To someone who was privileged to work as a news commentator during KING-TV's Camelot years, the MSNBC/Keith Olbermann mess is amusing and irritating. Here's a guy giving money to the political campaigns of those whom he publicly champions, including one who appeared on his show six times.
MSNBC has a rule that says political contributions have to be cleared by management. Olbermann ignores it, and when management tells him to follow the rules, he throws a public fit. MSNBC punishes him by imposing two days off with pay (gee, how unfair), and now he's back on the air giving liberals a bad name with his playground tantrums and attracting more viewers than ever.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, it was made clear to members of KING's news staff that they were not to contribute to political campaigns, a rule laid down by King Broadcasting President Ancil Payne with the approval of the company's owner, Dorothy Bullitt. The philosophical reason for the rule was simple fairness. The practical reason was the appearance of fairness; campaign contributions are a matter of public record. If a newsperson is to report unfavorably about a political figure, he or she should not be found to have contributed to that person’s political opponents.
I don't know if Payne ever had to force anyone to follow that rule or quit. If so, I never heard of it. It seemed a reasonable restriction, within the frame of KING's straight-ahead journalistic principles. The rule also precluded news people from holding even the most minor public office, as I learned.
The mayor of the tiny city where I lived asked me to serve on the city's planning commission and I accepted without a second thought. It was an unpaid position with no heavy lifting, in a city of 3,000 where nearly all the land was already built on and occupied. It looked like a chance for an inside look at the land use process, probably the most vulnerable to corruption of all local government functions.
When I mentioned it to Payne some weeks later, he gave me a disapproving look and invited me to his office. He told me stories about honorable political figures who had tried to manipulate reporters, and about reporters with political connections that left them unable to report what they knew.
Payne was a businessman, not a journalist, but he cared more about journalistic probity than any broadcast news director I ever worked for. He wanted us free of outside conflicts that could disable our work. I got off the planning commission the next day.
Here is Olbermann, the $4 million dollar political shouter NBC apparently dares not fire, offering a sideways apology for "not having known by observation, since it is not in my contract, that NBC had rules about getting permission for making political donations, even though any rule like that in any company is probably not legal."
It's an intriguing fuss and an important marker in our cultural shift. Howard Kurtz, the former Washington Post columnist now writing for the online Daily Beast, offered a precise and literate summary of the Olbermann uprising last week. Ted Koppel used the affair as the vehicle for a nostalgic and somewhat painful view of the journalistic beacon television news almost was, before it became "news you can choose." Both deserve careful reading in the light of NBC's dilemma, with a rebellious personality on it hands who can defy the network's own rules because he's too big to fire.