a slap on the wrist. But Griffin, who first worked with his star three decades ago, made the right move. There's always a chance that Olbermann could bolt, as he did when he got fed up doing a nightly Clinton impeachment show in the late 1990s, but I doubt it. While Olbermann bristles at management pressure, he and MSNBC have been a very good fit.

In his statement to Politico, Olbermann didn't seem to get it: "I did not privately or publicly encourage anyone else to donate to these campaigns, nor to any others in this election or any previous ones, nor have I previously donated to any political campaign at any level."

Then it was a bad time to start.

On Election Night, Olbermann anchored the channel's coverage, along with Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, and Lawrence O'Donnell. There was no attempt to add a conservative pundit for balance.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the only avowed socialist in Congress, rushed out the following statement: "It is outrageous that General Electric/MSNBC would suspend Keith Olbermann for exercising his constitutional rights to contribute to a candidate of his choice. This is a real threat to political discourse in America and will have a chilling impact on every commentator for MSNBC."

Sanders has it exactly wrong. When you become a journalist, you give up certain rights. You can't write speeches on the side for politicians. You can't march in political demonstrations. And you shouldn't be able to donate money to politicians, unless you're hosting a cooking show.

So if Olbermann were on the air tonight, would he have to name himself the Worst Person in the World?

Actually not. He suspended the segment this week after Jon Stewart called him out, along with the likes of Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly, in his skewering of cable news at that Washington rally. So in the spirit of civility, I'll just say I hope Keith recognizes that he screwed up and apologizes.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program "Reliable Sources," Sundays at 11 am ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.