Olbermann Suspended For Refusing To Apologize, But Will He Return?

Keith Olbermann was reportedly suspended for failing to apologize for making political donations to Democratic candidates, but it really seems intended to serve to justify the illusion that MSNBC's programming is not partisan.

Mike Allen reports that Keith Olbermann’s suspension from MSNBC was ultimately due to the fact that he refused to make an on-air apology for donating to three Democratic candidates:

Network sources tell Playbook that Keith Olbermann was suspended because he refused to deliver an on-camera mea culpa, which would have allowed him to continue anchoring “Countdown.” Olbermann told his bosses he didn’t know he was barred from making campaign contributions, although he is resisting saying that publicly. Olbermann may not hold as many cards as he thinks. He makes $7 million a year and MSNBC’s prime time is not as dependent on him as it was before the addition of Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell, who make considerably less.

Not only do they make less, but Maddow gets better ratings than Keith among key demographic groups (which is important to advertisers), and Lawrence O’Donnell isn’t far behind Olbermann in that category even though he’s only been on the air a month and a half.

The question is whether Olbermann returns or not. In it’s initial report on Friday, The New York Times reported that sources said that a firing was unlikely. However, Media Bistro says that its sources say that Olbermann will not be returning to the air, the only question remaining being whether he is let out of his contract or not.

Then there is the other theory, which notes that Olbermann’s suspension plays very nicely alongside the network’s efforts to distinguish itself from Fox News Channel:

One executive said the network decided it was imperative to take this kind of strong action as a way of underscoring that MSNBC, while featuring prime-time shows that overtly support Democratic policy, remains a channel that adheres to fundamental journalistic values.

An executive with another television news organization, who asked not to be identified in offering analysis of competitors, said NBC may even see the disciplining of Mr. Olbermann as an opportunity to distinguish itself from Fox News, which has been increasingly criticized for taking Republican positions

That’s essentially what Rachel Maddow said in her commentary on the matter at the end of her show on Friday:

Maddow’s “we’re better than Fox, and Olbermann’s suspension proves it” strikes me as a little weak. Regardless of what MSNBC’s policy about campaign donations might be, the fact of the matter is that their entire block of programming from 5pm to 11pm Monday through Friday is little more than an in-kind contribution to the Democratic Party (just as Fox’s programming in that period is pretty much GOP TV). For Maddow to claim that MSNBC is ethically superior to Fox News in this regard is simply absurd.

Finally, as Tommy Christopher notes at Mediaite, there’s still the unanswered question of who gave Politico the tip to go type Keith Olbermann’s name into the FEC database, and while there are many possibilities (including someone from one of the campaigns bragging to a reporter that their candidate got a contribution from the Keith Olbermann), the whole scenario does lend itself well to those inclined to see conspiracies and ulterior motives in otherwise innocent coincidences.

In the end, this is hardly the most important story in the world, but if MSNBC is using the Keith Olbermann “scandal” to try to convince the public that it’s hosts aren’t politically biased, then that’s a lie worth calling them out on.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Dean says:

    Apparently the only ones who didn’t know about MSNBC’s bias was, well, MSNBC. I have no problem at all with their bias as long as they are upfront about it. For MSNBC to act as though they don’t favor Democratic policies is pretty insulting to their audience.

  2. Joshua King says:

    The fact MSNBC has Matthews/Olbermann/Maddow (who host opinion shows) anchor news events like election results coverage shows they’ve no journalistic values for Olbermann to violate. So Maddow’s “we’re better than Fox” argument is wrong since at best they’re both equal shills to their respective political parties and at worst MSNBC is even worse than Fox, since as far as I know their shrill opinion hosts don’t fill in for actual anchors/journalists.

  3. TG Chicago says:

    “For Maddow to claim that MSNBC is ethically superior to Fox News in this regard is simply absurd.”

    As Maddow said, Fox is currently paying most of the major contenders for the GOP 2012 Presidential nomination to come on their shows and run for office. So yes, MSNBC is ethically superior.

  4. TG

    And during the just concluded campaign, MSNBC during the hours of 5pm to 11pm was little more than a vehicle to attack whoever happened to be running against a Democratic candidate.

    For someone like Maddow to fault Fox for a lack of objectivity is indeed the pot calling the kettle black.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    A few thoughts:

    Maddow > Olbermann

    I wonder how much Jon Stewart plays into events. Olbermann seemed taken aback by being humped in with his enemies, and Stewart has delivered the heads of political partisanship shows in the past.

    It this is about refusing to appologize, Olbermann won’t be back. We’ve entered the realm of personality dynamics and substance no longer matters.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    JK: I also thought the MSNBC coverage of the election returns last week was a little bizarre.

  7. Joshua King says:

    PD: And it wasn’t just last week. During the Dem/Rep primaries in the run-up to the 2008 Presidential election, Matthews and Olbermann were the lead anchors every time they did election returns.

  8. sam says:

    “The fact MSNBC has Matthews/Olbermann/Maddow (who host opinion shows)”

    Then why is Olbermann where he is and Scarborough and Buchanan where they are? See, Scarborough, Buchanan Also Made Political Contributions.

  9. Joshua King says:

    Sam, perhaps I’m daft, but I don’t seem to gather what your point is?

    If you accept the argument from NBC (repeated by Maddow), Olbermann’s sin wasn’t making donations but not reporting them to NBC first and getting approval to do so. NBC is claiming they thus had to suspend him so as to avoid any appearances of conflict of interest, lack of objectivity/ethics etc. My point (and since you randomly used the first half of my sentence, I’m assuming you’re talking to me) was that by smashing the line between news and editorials, anchor and opinion host, NBC already violated journalistic ethics.

    Again, if you buy the NBC/Maddow argument, Scarborough’s donations were acceptable because he disclosed them to management and got approval beforehand. Your link doesn’t mention it, but Maddow in her segment does. So that’s why Olby is where he is and Joe is where he is. Buchanan isn’t a news anchor nor an opinion host, he’s considered an analyst, so he’s in a different category than Olby.

    Sam, let’s get away from NBC for a sec and go to CNN to break down job titles for you. Don Lemon or Wolf Blitzer would qualify as journalists, Campbell Brown recently had an opinion show for them, and Roland Martin is neither but will make appearances as a guest and discuss events. CNN wouldn’t have put Campbell Brown as the host/lead anchor of the election results last week (where folks report facts – who won specific elections – rather than be a Hannity/Olby opinion show of who *should* win elections) so CNN has journalistic ethics and NBC does not. In the NBC to CNN analogy, Buchanan is Martin and in either case no one cares if either of them make political donations, as they’re not journalists and we know their biases as they’re paid to go on tv and make the case for Team Red (Buchanan) or Team Blue (Martin.)

    So again, not exactly sure wtf your point is…

  10. john personna says:

    I really don’t care one way or the other.

  11. PD Shaw says:

    sam, I still think it’s odd that Olbermann is reporting election returns outside of his opinion program. That may be more a problem with the assignment than the donations, but none of the other people you mentioned were reporting election returns.

  12. sam says:

    My point was, if they are in fact hosting opinion shows, as you asserted — that was the point of my quoting you — and not engaging in journalism — straight news reporting– why is there a conflict where Olbermann is concerned and not where Scarborough is concerned? As someone pointed out upthread, MSNBC seems to be the only folks that didn’t know Olbermann’s political leanings. Are you really asking us to believe that because Scarborough got permission or whatever, that any possible conflict was somehow magically done away with, by the mere “granting of permission” to him? Really? That’s wtf my point is.

  13. sam says:

    I’ll put the propriety of MSNBC allowing those people to anchor an election returns show to one side, as regards the issue of his suspension. Myself, I wouldn’t have done that — those folks are political commentators, pundits, if you want, not reporters.

  14. Steve Plunk says:

    If Olbermann violated MSNBC’s internal ethics rules and now refuses to apologize for that violation he should be suspended. If he didn’t like the rules then say so before you get caught or quit.

  15. wr says:

    Plunk — But if Rush Limbaugh commits a felony, then runs screaming to a high-priced lawyer to get him off, all the while whining about how terrible it is that other people are allowed habeas corpus rights, then he should get a raise to fifty million dollars a year. Because rules only apply to those dumb enough to accept them — liberals.

  16. wr says:

    Oops — according to Nikki Finke, Phil Griffin has already announced that Olbermann will have suffered enough by the end of Monday, and he’ll be back on the air on Tuesday. http://www.deadline.com/2010/11/hes-back-olberman-to-return-tuesday/

    In other words, Griffin decided he’d show Olbermann who is boss — and got a quarter million signatures on petitions from the core audience demanding the big O be put back on the air. And Griffin was forced to consider whether he wanted to go into Comcast’s corporate restructuring explaining why the network’s most fervent viewers weren’t watching anymore.

    This was sheer stupidity on Griffin’s part. There’s one lesson that everyone who works in TV learns pretty damn fast — if you get into a pissing contest with your star, the star wins. Doesn’t matter who you are or even if you’re the genius behind the show’s success. The star is the face the public sees, and without the star you’ve got no show.

    The star wins.

  17. Mike Drew says:

    wr –

    I agree. Griffin tried to make a major public issue of this and simply capitulated. If the donations are allowed, then it seems to me the permission is just procedural company policy. If the punishment for that is a suspension for two shows, that could easily be handled publicly as time off. MSNBC tried to make an untenable point, trying to show it is fundamentally different from Fox (and, i would submit, also trying to reach for viewers turned off by their liberal point of view), and just failed spectacularly to make it stick.

    I would argue that Doug is wrong to insist that Maddow’s statement is absurd. MSNBC is certainly liberal-leaning in the hours he mentions (but let’s not forget about Morning joe, for which there is no analogue at Fox), but the fact that likely candidates for the next Republican presidential nomination don’t just get open microphones to push theur message, but get paid to do so makes Doug’s attempt to draw a perfect equivalence, or even to claim that MSNBC in those hours is equally Democratic Party TV as Fox at all times is GOP TV, themselves absurd. In fact, Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, and even Olbermann frequently feature guests that strongly criticize the Democratic Party, and are critical of it themselves, albeit from a left rather than a right perspective. Witness especially Adam Green’s contributions on O’Donnell’s show. Criticism from the left of the Democratic mainstream certainly does nothing to lessen the liberal tilt of the network during these hours (and again i would insist on not forgetting the powerful (way ex-GOP Rep Scarborough sets the agenda for the Washington establishment at the start of every weekday on this same network), but it is real complication in Doug’s claim that MSNBC in the evening is just Democratic Party Television.

  18. TG Chicago says:

    “For someone like Maddow to fault Fox for a lack of objectivity is indeed the pot calling the kettle black.”

    But her point wasn’t that Fox lacked objectivity. As I said, she underscored the fact that Fox directly pays major GOP players. Most candidates in years past would have had to pay big bucks to get the kind of exposure that GOP candidates can now be paid for on Fox.

    If you want to disagree with Maddow, please be sure you’re actually arguing with what she said rather than make something up which is easy to shoot down.