MSNBC’s invisible hand

By Joel Thurtell

Did you wonder, maybe, why I’ve been beating on New York Times writers for letting the invisible hand of Times company policy guide their printed musings about Keith Olbermann’s suspension by MSNBC?

So what?

For the Times to publish supposedly “objective” articles about Keith Olbermann’s troubles with his employer, MSNBC, over donations he made to political campaigns seems disingenuous to me, given that the Times explicitly forbids political activity not only by its employees, but also by staffers’ family members. The Times does not explain that it has a policy on one side of this debate. Failure to acknowledge this ludicrously arrogant company policy abridging citizens’ rights in articles about the political donation issue is just plain dishonest.

Moreover, as the MSNBC affair brought out, it’s not really a matter of ethics, but one of marketing. Or, as the Times’ tome on ethics explains, the big concern is with how the newspaper will be perceived rather than with its employees’ rights as citizens. Without saying so explicitly, the Times is concerned not about ethics, but about marketing. Perceptions sell newspapers, or so they think.

Marketing is the name of the game at MSNBC, which wants to contrast itself with a formidable rival, Fox News. Fox has no prohibition against political activism by its employees. The geniuses at MSNBC, the supposedly moderate-to-liberal media outlet, chose to stifle staffers’ rights.

But this repressive policy affects more than the way employees can behave at MSNBC. It affects the way news is portrayed.

I was surprised that after two days, MSNBC lifted its suspension of Olbermann. Management caved under intense pressure from Olbermann’s audience and others, like me, who don’t watch TV but who know a rotten deal.

I was surprised that MSNBC backed down so soon. I thought MSNBC had more at stake with its policy against political activity. Three years ago, MSNBC published a self-righteous story, seemingly “objective,” that “exposed” a number of journalists who had made donations to political causes. I was one of the journalists whose political donations were exposed.

This was not the huge investigative coup MSNBC apparently thought it was. First, the donations were a matter of public record available on the Internet. Nothing secret about it. Second, in my case, and in a number of other cases, the donations did not violate our companies’ ethical guidelines. At the time, I was a reporter at the Detroit Free Press, where the ethical guidelines did not then ban political giving.

Because of my donation and a donation by another Free Press staffer, the paper’s management, once alerted by MSNBC, changed the policy to forbid political donations. I was told by managers that if I ever donated money to a political party again, I could be fired. The other staffer apologized and pledged never to do it again. The Newspaper Guild, on my behalf, grieved the company action and fought it to arbitration. An arbitrator ordered the Free Press to rescind its ban. For a more comprehensive discussion of the political donations issue, see my new book, Shoestring Reporter

Based on the Olbermann case, we can now see that political donations are and most likely in 2007 were a big deal at MSNBC. Company policy appears to have guided reporting, although that has never been acknowledged by MSNBC.

I’ll never forget the call I got from the MSNBC reporter in 2007. His attitude was “gotcha!” There was no pretense of balance or fairness. He made it clear that he’d caught me doing something diabolical. He was on the side of the angels. He was going to expose me, but out of “fairness” was calling to give me a chance to comment. Remember, my $500 donation to Michigan Democrats was a matter of public record and it was posted on the Michigan Secretary of State’s website. Not exactly a state secret.

In hopes of restoring some balance to this hatchet-wielding reporter, I read to him from the Free Press ethical guidelines not once, but twice, demonstrating that nowhere did it forbid a staffer donating money to a political cause.

The reporter had zero response. So I picked up a copy of The Newspaper Guild collective bargaining agreement with the Free Press and was about to read it to him, because there is no prohibition there, either. But he abruptly said “goodbye” and hung up.

So much for a fair hearing at MSNBC.

Thanks to the Keith Olbermann affair, I now have a better understanding of what force drove MSNBC as it pursued its fake witchhunt of journalists.

MSNBC’s big rival is Fox News, and Fox reporters are free to take part in politics.

By publishing this big “expose,” MSNBC was making a statement: We are different. Unlike Fox, we are the good guys. We don’t let our journalists take part in politics.

Balance? Fairness? Objectivity?

Forget it.

This was all about marketing.

Thank you MSNBC for suspending Keith Olbermann. You revealed the invisible hand of company policy driving your reporting.

And thank you again, MSNBC, for re-instating Keith Olbermann. Not only was it the right thing to do, but you revealed how shallow your commitment to your brand of “objective” reporting really is.

Had there been a real principle involved, one hopes MSNBC would have taken more than a two-day stand.

Drop me a line at joelthurtell(at)

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