Time to stop hiding

Everybody who’s shocked — shocked, you say! — that Keith Olbermann contributed to Democratic candidates, please stand up.

I thought so.

The problem with Olbermann’s contributions is not that he made them but that he hid them — it’s the coverup that always gets you in trouble [pace R. Nixon] — and that MSNBC made him hide them. The problem with MSNBC suspending Olbermann is that it heads down transparency road in exactly the wrong direction, toward continued opacity. And the problem with MSNBC’s policy that makes contributing to candidates a suspendable offense is that it prevents journalists from acting as citizens of the communities they are to serve.

It’s not as if Olbermann was objective. It was his job not to be. We all know where he stood. I say he should put his money where is mouth is. He just shouldn’t have hidden it or be made to do so.

And I agree with Matt Welch that news organizations should reveal the votes of their staffs. When I retweeted that thought, some tweeters twitted me, saying that keeping one’s vote confidential is a right. Yes. They should not be forced out. But self-respecting journalists should consider it an obligation to be transparent. Self-respecting news organizations should be honest with their communities and reveal the aggregate perspectives of their staffs. It’s relevant.

We have the ethic of journalism exactly reversed from what it should be: Journalists should be the most open, the most transparent, a model of honesty.

We have the relationship of the journalist to the community also inside-out: They should see themselves as members of their communities like anyone else but with the special privilege of being able to ask questions and get answers on everyone’s behalf.

Put those two together and you have true citizen journalists.

But liberal (yes, liberal) news organizations — MSNBC and NPR, not to mention the New York Times and others — have gotten this all bolloxed up lately, continuing to separate their journalists and commentators — Juan Williams and now everyone at NPR else out of fear — from their communities. They all refused to let their journalists attend the Rally to Restore Sanity, which turned out not to be a political event at all but a repudiation of media — including most of Fox News plus Olbermann himself… a lesson all their journalists should have heard.

They do this because they want to stand above Fox News as objective. What they do instead is stand apart from their communities as — what? — sterile, gutless, distant. Fox News comes off as caring to its audience (“Fox News speaks for us,” say the tea drinkers. “Fox News understands”). MSNBC comes off as… what? Don’t we liberals deserve our Fox News, but with intelligence, sanity, openness? That was its promise. But like NPR, it is now a place where opinions and action are verboten.

: LATER: Henry http://www.businessinsider.com/why-msnbc-suspended-olbermann-2010-11
on this as a bad business strategy.

  • “When I retweeted that thought, some tweeters twitted me, saying that keeping one’s vote confidential is a right.”

    Financial contributions are not a vote. You could be asked or forced to disclose your financial contributions to candidates and still not disclose for whom you voted in an election. You may contribute to candidates for which you couldn’t even legally vote (other state’s, etc).

    Your vote should be private, but all financial contributions should be transparent. And, I agree this is doubly important for journalists. It makes it more difficult to call these pundits as “journalists” whether they be on MSNBC or Fox News.

  • Tyndall Report says: “With his primetime bully pulpit five nights a week to publicize his anti-Republican talking points, Keith Olbermann was already contributing plenty of resources in kind on behalf of the Democratic Party during Campaign 2010. The idea that he thought that three extra checks written from his personal account to individual candidates would have made any incremental difference to the outcome of the midterm elections is laughable. Yet apparently he did it anyway, in full knowledge that he was specifically forbidden to do so by his contract with NBC News. I am no psychoanalyst — but it is impossible to see these campaign contributions as political acts; self-destructive is more like it.”

  • How much of your definition of “publicness” (as in this case) correlates with simple “honesty”? Is it the same thing?

  • Of course we know that MSNBC, the NY Times, NPR, CBS News, et al were cheerleaders for liberal causes and candidates, and the concept of “impartial journalism” was an artifice constructed to fool reader/viewers.

    Some of us have know this for fifty years.

    And I do agree with you that the pretense should be dropped.

    • DonW

      If the pretense of the impartiality of their coverage were to be dropped then they would be less effective in influencing the opinions/actions of the 10 or 20 people who are not aware of their lack of impartiality. This would be unacceptable to their real backers.

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  • Steve

    The objectivity that Olbermann supposedly soiled wasnt even there in the first place. What was there, and what has always been there, is the theatre of objectivity, an elaborate performance in which the objective is to LOOK balanced and objective.

    The revelation of his contributions may have messed up yesterday’s matinee performance at the theatre of objectivity, but it was a shot in the arm for what we really should want — truth.

    The theatre of objectivity hides truth and promotes the myth of non-existent, phony balance. The script for the lead actors is full of “on the one hand” and ” to be fair here” and the other side of the questions is…” What nonsense.

    Want truth? Want objectivity? Dump the theatre of objectivity. Never, ever SAY you are being objective. Talk truth and get real about our social and political human nature.

    Back en el dia, Wolfman Jack would sometimes start to simply howl: “Get naked. Get naked.” I always heard this as “cut the crap. be openly and proudly the human beings you are.”

    I know that truth can also be performed. But raw, open, honest transparency is the only way to work toward the most authentic truth.

    Of course we’re going to hate half the truth that is revealed. Who wants to know the full truth of our hidden desires and biases? I know I’m not rushing out into the public sphere to reveal mine.

    But it’s time to consider the long term cost of continued ignorance and feigned, well-performed objectivity.

    I may wish we lived in a world where Juan Williams wasnt afraid when he sees Muslims. But real truth was served when he said hoiw he felt.

    And when we learned where Keith Olbermann places his political bets.

    • Love that, Steve: the “theater of objectivity.” Exactly right.

    • SteveSgt

      I miss Uncle Walter.

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  • Sammy

    Olbermann voicing support for progressives and concealing cash payments is kind of like a guy who enjoys internet porn and one who actually cheats on his wife. Bad timing buddy, RIP

  • This sure reminds me of the ridiculousness my colleagues and I went through just three years ago with the Plain Dealer and the short-lived Wide Open blog, when US Rep. Steve LaTourette informed the PD that one of the bloggers getting EXTREMELY minimal monetary compensation from the PD in the first place and hired as a blogger had given something like $50 or $150 to a prior opponent of LaTourette’s. I’d given money to Sherrod Brown, who wasn’t even going to be running any time soon (he’d just been elected in ’06) and the entire project collapsed because they wanted to hold us to the same standards as newsroom reporters. Really – disclose and be done with it. Evolve, people – evolve.

  • There is – in my opinion – something more insidious here. Almost everyone who has signed a contract with an employer is probably subject to a clause in it somewhere that states you are not allowed to do anything that embarrasses them.

    Shouldn’t the larger question of how we allow these organizations (mostly corporations) to tell us what we can and cannot do outside of work? This is an issue that we all need to think about – how much of our lives we are handing over to those who are gaining more and more control of our communities.

    I have been questioned several times about my use of the alias Xenophrenia, and this is in part due to the idea that my views would be frowned upon by many employers. I am currently unemployed and if they could see my opinions on some things – I probably won’t get a job. I understand the argument that transparency will eventually change that – but – we’re not there yet. Our employers should not have a say about what we do outside of work. Like a teacher that has a picture of herself at a bar on their Facebook page losing her job.

    Reality … it’s not just a concept anymore ;-).

    • I feel the same way. To name a SCOTUS case wrongly decided my pick is United Public Workers vs. Mitchell … a 1949 case holding the Hatch Act constitutional. It makes second class citizens of all federal employees. We now see the same thing in MSNBC’s employment contract … as Jeff notes. I feel you are right Xen, people should just be left alone when they are not ‘on the clock’ … Kudos to Jeff Jarvis for this discussion. Can’t wait til tomorrow to see what Howard ‘Reliable Snark’ Kurtz will say.

      • Andy Freeman

        > It makes second class citizens of all federal employees.

        Federal employees are paid by taxes. You remember taxes – they’re collected under threat of force.

        I can refuse to buy Ford and nothing happens to me. If I refuse to pay taxes….

        There is no “right” to be a federal employee. If you don’t like the conditions, work somewhere else.

  • Paul Evans

    To heighten the hypocrisy, both the current MSNBC parent company and their likely successor are not only major political donors but spend tens of millions on lobbying lawmakers to give them what they want. Seems to me that Olbermann’s contributions are far less troubling.


    “According to the Center for Responsive Politics, GE made over $2 million in political contributions in the 2010 election cycle (most coming from the company’s political action committee). The top recipient was Republican Senate candidate Rob Portman from Ohio. The company has also spent $32 million on lobbying this year, and contributed over $1 million to the successful “No on 24” campaign against a California ballot initiative aimed at eliminating tax loopholes for major corporations (New York Times, 11/1/10).

    “Comcast, the cable company currently looking to buy NBC, has dramatically increased its political giving, much of it to lawmakers who support the proposed merger (Bloomberg, 10/19/10). And while Fox News parent News Corp’s $1 million donation to the Republican Governors Association caused a stir, GE had “given $245,000 to the Democratic governors and $205,000 to the Republican governors since last year,” reported the Washington Post (8/18/10).”

  • Stan Hogan

    Since you already have the gun, let me give you the bullets.

    Walk into a party and announce loudly that you are a tea party supporter. That sets a tone of transparency for the rest of the evening.

    The aggregate perspective of my staff is that I am a tyrant and the community they cover is a rat hole.

    The best way to prove that we are objective news reporters is to show that we are not objective at all in our beliefs. Sure, people know that already but let’s confirm it for them.

    How could you, really, expect people to believe smart people don’t have opinions. Let’s be transparent and tell them all about those opinions.

    I see a wonderful day when McDonald’s workers tell you they stuck their dirty finger on your hamburger patty. I see cops who say they look at people of color with suspicion. I see politicians who say they are mostly about protecting the interests of their donors. I see veterinarians who admit they don’t like animals.

    I love this new world of transparency.

    Random ramblings but fitting with this rant.

  • John Katos

    I have read that the problem was he did not get prior approval from MSNBC/GE. What would the public’s position be if he had asked but was told no, you cannot contribute?

  • Tommy M

    DIsclose money – not votes – and parent companies should deal with it. As journalists, I suppose we do give up some rights to privacy, but a few things – my votes, my income taxes, my credit report, my family situation, my sexual orientation – I don’t think those are things that need to be made public in the name of transparency.

    Of course, when the Supreme Court lets corporations spend millions and hide it – I am not so sure a) that I should be held to a different standard and b) that a journalist’s political views wouldn’t have a potentially disastrous occupational consequence, either.

    Now what would the headlines be if K.O. had been donating to Republicans all this time?

  • Harold Smith

    I used to watch Obermann regularly. After a few months I came to see how he was not only bashing the Reps and Fox news, which didn’t bother me in the least, but he was using the same techniques of half-truths and innuendo that he decried. He was as much of an A-hole as O’Reilly and Beck. Swell.

    On Monday after the Stewart/Colbert rally, Olbermann trashed Stewart; Olbermann carped that he shouldn’t be tarred with the same brush as those terrible folks at Fox because he always told the truth, was on the side of right and the American way, blah, blah, blah. He was bolstered by John Alter, Newsweek editor, author and MSNBC analyst. They stressed that they where fact dispensers and nothing at all like Fox. They also spent a lot of that time telling what bad things Fox did and does. Why spend so much time talking about Fox? Just to say “they’re worse than us, go attack them?”

    Tonight Rachel Maddow spent a segment on the Olbermann suspension. Most of the time was spent telling how Fox folks had supported, financially and otherwise, Republican candidates. What does what those creeps at Fox do have to do with how you conduct yourself? All it does is make the people at MSNBC seem like children, complaining that their brother or sister committed the same misdeed but didn’t get caught.

    If you sign a contract for employment and your boss says, “these are the rules you have to follow,” don’t cry if you don’t abide by them and get caught. I’m sure Olbermann will make a lot of hay out of this situation, hell he probably welcomes it. Too bad; I’d like him better if he just took the suspension and then went about his business in an ethical and straightforward manner. His ego won’t allow that.

    I don’t mind bias in a reporter or analyst; we all have them. I do expect the truth. Not some of the truth, not half truths, not just the truths that make your point.That just makes you a liar.

  • Jeff,
    I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit. I’ve covered companies and CEOs more than politicians most of my career. In my mind, I’m partisan. I respect some of them, don’t respect others. Should I make this public? I’ll give you an example. When I worked in Pittsburgh, Paul O’Neill was the CEO of Alcoa. He was sharp, globally minded, curious, and delivered stellar results. Tom Usher was the CEO of USX (including US Steel). I viewed him as provincial and closed-minded. The company struggled. Now the fact was, I found one CEO congenial, the other less so, one brilliant, the other less so. I was partisan. But I limited my analysis to the strategy and performance of their companies. As a journalist in this age of transparency, should I have made my feelings about them clearer to readers? I think it would just have gotten in the way (and destroyed my access to USX).

    • Steve,
      I think it’s a question of relevance. If you don’t reveal to your readers that a CEO is a fool then aren’t you doing them a disservice, especially if they invest or do business with that company? Now, of course, in that example, any good editor would say that the reporter should use facts, quotes, reporting to demonstrate his foolishness and I think that’s right — any opinion is better presented with fact; that tenet does not expire in the transparent age. I could come up with another half-dozen what-ifs but I need to run out now. I’d say the question is whether some canon is making you withhold information that you believe would be useful and relevant to your readers. Now as to access… well, when that argument is made in political coverage, it is suspect because access is the ticket to the carnival. But obviously, tactically, that is what any reporter weighs to continue doing the story. Again, at some point, if what you would say comes at the price of access but is important to the community you’re serving, then I think the latter must win.

  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/11/05/maddow-keith-olbermann-su_n_779851.html
    Your reaction to Maddow’s explanation?

    p.s. congrats on the HuffPo top story mention!

  • http://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=group_138188069566703&ap=1

    We gotta’ get him back on the air – this is ridiculous. Democrats have to stand up and stop being so spineless and networks shouldn’t be so paranoid over what FoxNews is going to say about them.

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  • Tom Regan

    But Jeff, Fox News may be liked by its audience, but it has also so blurred the line about what is truth and what is fiction, that I don’t think it can be trusted at all any more.

    I don’t have any problem with Fox being conservative. NRO is conservative, as is Forbes or the WSJ. I know that when I read them but I still appreciate their take on the news because I know they do things like actually fact-check the stories, which, regardless of what your point of view is, stuff you still need to do as a journalist.

    But Fox News makes stuff up and reports it as news. The most recent example is the $200 million dollars a day mantra about Obama’s trip to India.

    I always think of that survey about five years ago about myths about the Iraq war that were still believed by the American public – like there being weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11. Of the 40% of the American public who still believed those falsehood two years after even the Bush administration said they were false, something like 80% of that 40% said they got their news from Fox. But the people who knew the truth about the myths primarily got their news from NPR.

    Or how about when Fox News hosts recently attacked the mysterious Saudi who was supposedly going to fund the Park51 community center and mosque near Ground Zero. The Fox News folks pointed out it was the same guy who also tried to give millions to New York after 9/11 but was turned down by Rudy Guilliani. But they never gave his name – which is Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal – because of the uncomfortable fact that he owns 10% of News Corp, which of course, owns Fox News.

    I could give you a hundred other examples. There is a difference between presenting a conservative view point and presenting what basically amounts to propaganda and Fox News crossed that line a long time a ago.

    (By the way, I agree with Meadows that Fox is the one perpetrating the ‘objectivity” myth with its “Fair and Balanced” slogan. Fox News is to far and balanced news what a hot dog is to a vegetarian meal – there is no connection between the two.)

    • Tom,
      Obviously, I’m not saying that one should create a mirror image of Fox; indeed, I add qualifiers above. I’m talking about MSNBC’s opportunity to speak for a segment of the population. But to do that, it must be transparent about its views and stop being so faux-sterile.

      • Tom Regan

        I totally agree with that Jeff.

        And one note about NPR and why I think there might be more Juan Williams trouble down the road. When I worked there as the news/politics blogger, there were very strict rules about “personal opinion”. No hint of personal bias was allowed at all. This, of course, made it rather difficult to write a blog at all. (I remember some SEO guys coming in and talking about what a blog needed to do to be popular and I wasn’t allowed to do any of them.)

        So while we lower sorts were subject to these strict rules about objectivity, there was a whole group of “superstars” who weren’t held to these same standards at all. It was pretty common knowledge who they were and that they could basically cross that line between journalist and commentator whenever they wanted. I was actually a bit surprised that Williams got canned, but I do think he had wandered so far off the reservation, that not even NPR could “pretend” any more. But don’t be surprised if it happens again at some point because of this bifurcated policy.

    • Andy Freeman

      > But Fox News makes stuff up and reports it as news.

      Let me know when you find a news distributor that doesn’t.

      The universal experience of folks who have first hand knowledge of something that gets reported is that the reports were wrong in some significant fashion. (I’m excepting social and much of sports.)

      Or, are you claiming that everyone else makes mistakes while Fox is deliberate? If so, what’s your evidence? (The vast majority of the “mistakes” are consistent with the narrative, so your “fox is different” argument can’t be along those lines.)

      Yes, Fox repeated a thinly-sourced story from India. I can find the NYT doing the same.

    • Andy Freeman

      > By the way, I agree with Meadows that Fox is the one perpetrating the ‘objectivity” myth with its “Fair and Balanced” slogan.

      “the one”? All the news that’s fit to print isn’t an outlier, it’s merely a pithy way to say what almost every news org uses somewhere in its self-promotion. And if we look at mission statements and the like, we’ll see the same thing.

      I’m certain that you think that Fox is unique in this respect, but that just tells us how you see the world.

  • Although I disagree with you about make a reporters vote public, I do think that there contributions should be made public. When I saw what happen to Keith Olbermann all I could think of is what a stupid reaction on NBC part. It would of made more sense if they had reported it and said this is something we think you should know.

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  • scott

    Just a minor complaint – please don’t conflate tea partiers with tea drinkers. I may not like coffee, but I’d drink gallons of the stuff to put real leftists in charge and clear out the likes of DeMint/Boehner/etc.

    Now, off to make more Earl Gray.

    BTW – read your blog daily. Fantastic!

  • The more I read your blog, the more I want to come study under you at CUNY. At least someone gets it!

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  • I love this idea! If journalists had to tell us (politically) where they’re coming from, we’d have to start evaluating them more closely on the content of their work! I don’t know about you, but I’d have a lot more respect for, say, David Gregory if I knew he voted for Barack Obama and was still so hard on his Democratic guests.

    We could all stop wasting energy expressing how scandalized we feel when Keith Olberman portrays John Boehner unfairly, or when Megyn Kelly makes snyde, condescending remarks to whatever lowly House Democrat that’s been wrangled up for her show.

    I think in the end, it’s a matter of how much respect you have for your audience. Do you feel that they’re dumb enough that they’ll think you’re an automaton and not a real person just like them? Do you feel that they are too stupid to know how to change the channel or click to another page to see how somebody else reported the same story? Or do you feel that they are capable of separating what you are saying from who you are themselves, and considering the former in the light of the latter? It’s just respecting people. Maybe that’s why American’s are dumb, because nobody expects them to think for themselves.

    • See what I did there, with the dumb “American’s.” Just didn’t want anybody to think I did that on purpose.

  • We need more liberals who can just be confident in their position. This is such a ridiculously neo-conservative nation because liberals haven’t made the case. They try to pass themselves off as “Republican Light”, when you really just need to make the case. I think after eight years of Bush policy the case can be made quite effectively, Democrats failed to communicate and that’s why they lost seats, has nothing to do with substance.

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  • Seems to me a case of ethics. I may agree or disagree with certain laws, but if they’re on the books, obey them and be honest.

  • Tex Lovera

    “But SELF RESPECTING journalists should consider it an obligation to be transparent.”

    Well, there’s the problem……

  • Inigo Montoya

    ‘pace’ R. Nixon ?

    I do not think it means what you think it means. Shirley Nixon would agree with you.

  • taonut

    I take issue with your argument that Keith Olbermann was “hiding” anything. There is a big difference between hiding and remaining private. When I go into a bathroom, I typically close the door. I’m not hiding my activities, I’m protecting my privacy. When I donate to campaigns, I don’t advertise the fact. I simply donate and remain silent. One could not call that hiding.

  • One problem with the theatre of objectivity is that actors get lost in their script.

    Otherwise shrewd and skeptical people either forget to come off stage (or are afraid to) and admit their own subjectivity, as if being a fully human and subjective being would be seen as some mortal sin. The lead role they play of “Objective Journalist” swallows their humanness and they stay on stage — as if they are in a bad imitiation of a Beckett play –repeating and repeating the same monologue:

    “ I am a reporter who reports. I do not retort. I put my personal life and views aside when I am at work. I do not inadvertently use body language or facial expressions that betray my feelings. I do not shape reality, I report it.”

    “I do not choose what is important and what is not. I cover what the public considers important. What is important and what is not is self-evident. A person biting a dog is inherently and obviously and even genetically more significant than a dog biting a person. I don’t have to explain why the one American casualty in a Tokyo earthquake injuring thousands of citizens is the most important story to cover. It IS the most important story among all those injured. Why? Because it is.”

    “I quote people precisely. They say what they say.I write it down or tap it out. I don’t make it up. I don’t clean up grammar, translate slang, or telescope long rants into neat quotes.”

    “I do not take sides on complex issues. In fact, both sides of these complex and nuanced and tangled 5-sided issues can be put in plain language and fairly explained I don’t take sides. I always make sure that I “on the one hand” before I ever “on the other hand.”

    “Truth may hurt, but I report it and apply it to people and institutions without considering their race, ethnicity, social class, or political power. The weak and the needy are treated the same as the strong and the wealthy. I pay as much attention to the poor, minority victims in my stories as I do to wealthy and powerful victims.”

    (Repeat lines above in a slightly different, somewhat more indignant tone of voice, this time addressing the balcony)

    And guess what? Good, decent, and impossibly intelligent people – people who would be mortified if they thought they were being biased or unfair – are some of the actors who deliver these lines the most eloquently and persuasively.

    They deeply believe that, with herculean effort, their work is only slightly, if ever, soiled by the stain of subjectivity. They really do struggle for some version of balance, no matter how elusive that may be. It’s not that they are devious or unfair; it’s that they work for institutions where this monologue — despite the extent to which it flies in the face of our essential and opinionated humanness – is nothing less than a sacrament.

    That is why, rather than railing against intentional bias, I simply wish that these smart, good actors could be released from their role in this trite melodrama and feel confident that they work for institutions sophisticated enough to understand that when they set out to hire people with acute intelligence, they also get fully complex and perceptive and opinionated and wonderfully subjective people who get angry, get sad, who rage and who celebrate.

    Maybe those institutions would discover that ditching the objectivity script and embracing the fully subjective nature of smart people would actually lead them much closer to the complexity of truth.

    Now they get what they wantand what they pay for : smart people being forced to act like wind-up dolls spouting mantras about their one hand and their other hand.

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