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11.07.10

Keith Olbermann Is No Journalist

The uproar over his brief suspension from MSNBC just shows how confused the media have become over who is a commentator and who is a journalist. Meghan McCain on why Olbermann shouldn't be held to the wrong standards.

The uproar over his brief suspension from MSNBC just shows how confused the media has become over who is a commentator and who is a journalist. Meghan McCain on why Olbermann shouldn’t be held to the wrong standards.

The media has been in an uproar over the “indefinite suspension” of Keith Olbermann from his prime-time MSNBC show Countdown because of campaign donations that he didn't have permission to make. Journalists from both the right and left have been chattering about every angle possible since it happened and about what exactly this says about the state of journalism today. All of a sudden a question that has been an undercurrent in much of our blogging/commentary/journalism hybrid has surfaced front and center.

There are reasons why liberal politicians go on MSNBC and Republican politicians go on Fox News. There is a bias on both networks. The difference between Olbermann and everyone else, however, is that he considered himself a journalist (even if it was just contractually). I for one didn’t know there was a journalistic clause at MSNBC because I assumed people like  Olbermann were considered commentators, which should really say something about the man’s show. However, Olbermann was seemingly well aware of the terms of his contract and elected to ignore the clauses prohibiting political campaigns. And if he was considered a journalist under his contract, he shouldn't have let his arrogance get in the way and break it. It wasn’t the donations so much as Olbermann’s refusal to apologize on air for making the donations that has sent him into, as he has called it, “exile.”

The real issue at hand is that journalists need to decide if they consider themselves journalists or commentators. Journalism has taken a huge turn in the last decade and now CNN is really the only network that makes a concerted effort to be in the very middle. Of course, CNN seems to be drowning as a result of that decision.

Olbermann needs to determine if he is a commentator or a journalist. It never really crossed my mind that he was considered a journalist by anyone, just like I never assumed that anyone considers Glenn Beck a journalist. And, for the record, neither does he. Both Beck and Bill O’Reilly (as recently as his appearance on Real Time With Bill Maher) said they fall on the commentary side of the network. This is the state of the media. No one should really be surprised by Olbermann’s donations. What should surprise people is that entertainment, commentary, and journalism have fused into such a state that it is difficult to differentiate among the three.

I think Olbermann is essentially all opinion and should not be on the brink of losing his show because he gave money to candidates that support the rhetoric that he spews nightly. Both MSNBC and Olbermann need to figure out who they are and who they want to be, because even in these complicated times there still remains—and must continue to—a difference between a commentator and a journalist. Apparently the line is so thin that even the on-air personalities and the networks themselves have trouble recognizing the difference.

As Olbermann goes back on the air Tuesday, the “indefinite suspension” was so short that some are speculating that it might have been a publicity stunt. I think “the exile” was little more than a slap on the wrist, as Howard Kurtz put it, and I don’t entirely understand what MSNBC was trying to achieve, other than maybe publicity. When an exile lasts little more than a four-day weekend, the end result is even blurrier than its catalyst.

Meghan McCain is a columnist for The Daily Beast. Originally from Phoenix, she graduated from Columbia University in 2007. She is a New York Times bestselling children's author, previously wrote for Newsweek magazine, and created the website mccainblogette.com. Her new book, Dirty Sexy Politics, was published in August.