Free Keith Olbermann!

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Nov. 5 2010 4:35 PM

Free Keith Olbermann!

Full disclosure: I am an MSNBC contributor and an occasional guest on "Countdown with Keith Olbermann." But I'm really not privy to any of the decisions that led to this mess:

MSNBC suspended "Countdown" host Keith Olbermann Friday after the news that he donated to three Democratic candidates ... Olbermann gave the maximum individual donation of $2,400 to three candidates in Tuesday's election: Arizona Reps. Gabrielle Giffords and Raul Grijalva and Senate hopeful Jack Conway , who lost in Kentucky to Republican Rand Paul. (Grijalva appeared on Olbermann's "Countdown" on Oct. 28 , the same day the host donated to his campaign; Conway was last a guest in May).

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Would I have given money to candidates I had interviewed or would interview? No, I wouldn't. But I am not the host of the most successful progressive-leaning show on cable, with lengthy "special comments" making clear my positions on various political figures and issues. And I am not competing with a network which has, among its contributors, two possible 2012 GOP presidential contenders who maintain PACs and campaign for Republican candidates. Cable news is an ever-evolving petri dish of political/journalistic ethics, and as Greg Sargent points out, it is not really clear that what Olbermann did was a clear violation of the network's standards.

What do I mean by "petri dish"? Well, as our Supreme Court likes to say, money is speech. And over the past thirty years, we've seen an explosion of talk radio and cable news journalism which politicians, candidates and interest groups use to get their message out without an "objective" filter. Throughout the 2010 campaign, Sean Hannity brought Republican candidates on his show, tossed them some softballs, and gave them chances to tell listeners how to donate to them. Sharron Angle made explicit her desire to appear on shows like this instead of giving interviews to media outlets that would grill her; most Republicans were savvier, but did the same thing. Nothing quite like this exists on the left right now -- liberal blogs come close -- but it's probably inevitable that it will. There is a form of media right now that operates as a talking point conveyance device for political campaigns, and that's more valuable than any check you could give to a candidate.

So I think the rule being applied here against Olbermann is outdated. If he doesn't agree, and he thinks he made a mistake, he should be able to make amends and move on. Because on this side of the flatscreen you've got an electorate and a television audience who watch some shows because they think the host is on their side politically, and punishing them the hosts for free speech -- in the form of commentary that offends people or donations that offend people -- does not make sense to them.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.