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Should Journalists Be Allowed to Make Campaign Contributions?

November 10, 2010 at 6:09 PM EDT
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The brief suspension of MSNBC's Keith Olbermann reignited an ethical debate over whether journalists, commentators and news organizations should be allowed to make contributions to political candidates. Jeffrey Brown gets two perspectives on the matter.
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JIM LEHRER: Next: journalism and politics. Jeffrey Brown has our story.

KEITH OLBERMANN, host, “Countdown With Keith Olbermann”: That’s November 9, seven days since the Republicans took control of the House. Mr. Boehner, where are the jobs?

JEFFREY BROWN: Keith Olbermann was back to his usual combative self last night on his MSNBC show, “Countdown,” as he returned from a two-day suspension for making campaign contributions to three Democratic candidates.

All three appeared on his program, one the same day as the donation.

KEITH OLBERMANN: This advice, Mr. Bush.

JEFFREY BROWN: Olbermann, a consistently strong liberal voice, is the top-rated host on MSNBC and served as one of the network’s anchors on Election Day.

KEITH OLBERMANN: We understand that Joe Manchin is ahead there, although that one remains too — too early to call.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last night, he said he hadn’t been aware of parent company NBC’s policy that contributions had to be approved. He apologized for that, but added much more, including this:

KEITH OLBERMANN: I think we saw where the political contribution system is working for transparency in democracy and where it is failing transparency in democracy.

I made legal political contributions, as a U.S. citizen, near midnight Eastern on Thursday night, October 28. By 10:00 p.m. Eastern on Thursday night, November 4, those contributions were public knowledge. And that’s the point. I gave, and you found out, and you judged me, for good or for ill, as you felt appropriate.

JEFFREY BROWN: News organization have traditionally banned political advocacy and contributions by employees. And most still do. But rules can differ.

Joe Scarborough, another MSNBC host and a former Republican congressman, made a political contribution in 2006, but had received prior approval.

For its part, FOX News doesn’t ban its hosts from giving to candidates. Sean Hannity, for example, contributed a total of $9,800 this election to one Republican candidate’s political action committee and directly to another’s campaign.

And FOX News’ parent company, News Corporation, gave $1.25 million in donations to the Republican Governors Association in the midst of the midterm campaign, and another million to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which worked to defeat Democratic candidates.

The proper bounds of political advocacy or participation for journalists come into play in a variety of activities, including attendance at rallies such as recent gatherings on the Washington Mall held by FOX’s Glenn Beck, and, later, Comedy Central hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

For the record, NewsHour guidelines require that staff — quote — “not engage in any activity that would compromise, or appear to compromise, our commitment to unbiased reporting.”

And we explore some of these issues now with Geneva Overholser, director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Her many past positions include editor of The Des Moines Register and ombudsman at The Washington Post — and Brian Stelter, media reporter for The New York Times.

Brian, I will start with you, because you have been covering the Olbermann story. How clear are the rules on political contributions in this case and in other newsrooms, as you have looked around?

BRIAN STELTER, The New York Times: Keith Olbermann says he wasn’t aware of this policy at MSNBC.

The policy essentially forbids donations, unless you have the permission of your boss at MSNBC or at NBC News, which is the parent of MSNBC. Most employees that I have spoken to at MSNBC were well aware of the policy, though, and they are kind of surprised that Keith Olbermann says he didn’t know about it.

Basically, the policy at MSNBC allows some wiggle room. It allowed Joe Scarborough four years ago to make that donation, because he got permission in advance.

On the other hand, it also allows MSNBC to turn you down, to, say, no, you are not allowed to make this donation, for whatever reason. And I have been told by MSNBC they think it’s important to have that wiggle room, because, that way, they could have come up with a plan to make this information about Olbermann’s donation public.

That way, he wouldn’t have went on television and attacked the opponent of one of the people he donated to, without disclosure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Geneva Overholser, explain for people the traditional thinking on this. Journalists are citizens, as Keith Olbermann said, but — but what?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER, director, University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism: Well, objectivity has been a central ethic of journalism in the modern era. And the thinking, Jeff, is kind of, as you know, that, if we can show that we have approached a story with a completely open mind, and been fair-minded about it, then people will have a stronger sense of the story’s credibility.

The trouble is that we are in a new kind of Wild West atmosphere now. It’s never been totally clear that the public thought about this as a safeguard with the same strength — strength that we did, as journalists, you know?

But, in this current environment, it’s kind of an anything goes. We’re headed toward a different mode of being transparent or figuring out what the new ethics are. And so, right now, we’re kind of looking at little thin slices of defending the turf.

We have Keith Olbermann saying: Oh, you know, I’m paid to give my opinions.

Or people are saying it’s no surprise that Keith Olbermann is giving his opinions, that he works for a larger corporation, NBC, which is still kind of hewing to the traditional standards of objectivity. It is a very interesting time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Brian, fill us — well, for example, where you work, at The New York Times, now, are the standards clear for you, as a working journalist?

BRIAN STELTER: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are they clear for someone that our audience would know, Paul Krugman, for example, on the opinion page…

BRIAN STELTER: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: …. who, as our audience knows, has another job as a Princeton economist.

BRIAN STELTER: Right. Well, one of the first things you receive when you walk into The Times as an employee is this — this — not — I wouldn’t call it a thick book of rules, but it’s a significant publication, dozens of pages in length, that spells out the ethics policies, both for journalists here and for columnists and commentators, like the columnists that appear on the op-ed pages.

In both instances, donations like the one that Keith Olbermann made are not allowed, pretty much under any circumstances. And that makes it pretty clear. But I think the tension with Keith Olbermann is that he’s a different kind of journalist. He’s an opinion journalist, in a way that actually resembles the partisan press of 100 years ago in America.

He’s a person who is an anchor. He uses news — he has news values. He seems to present a newscast, but from a clearly liberal point of view. And I think what he’s saying with these donations is that the rules haven’t caught up to figure out how to handle someone like him, who is presenting news, but from a clear point of view.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Geneva, you’re saying also that this is confusing to the public, right? I mean, nobody, on the one hand, doubts that Keith Olbermann generally prefers a Democratic candidate or that Sean Hannity generally prefers a Republican candidate.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the public is still confused by the rules?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Yes, I’m not sure the public really completely ever understood the rules.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: We were very proud of them, as journalists, and we thought that they showed that we were approaching a story with an open mind.

People in the public who believe that we approach a story with an open mind may feel that’s important, or they may feel that they would like to know what our view is, that we have arrived at a story and come, after a great deal of reporting, to an opinion of our own, and they may want to know what it is.

I think what’s happening right now is, as Brian says, of course, there’s a lot more partisan journalism. And to the public, people who are sort of defending a little tiny slice of virtue here are confusing.

I mean, who could be surprised that Olbermann would have supported a Democrat, just as no one would be surprised that Hannity would support a Republican? I mean, so, it’s sort of, to the public, this feels like, wait a minute. The virtue here is that Olbermann could carry on in his opinion-mongering, and which is really what he’s paid to do — he would be voicing his opinions — but it’s only when he puts his money where his mouth is that he’s misbehaved.

You know, this doesn’t compute for the public, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Brian…

BRIAN STELTER: I think Geneva is absolutely right…

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

BRIAN STELTER: … that there’s a sense — there’s a sense here that many people — you know, many viewers of “Countdown” on MSNBC, for instance, actually prefer the newscast that he does, that has opinions.

And I think there’s a growing sense — certainly not agreed upon by everyone, but a growing sense in the journalism community that maybe people should put all their cards out on the table, that, instead of what is called the view from nowhere, you should show, here’s where I stand from. Here’s where I stand. And here’s where I’m coming from. And here’s what I believe.

That’s by no means universal. And I think many news organizations would bristle at that notion. But you’re seeing more of that at a place like FOX News, which doesn’t discourage donations at all.

JEFFREY BROWN: But do you — but, Brian, do you see executives, in the aftermath of this, actually starting to rethink that?

You spoke earlier, this is a situation where you have got NBC, a sort of mainstream organization, dealing with MSNBC, which operates in this cable news world.

BRIAN STELTER: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have got people like Olbermann, Hannity, so many others, who sort of wear different hats at different times, it seems.

BRIAN STELTER: Right. And that’s where…

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: I think we’re going to have…

JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: I — sorry. Go ahead.

JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead, Geneva.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, I think we’re going to have a lot of different responses. Just as you say, we have all these different decisions.

I think that this is increasingly going to demarcate a given news organization’s position in the marketplace. And that will be good. There will be news organizations who really do say it matters to us to be as objective as we can. We consider that part of our fair-minded, proportional delivery of the news.

And then the news viewer or reader, consumer, can come to that knowing that. I think it really is going to be more and more about transparency, this is who we are, but not trying to stuff everybody into the same sock, because they’re not in that sock anymore.

JEFFREY BROWN: Brian, what do you see happening in newsrooms, in the aftermath of this?

BRIAN STELTER: Well, MSNBC, for one, is going to take another look at this policy. They’re going to review it. And Keith Olbermann has said on the air last night he thinks it needs to be adapted to what he calls 21st century journalism.

But Geneva is right that there will be a value in — in some news organizations that clearly value objectivity above all else. And I look back at the interview of George W. Bush this week. When — when the publisher of Bush’s book was looking around, trying to figure out who to give that first interview to, there weren’t a lot of options.

There aren’t that many nonpartisan anchors they could give the first interview to. And they ended up going with Matt Lauer at NBC. When they looked around, they didn’t have that many options.

I think people that are in Matt Lauer’s position will benefit in the future, because, when you’re releasing a book or when you’re doing a first post-presidential interview, you’re going to want to go with an objective, nonpartisan newsman.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, why don’t we leave it there? Brian Stelter and Geneva Overholser, thanks very much.

BRIAN STELTER: Thank you.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Thanks for having us.