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Keith Olbermann and journalists' dos and don'ts

By Alexandra Petri

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!

By Alexandra Petri  | November 5, 2010; 3:58 PM ET
Categories:  Petri, Reality? Television  
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Next: I know why Keith Olbermann's suspension ended so quickly


I'm sure his viewers are going to miss him. Probably all five of them.

Posted by: jkhamlin | November 5, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

Pleased to hear the smart decision news, that is one less blow-hard on the air spewing hate. And actually the "humorous" article by Milbank and Petri is not humorous at all. But WaPo is so liberal it reeks. This is serious, although a huge price to pay for $2400x3. Smart move Keith! And, we need a correction in the title and article, Olberman is no journalist, he is a passionately angry newscaster, there is a difference, he is the lesser. When I hear on-air news, I want facts not opinion. I worked for the owner of radio stations years ago, and the DJ's were all quite nutty, but Olberman is actually out-of-control and delusional. He would make a great team with Joy Behar, they could out yell each other, then cancel each other out so they were null and void! There, a little bit of my journalistic humor!

Posted by: suze1 | November 5, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Look at this as an opportunity for civil disobediance, as some Republican will call for him to go to jail. Likely a House member too in some media frenzied hearing, just elected so we can count their anonymous million$ from the last cycle. Go Cornell!

Posted by: petejones1 | November 5, 2010 7:49 PM | Report abuse

OK, that's enough! NBC is worse than the worst person in the world! How dare you sir, how dare you!

Let me remind you, NBC, that Democrats still hold all the power, at least this month. I call on congress to DEFUND NBC! No private money should go to them.

And until Olbermann is back on the air, I'M playing Hardball, or at least Oddball. I'm not watching NBC news(Diane Sawyer is hotter anyway), MSNBC, CNBC, CBC, or anything with N,B or C in it. I'm not blowing my nose or changing my underwear until Keith is back. That'll show 'em it'snot right, and it stinks to mess with Keith.

And if Fox is really unironically fair and balanced, why don't they hire Olbermann for 1 billion. He get's 1000 times the ratings that Juan did on NPR. A lot of kittens might be able to live a long happy life. I dare you Fox. I dare you, SIR!

Posted by: divtune | November 5, 2010 9:52 PM | Report abuse

I am definitely not an Olbermann fan, but I don't see the point of this rule with respect to him. Have the contributions compromised his objectivity or - even worse - the appearance of his objectivity? That horse left the barn years ago.

It's one thing to have such rules for Tom Brokaw, who pretends to be a subjective journalist, but for the clearly opinionated like Olbermann I think disclosure is all that is called for.

Posted by: lseltzer | November 6, 2010 8:36 AM | Report abuse

No full disclosure from Milbanks? What a tool. Applying reporter ethics to Olbermann is ridiculous.

Posted by: aprilglaspie | November 6, 2010 10:00 AM | Report abuse

For the life of me suze1, I just don't get people like you. Liberals have precious few outlets they can really turn to where they actually do gat a liberal bias. You say MSNBC reeks of liberalism yet one of their premier morning shows is hosted by conservative blowhard, Joe Scarborough who has liberals on his show but they are there for ornamentation only and must sit around like potted plants while he yelps out his daily conservative mantra.

You talk about hate speech. Yet, right wing talk is wholly characterized by the worst sort of hate and bigotry from racial to religious. Look. We know what's going on here. The corporate hacks who run the media want everyone to mimic Fox News--owned and operated by one of the wealthiest political and corporate hacks in the World, Rupert Murdoch. And we also know that the right cannot tolerate opposition. What you want suze is a media that looks, thinks, talks, acts and smells like Rush Limbaugh.

Posted by: jaxas70 | November 6, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

JKHamlin makes this snarky, juvenlile comment about Olbermann's ratings which are actually quite respectable. Look. If that were not the case don't you think MSNBC would have simply fired him?

But more importantly is you asinine mindset which seems to be grounded in this obsessive need for the right to be seen as always winning every single election, contest, game or whatever else the competition is simply to bolster your pathetically weak little ego. The truth is that the total ratings combined for all of these type of programs are miniscule compared to the enormous ratings of other programming or even mainstream nerws outlets who despite reduced audiences in recent years still far outnumber these pithy opinion outlets.

Even Limbaugh who boasts eternally over his 20 million listeners (a weekly figure that he has been using for 15 years that never seems to change) captures lest than 4% of the American voting electorate and trust me, a good many of them are listening because they adore him.

The point is, ratings tell us nothing about the state of the total electorate. Those exit polls tell us a lot though. And one thing they tell us is that people who think like you are not as beloved asa you think you are.

Posted by: jaxas70 | November 6, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

You are a gutless idiot, probably afraid of Murdoch when he takes over the WP. What you worthless gutle jerkoffs will not say: Obviously contributing is ethical or its not. Why should you have to "check with your employer" - to see if you are supporting the right candidate?
A journalist is someone who reports the news objectively such that you can't tell what their political opinions are. Opinionators like Obermann are not "journalists". By the same standard, ABOLSUTELY NOBODY at Faux Noise is a "journalist". Neither are you. At Faux Noise, you never violate ethical rules and don't have to "check with your employer" to see if you are contributing to the right candidate, since (1) there are no journalistic ethics and (2) you will be fired if you don't vote repiglican and support them on the air.

Posted by: jos587 | November 6, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

It's pretty clear what all your moronic commentary is about: CYA.
You snarky gutless hacks want to feel right at home when Murdoch buys out your sorry asses.

Posted by: jos587 | November 6, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

If you work for Fox, you can donate all you want to, as long as the ones you donate to are Conservative.

By the way, jkhamlin, there are also a lot of Conservative newspapers out there. They outnumber liberal newspapers.

Posted by: samsara15 | November 6, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

I was surprised when I learned that Keith Olberman had been suspended for contributing to Democratic candidacies. I always thought the Democrats were paying him.

Posted by: sailhardy | November 7, 2010 9:55 AM | Report abuse

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