His new hardback, Pitchfords and Torches, is a compilation of short pieces (and not-so-short ones) written for and presented on his MSNBC show, Countdown With Keith Olbermann. Today Keith was suspended indefinitely without pay by his boss, MSNBC President Phil Griffin, for making three last-minute campaign contributions last week. NBC News, which oversees MSNBC but not CNBC, has a policy against news staff making campaign contributions without prior permission. MSNBC host Joe Scarborough gave money to a Republican campaign in 2006, but apparently the rule was not in place until 2007.
Gabrielle Giffords at a 2009 Health Care town hall appearance
What makes this story kind of freaky for me is that two of the three candidates to which Olbermann contributed the individual maximum amount of $2,400 each are my local Congress people. Our two Southern Arizona members of the House of Representatives, Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords, were both reelected this week by the skin of their teeth. (Olbermann's other contribution was to Rand Paul's unsuccessful opponent.) Giffords, whom I heard speak at a heath care town hall, is a blue dog Democrat, a little to the right of me but smart and sensible. I not only voted for her again this year, but also made a small campaign contribution. Raul Grijalva, from Congressional District 7, is the congressman for the other half of Tucson and co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus. I met him once two years ago, and liked him a lot. He's smart and funny and fierce, and although he makes the occasional misstep, I trust him to fight for the same ideals I believe in. Raul got himself in trouble this year by calling for a boycott of Arizona because of the vile SB 1070 our horrible Governor signed into law. Grijalva later regretted the boycott. Intimidation tactics against him this year have included a bullet through his office window (Giffords got one of those too), an envelope of suspicious white powder and your run-of-the-mill death threats. Don't ever let someone tell you that only Muslims are terrorists, because that is terrorism too. There was also a lot of money poured into the campaign of his opponent, the unfortunately-named Ruth McClung. Gabrielle Giffords, meanwhile, was targeted with hundreds of the most vicious and misleading campaign signs I have ever seen in a political campaign.
Both the Giffords and Grjalva races were so tight that even with 100% of precincts counted in this week's election, no one had been declared the winner in either district. Both Democrats were ahead, but not by much. The delay in calling it was due to by-mail early voting ballots hand-delivered to polling places, and also provisional ballots from people who attempted to vote at a given precinct but were not listed in the precinct's voter registration logs. (Basically the Board of Elections has to check whether these folks are registered voters somewhere else, or were accidentally omitted from the lists. If they are legitimately registered to vote in those electoral races, their votes are then counted.) The Associated Press just called the CD7 race for Grijalva on Thursday, if I recall correctly. The reelection of Gabrelle Giffords was just called late Friday afternoon with the release of new numbers by the Secretary of State's office, by which time she was up nearly 4,000 votes. The results still must be certified, but basically they've won - finally.
Anyway, Keith happened to have Raul on his show last week, I think for the sixth time. I think Raul managed to sneak the web address of his campaign site into the interview, something Keith has criticized Fox for allowing their guests to do. After the interview and the show, according to reports, Keith discussed the upcoming election and these particular races with a friend, and then privately went to a Mailboxes Etc. (why not online?) and made his contributions. His heart was in the right place, but it was against the rules, as his colleague Rachel Maddow acknowledged on her own show tonight. Rachel also took the time, however, to point out the false equivalence between Olberman's secret donations and the open donations to, endorsements of and campaigning for Republican candidates that goes on at Fox.
Okay, so it's not a good idea to base your ethics on the questionable ethics of the other guy. But is the policy Keith violated a good and fair one? If applied across the board to all MSNBC on-air personalities, it's fair enough; if Keith is singled out, not so much. It's certainly not a violation of Keith Olbermann's First Amendment rights, as Keith himself frequently pointed out when others got in trouble for what they said on tv. This is not a case of Congress abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. This is an employee working for an employer that has certain rules, and the right to enforce those rules. If an employee does not agree with those rules, they can obey them anyway, or try to change the system, or try not to get caught, or go work somewhere else. Keith broke his company's rule, although whether he was aware he was breaking it is somewhat in question. The company has the right to suspend him for that.
But should they suspend him, and is it a rule worth having in the first place? I'm on the fence about the suspension itself, as long as it's a fairly short one, just to show that the network enforces its rules and stands on its principles. But I'm not so sure the policy should apply to an MSNBC primetime host in the first place. Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz are clearly, unabashedly liberals. They make no pretense to the contrary. Chris Mathews and Lawrence O'Donnell are perhaps a tad less so, but they are not shy in airing their opinions, any more than "Morning Joe" Scarborough is shy about offering his right-leaning opinions on the same network. All of their respective shows are steeped in political commentary. That's what they're for. They back up these opinions with actual news reporting, checking facts to a degree that's entirely absent over at Fox. That makes them vaguely journalists, and subject to the NBC News designation. However, a distinction should be made, I feel, between political commentators who also report news, such as Keith and Rachel, and "straight news" reporters and anchors such as Brian Williams et al. There is no question about Keith reporting a story impartially. He doesn't. He presents the facts along with his opinion about those facts, liberally sprinkled with satire, sarcasm and pop culture references. That's his job, and he's good at it. His career since about 2003 has been predicated on his expressing political opinions. So where is the impropriety in his contributing to a political campaign, privately and without advocating for that candidate on-air? Does this change in the least public perception of his standing as a journalist or the relevance of his political opinions? Not at all. Indeed, I'm surprised that any such rule applies to Keith and his colleagues. It makes no sense to me.
What does make sense to me is that on a network that decries the Citizens United ruling that allows corporations to spend millions on political advertising without disclosure, Keith and other paid on-air personalities should disclose their political contributions on air, particularly when interviewing someone whose campaign they support financially or plan to support a few hours later. The interview itself should have no more than one reference to a campaign website, and no call for the viewer to make a contribution. But that's it. Beyond that, the journalist-commentator should be free to make contributions as his or her conscience dictates.
As for the current mess, Keith should admit that he screwed up, apologize and be reinstated. Given the paucity of left-leaning media compared with the fact-challenged behemoth of right-wing media, we need as many Keith Olbermanns as we can get.
I haven't told you about the book thing yet. Tonight John wanted to cheer himself up with a trip to a local bookstore. Locally-owned new bookstores are all but dead, so the choices were Borders or Barnes and Noble. I have a discount card for B and N so off we went.
The first thing that happened when we walked in was me spotting a sign in the cafe for an upcoming appearance by Republican Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, right there in the store. This bummed me out, and made John angry. As John went off to check the Peanuts books, I decided to take a look at Keith's new book, and see whether it was something I had to own, or at least buy as a matter of solidarity. I checked the new hardbacks, the bestsellers, and other featured displays in the front of the story and along the center aisle. No Keith. Glenn Beck and a few other right-wingers, yes, but no Pitchforks and Torches. Eventually I asked. It was in the back of the store near the kids' books, in the newly arrived section of the Current Evens rack, in the History section of the store. It wasn't someplace I would think to look for a new book by a major tv political commentator, at least, not as the only place it was shelved.
Between that, the Huckabee sign and the fact that B&N only had the Peanuts books John wanted as a two-book boxed set, John was highly displeased with B&N and the whole shopping experience. It hadn't cheered him up one bit. So we went on to Borders. They had three copies of Keith's book in the featured new arrivals display, although when I went back for it someone had childishly turned the book over so Keith's face has not displayed. They also had the Peanuts books, both as the box and separately. I looked over the Olbermann book, and decided I didn't need printed versions of words I'd already heard him speak on air. But we bought the Peanuts books. At the register, I converted my Borders Rewards card to an upgraded version that gave me the same 10% off on the Peanuts books that I would have gotten down the street.
I probably won't be going to Barnes and Noble again. Not for a while, anyway.