Keith OIbermann, Widely Defended, Will Return to MSNBC

olbermann's suspension
olbermann's suspension

Fear not liberals -- Keith Olbermann is coming back.

According to media reports, Olbermann's suspension for violating the network's ethics rules that forbid donations to political candidates without prior permission will end soon. MSNBC head Phil Griffin said Olbermann, who was suspended indefinitely without pay on Nov. 5, has been punished enough.

"After several days of deliberation and discussion, I have determined that suspending Keith through and including Monday night's program is an appropriate punishment for his violation of our policy," Talking Points Memo quotes Griffin as saying in a statement. "We look forward to having him back on the air Tuesday night."

"Outrageous" and "Silly"

The news should come as a relief to Olbermann's admirers who have argued that the General Electric (GE) cable network overreacted to revelations about his donations to three Democratic congressional candidates. Indeed, MSNBC's suspension of Olbermann was condemned throughout the media. A petition calling for his reinstatement from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee collected more than 250,000 signatures.

Writing on Huffington Post, Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said the action by the cable channel was "outrageous." Olbermann's MSNBC colleague Rachel Maddow called on her bosses to end the suspension immediately, saying he had been punished enough. CNN's Eliot Spitzer, the former New York governor, called MSNBC's action "silly."

Daily Kos
opined, "CNN's ratings are in the gutter. I'm sure they could use the boost in the ratings that Olbermann would provide." Business Insider's Henry Blodget called the NBC News policy that Olbermann ran afoul of "bizarre." Jeff Jarvis at Buzz Machine pointed out sarcastically that the fact Olbermann -- who makes no effort to hide his liberal sympathies -- donated money to Democrats was hardly a shock. "It's not as if Olbermann was objective," he writes. "We all know where he stood. I say he should put his money where is mouth is. He just shouldn't have hidden it or be made to do so."

A Bad Idea

Still, Olbermann's admirers are missing the bigger point here. His $2,400 donations to Kentucky Senate candidate Jack Conway and Arizona Representatives Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords are permitted under the First Amendment. Olbermann, who reportedly earns $7.5 million a year, could easily afford to donate to many more endangered Democrats. But his donations were a bad idea.

Flawed though it may be, the policy of NBC News was designed to combat the notion that its employees can use its airwaves for personal political gain. It's the same reason why CNBC, which GE also owns, makes guests disclose whether they own stock in any companies that they are discussing. MSNBC continues to battle the perception -- somewhat deserved -- that it is a cheerleader for the Democrats.

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Though News Corp. (NWS) was singled out for particular scorn after making two $1 million donations to Republican-leaning organizations, all media companies play politics. As noted in August, GE channeled 59% of its $1.62 million in donations to Republican political entities. Olbermann's admirers argue that his error is nothing compared with how News Corp. has turned Fox News Channel into a front for the Republicans. That does not change the fact, however, that Olbermann made an error.

As I wrote before, Olbermann clearly didn't think through what he was doing. Political contributions are a matter of public record. Somebody, somewhere would figure out what he had done. He made no effort to hide it either and argues that he had never donated before and not solicited any donations.

One of the reasons why he may not have been more generous toward Democrats was the NBC News policy that would have required him to ask permission of his bosses before contributing. His bosses might have told him no, particularly in the case of Grijalva, who appeared on Countdown With Keith Olbermann on the same day that the cable news host donated to his campaign. Grijalva says he is saddened that Olbermann is in trouble and offered to return the money.

MSNBC Is Left With Few Good Alternatives

Olbermann put his bosses in a terrible bind. Whatever decision they made was going to either upset liberals (if they fired him) or conservatives (if they gave him a slap on the wrist). MSNBC employees, though, must be taught that there are consequences to breaking the rules, even for hosts of TV shows that attract more than 1 million viewers. The looming deal with Comcast (CMCSA) only adds to MSNBC's dilemma and raises questions about Olbermann's future with the network.

The broadcaster's relationship with the network reportedly is rocky, and he has apparently burned bridges with previous employers. Olbermann, who rescued the network from ratings oblivion may, as my former colleague Jeff Bercovici noted, decide to resign. That could be the best outcome for all involved.