MSNBC messed up with Keith Olbermann and campaign contributions – but other news publishers don't have to

The Keith Olbermann fiasco last week provides another chance for news publishers to talk about their policies on political activities by their employees. If you’ve read my most recent column, you probably know where I’m going to come down on this issue. But before I get into that, I want to say a few things about the Olbermann situation.

MSNBC suspended Olbermann, the host of its evening “Countdown” news opinion show for what turned out to be two work days, after Politico reported that Olbermann had made several contributions to Democratic political candidates. MSNBC, like most old-school news organizations, has a policy prohibiting editorial employees from making contributions to political candidates and causes.

However, several blogs quickly searched Federal Election Commission data and discovered that other MSNBC hosts, conservatives Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan, had made contributions to Republican candidates, without action by MSNBC. The cable network clarified that Olbermann had been suspended for not securing permission from his bosses before making the contributions, as, presumably, Scarborough and Buchanan had done.

If you’re going to have a policy that some employees can make contributions and others cannot, it seems to me that you ought to figure out who can and cannot in advance, and actively communicate that distinction to your employees. Waiting to make that decision on a case-by-case basis, only after employees ask permission, seems to me a lazy way to manage a news operation. In essence, you’re saying to employees: “We have this ethics policy, but we’re not going to tell you if parts of it apply to you or not. If you have a question about it, though, just come on in and ask.”

Why not just paste a sign on your office door that says “Sue us”?

The MSNBC fiasco leads observers to believe that Olbermann was suspended because he didn’t come in and ask permission to do something that he was going to be given permission to do anyway. That makes MSNBC management seem like a crew of passive, self-indulgent ninnies.

I’m assuming that the decision to allow certain employees to make contributions was to be made on an employee-by-employee basis. But what if MSNBC wanted to make that decision on a contribution-by-contribution basis? That would explain why Olbermann would need to come in to ask permission, rather than MSNBC granting it to him at his time of hire or assignment.

Unfortunately for MSNBC, though, it’s possible that such a policy would be illegal. The Citizens United case had roiled case law on corporate participation in political campaigns, but it’s long been believed that employers cannot legally direct political contributions by their employees. You can’t tell an employee that he can give to Candidate A but not to Candidate B. If it’s MSNBC’s policy to review those individual decisions, the FEC needs to investigate the network for violation of campaign finance laws.

Let’s move on. What should you do, as a news publisher or manager? You’ve probably guessed by now that I believe blanket bans against journalists giving to political campaigns are not just unnecessary, but counter-productive.

Think about a message a news organization is sending when it says that its employees cannot participate in political campaigns. Are we trying to say that political participation is corrupting? That people who participate in politics are incapable of seeing and reporting a situation accurately?

Don’t put the effect before the cause. People don’t hold beliefs because they participate in political campaigns. They participate in campaigns because they want to express their beliefs. Contribution bans only allow news organizations to hide their reporters’ political beliefs.

News reporters ought to be the best-informed individuals within a community on the beats that they cover. As well-informed individuals, it’s only natural that they should draw conclusions from the information that they collect. Why would a news organization want their highly-informed reporters to withhold those conclusions? Why not put them out there, instead, and let readers react to them? (See here and here for more.)

As journalists, our core belief ought to be to reveal information, not to hide it. If a reporter’s conclusions really are based upon solid information, they should hold up under public debate. And if they are not, then the publisher needs to see which of their reporters’ work is not holding up. Disclosure helps reveal that. So allow your reporters to contribute, but mandate that they disclose and explain their contributions first.

News publishers ought to be promoting civic engagement, not discouraging it. Banning your employees from participating in something sends the message that such activity is dirty or undesirable. But participating in political campaigns reflects the very best of civic engagement, where people come together to debate, then determine, what action the community should take, collectively, to address the problems that confront it.

If we truly want to promote civic engagement, it’s not enough to talk about it. We must show, not tell. That’s why I believe that smart news organizations actually should encourage political participation by their reporters – and demand that they report upon it. Then use that reporting as an invitation for all readers to join in, on whatever side that they choose, and use the publication as a forum to talk about their participation. With smart leadership, you can create engaging forums for political discussion, instead of the unmoderated flame-fests that define too many news website comment sections currently.

But what about reporters on the political beat? Should they be allowed to contribute to the campaigns they cover? That’s a tough question, but I have a simple solution for it: Don’t put reporters on political or government beats anymore.

I’ll tell you why… in my next column, where I lay out what are the essential beats to include in a local news publication.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at