The third principle of the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists is “Act Independently.” The SPJ specifies that this means avoid any behavior that could create even the appearance of a conflict of interest. MSNBC’s own code of ethics says the same thing. Keith Olbermann has violated that principle of acting independently, and MSNBC was right to suspend him. But MSNBC needs to do more.
Olbermann was caught by Politico making political donations to three Democratic candidates, one of whom appeared on his show. Ordinary citizens can donate to political campaigns, but journalists who value their integrity cannot. Not even if these journalists are “commentators” or “analysts.” It is one thing to have a liberal or pro-Democratic outlook. It is quite another to give money to political candidates. Just because Faux News anchors do that does not make it right. And just because Bernie Sanders and Elliot Spitzer take Olbermann’s side, that still does not make it right.
The reason is simple. Journalists — even commentators — must behave professionally and avoid overtly partisan behavior, so that audiences will trust them as credible independent observers and not see them as individuals who are working for the election of certain candidates. Earlier in American history journalists were clearly partisan, but since the middle of the 19th Century the profession’s ethics clearly forbid giving money to candidates and parties, and taking other actions intended to benefit parties. Journalists concerned with ethics were up in arms when CNN’s Larry King literally embraced President-elect George W. Bush onstage while hosting a GOP event.
I supported CNN’s decision earlier this year to fire Octavia Nasr for tweeting a favorable comment about a Hezbollah leader, and I supported NPR’s decision to fire Juan Williams, who was employed by both NPR and Faux News. While appearing on Faux, he had expressed fear of Muslim passengers of airlines. By the same token, I support MSNBC’s punishment of Olbermann. In each case, the journalist failed to behave professionally and avoid even the appearance of excessive bias.
But what MSNBC needs to do now is change its name, which executives of the parent company are considering doing. Never mind having the silly slogan “Lean Forward.” What the cable channel MSNBC needs to do is make it clear that it has nothing to do with the website msnbc.com, which is basically the website of NBC News. It is one thing to lean to the left (or “forward”) as a commentary cable channel with occasional news cut-ins. It is quite another to have the same name as a legitimate news organization which strictly avoids any partisanship in order to maintain its credibility.
If the cable channel wants to call itself the Lean Forward Channel, or whatever, that is fine. Or if the website wants to change its name to NBCNews.com, that is fine, too. But it is too confusing to have TWO separate and different organizations both called msnbc. Having the cable one be opinionated damages the credibility of the online one. And when the most popular anchor on the cable channel gives money to Democratic politicians, it further damages the credibility of the online news organization.
I would be even happier if all of the news-oriented cable channels forbade partisan bias by their main on-air personalities, especially the ones who also anchor major shows. And if they have guests with partisan agendas, when those guests are on-air there should be some visual cue that this is commentary and not news and information. For example, there could be a red border around the screen and the word COMMENTARY onscreen throughout this segment. Otherwise it is too confusing for the audience, especially when the same person is both reporting and commenting.