A way out of the objectivity-in-cable-news morass.

Media criticism.
Nov. 8 2010 4:08 PM

Olbermannia!

A way out of the objectivity-in-cable-news morass.

Keith Olberman. Click image to expand.
Keith Olbermann.

By suspending MSNBC Countdown anchor Keith Olbermann without pay for a grand total of two days, NBC News struck a suspiciously weak blow for its policy that requires employees to secure the permission of NBC News' president before they give to political campaigns.

If the network was hoping to telegraph that it doesn't think Olbermann's offense was much of an offense at all—the consensus view of his ideological soul-mates and even some of his ideological opponents—it succeeded hugely. According to Politico, Olbermann wouldn't have had to serve his suspension had he agreed to deliver an on-camera mea culpa.

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But NBC still has some explaining to do. Has it established a new precedent—that, in the future, if any anchor or reporter gives $7,200 to candidates, as Olbermann did, he will suffer only two days in the dog house? Hell, next election cycle Olbermann should give $14,400 in exchange for a four-day suspension, and other MSNBCers should take note of the network's punishment-per-incident equation and give accordingly.

The best way for the network to exit the morass it's created is to stop pretending that Countdown and The Rachel Maddow Show are straight-news programs. Of course, there's plenty of straight news in both programs, just as straight news can be found in the New Republic, the Nation, the Weekly Standard, Mother Jones, the National Review, Reason, and other opinion magazines. But both anchors and both programs are so transparent about coming at the news from a liberal angle that it's the network's failing—not theirs—that the shows aren't billed as partisan takes on the news, as the magazines listed above are.

At their best, American political magazines don't pretend to be bias-free. But they do subscribe to elementary standards of fairness and accuracy, which I've always thought were more important to good journalism than being independent of bias. A partisan journalist doesn't have to feign impartiality to do his work, which can sometimes be a plus. Like investigative reporters, partisan journalists hear frequencies outside the listening range of journalists who subscribe to the centrist ideology. On the great issues of the day, I'd rather read the best of what left-wing and right-wing journals had to say than I would the Washington Post or the New York Times. In fact, by publishing an op-ed section, a newspaper acknowledges the fundamental role partisan journalism plays in understanding politics and culture.

Take, for example, Maddow's respectful but prosecutorial grilling of then-candidate Rand Paul during his senatorial campaign. Maddow drew upon her partisanship to press the question of the Civil Rights Act on Paul. Or, I think I should say, a lack of worry on her part that she'll be busted for leveraging her own points of view in an interview with a politician gives Maddow real strength. Give me Rachel Maddow over Diane Sawyer any day.

Although not "objective" in the pedestrian sense of the word, these magazines generally attempt to verify the accuracy of their findings. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in their 2001 book, The Elements of Journalism, traditionally, it was the journalistic method that was supposed to be objective, not the journalist. As long as the partisan journalist comes to verifiable conclusions, we shouldn't worry too much about the direction from which he came.

Why can't MSNBC see the value in letting Countdown and The Rachel Maddow Show be what they want to be: well-reported, liberal opinion magazines that happen to air on television? Perhaps it's because MSNBC's strings are still controlled by NBC, which, as a holder of federal broadcast licenses for its TV and radio stations, had to uphold the fairness doctrine all those decades or face the revocation of its licenses. Even though the fairness doctrine is long dead, and stations no longer have to make sure that, if violet expresses its opinion on a show, its take must be balanced by a hearing of equal duration from the color orange. One of the causes of the Olbermann dust-up is the fact that the doctrine lives on in the institutional memories of the old networks like NBC, which controls MSNBC in a co-venture with Microsoft. Fox, which never really had to kowtow to the fairness doctrine, seems to be the least psychologically muzzled of any network, although I don't intend that as an endorsement of any Fox News Channel program.

I'm not advocating that every channel and every publication become an organ of opinion. But if it's OK for newspapers to run opinion columnists and opinion sections, then surely there's sufficient room in MSNBC's 24/7 stream of cable news for both. Instead of viewing Olbermann's partisanship as a liability, NBC should treat it as an asset. To paraphrase something Paul Starr once wrote to Michael Schudson, in the minds of many readers, the editorial pages of a newspaper vouchsafe the credibility of its news columns by saying here is opinion, and over here is fact. But making overt what is now covert—stating unequivocally that Countdown and Maddow are opinion magazines, and, hell yes, shredding that no-contribution-without-permission policy—the network could better brand these two shows and its other programs.

Likewise MSNBC's very nervous legacy parent, NBC News, which thinks itself tarnished by opinion on its cable child, could better distance itself from the Olbermann-Maddow Experience. So, yes, free Keith, free Rachel, and by all means, free MSNBC.

******

Did you know that Adolph S. Ochs, the paterfamilias of the modern New York Times, "toyed" with the idea of dumping the editorial page when he purchased the paper in the 1890s? Oh, the things you'll learn reading this column. Teach me a thing or two via e-mail: slate.pressbox@gmail.com. I accept no cash contributions to my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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