Keith Olbermann returned from the world’s shortest indefinite suspension tonight, and he delivered a very professional and classy apology on Countdown. Olbermann said, “I owe you three apologies. Foremost for having subjected you to this drama. Another by having not known by observation since it is not in the contract for not making political donations although any rule like that probably isn’t legal.”
Here is the video from MSNBC:
Olbermann said, “I owe you three apologies. Foremost for having subjected you to this drama. The white house is on the phone for you. Seriously? Another by having not known by observation since it is not in the contract for not making political donations although any rule like that probably isn’t legal. The third rule doubles as a correction. It is accurate that I contributed to the campaigns of Conway, Giffords and Gribalba, but the reporting assumed that I donated then interviewed and should have disclosed it when I interviewed. The sequence was the reverse. I didn’t think about contributing until hours after the interview.”
Olbermann laid out his rationale for not disclosing the donations, “If I had come on the air and said, hey, I contributed to Gribalba and Giffords and Conway knowing the way you responded to stories like the free health care family and the family in Tennessee there would have been a lot of donations to them and suddenly then I’m fund-raising for them and we’re accidentally Fox. However, the day after the donations I included the opponent in the race against congresswoman Giffords in the old worst persons segment. I never made the connection that he, Jesse Kelly, was running against her, and I should have made it clear that I had contributed to her or just dropped him from the segment. I apologize to you and Mr. Kelly.”
Olbermann defended the rule that got him suspended, “It’s not a stupid rule. It just needs debate about it. It needs to be adapted to 21st century journalism. To wrap up, I think we saw where the system is working for transparency in democracy and where it is failing. I made legal political contributions as a US citizen near midnight eastern. By 10:00 p.m. eastern on Thursday November 4 the contributions were public knowledge. That’s the point. I gave and you found out and you judged me for good or ill as you felt appropriate. If I had given the money through the US Chamber Of Commerce you would have never, ever known.”
This was a classy apology by Mr. Olbermann. Unlike some of his supporters, he defended the rule because he understands the kind of conflicts that can result when journalism and activism mix. I agree with him completely that the rule needs to be tweaked for the 21st Century. Cable news and the Internet have forever changed journalism, and the profession needs to adapt. I respect Olbermann more for going to bat for a rule that got him suspended.
Olbermann did the responsible, professional, adult thing here. He took responsibility for his actions and he apologized. I think in his misguided attempt to avoid being like Fox, he accidentally ended up behaving like Fox. The difference is that Olbermann and MSNBC hold themselves to a higher standard. The fact that his behavior indirectly resulted in Olbermann behaving like Fox News is a worse punishment for KO than any suspension ever could have been.
Hopefully, this whole incident will lead to reexamination of the line between journalism and personal political activity. In my opinion, the compromise should be that personal political donations are allowed for on air talent, but those donations should be disclosed, even if the disclosure is limited to a press release or a blog post, that is still better than no disclosure at all. Olbermann made a mistake, and paid for it, but the larger discussion about the rules, and the changing nature of journalism should continue.