Keith Olbermann and journalists' dos and don'ts
Keith Olbermann just got suspended by MSNBC indefinitely after Politico learned that he had donated $2,400 apiece to three Democratic congressional candidates -- Jack Conway, Raul Grijalva, and Gabrielle Giffords. Journalists are not supposed to do this! Even I know that, and I spend a lot of time at bars having compromising photographs taken and shouting "I DON'T ENDORSE THIS!" when the check comes, although I might have to stop when my editor sees this.
Seriously, this is one of the first things they tell you when you sign up. Especially if you're one of those people who is supposed to be impartial! There is very little journalists are not supposed to do. Hunter S. Thompson did lots and lots of drugs and joined Hell's Angels. Nellie Bly spent ten days in a madhouse pretending to be insane!
Journalists are supposed to lurch around the office asking for rewrites of some things, chain-smoking other things, and occasionally getting the two things confused. We are supposed to wander the halls in trench coats and fedoras drinking coffee and whiskey and snarling about how "things were better in prohibition." Then we are supposed to roll up our ink-stained sleeves and type frenetically because we need to file. I once told a friend I couldn't come out because I needed to file, and she responded that I took nail care more seriously than most people. (I made that friend up to add color to this piece, because I am on deadline. Keith, in case you were wondering, that is another thing journalists are not supposed to do.)
Being on deadline is worse than being on other substances; it doesn't make you more talkative or give you visions in which your friends melt and birds try to talk to you. Instead, it makes you nervous and jittery and inclined to fling pens at passersby, and you are overcome with a vague sense of encroaching doom and the desire to type something, anything at all, which often results in sentences like "H. L. MENCKEN USED TO DO SOMETHING, BUT I FORGET WHAT. FIX THIS LATER." Deadline reminds me of what Shakespeare said of alcohol, it "provokes the desire but takes away the performance." I was on deadline for years, but I joined a support group, and I've been clean for the last eight months. It's much better. Now I write 8,000-word pieces and lie around all day as people throw grapes at my mouth, mostly missing. Occasionally I file.
Of course, opinion journalism is more challenging. As a general rule, if there is a picture of your head attached to what you are writing, you are allowed to say what you feel about things and don't have to pretend to be impartial while using veiled language to convey your real opinion. In 1983, a Time Magazine essay was helpful enough to translate these coded terms -- "adjectives do most of the work, smuggling in actual information under the guise of normal journalism. Thus the use of soft-spoken (mousy), loyal (dumb), high-minded (inept), hardworking (plodding), self-made (crooked) and pragmatic (totally immoral)."
Olbermann, whom CNN described as a "primetime firebrand," never seemed as though he were trying to be Walter Cronkite, the Voice of Unbiased Reason And Record. But just because we can't be Walter Cronkite doesn't mean that we can willfully ignore basic ethics policies! Unless there is something in the ethics policy that says I can't lurk outside the Tina Fey Mark Twain Humor Prize event in an unmarked van full of my writing samples. And it turns out they don't actually make exceptions for people with more than one N in their names, so that ruins my loophole!
There was a brief halcyon period from the fifties onward where everyone mandated fairness and balance in news reporting. But nowadays, opinion journalism is back and bigger than ever. The six kittens who mysteriously die whenever I unironically use the "Fair and Balanced" Fox slogan spring to mind. From one perspective, it's good -- I hear that people buy more papers and watch more news if they can see pictures of your head! But the reason everyone's kicked up such a fuss about this is that it's one thing to be a talking head. It's another thing to be a newscaster. And woe to you if you claim to be one and act like another. You can't do both. Or at least, before you try, you should check with your employer!
| November 5, 2010; 3:58 PM ET
Categories: Petri, Reality? Television
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