Why I won't be watching Keith Olbermann

Keith Olbermann will return to MSNBC on Tuesday night following his suspension for ignoring an ethical standard taught in introductory journalism courses. Even so, Olbermann's punishment for violating his news organization's ethics code by making political campaign donations has brought out the usual enemies of impartial journalism.Olbermann's supporters argue that since he is obviously partisan, it doesn't matter that he donated thousands of dollars to some of the Democratic candidates he promoted on his show. But by participating in the system in this way instead of standing outside it as a judgmental but journalistic analyst, Olbermann has undermined his credibility and his network's. He is in no position to inveigh against "pay for play" politics if he himself plays the game. He is in no position to analyze the actions of elected officials who received his financial support. And he is certainly not in a position to anchor election news coverage.That Olbermann is an advocacy journalist does not excuse him from being an ethical journalist.

Advocacy journalists - at least the good ones I know - are fiercely independent from politicians even if devoted to the cause a particular official may espouse. They know that even politicians they like will often disappoint, and relate to them accordingly.David Carr, writing in The New York Times, disagrees:

MSNBC is enforcing a set of standards meant to apply either to another entity NBC News or another era, when news people had to act as if they didnt have political rooting interests. The game has changed, but the rules remain the same, at least at some media outlets.

I realize that many people don't believe it is even possible to be impartial. Having reported thousands of news stories, I say it is. In my daily reporting days, I found that my mind would instinctively fill in the other sides of whatever story I was hearing - even if I agreed with it - and the questions would follow. The appropriate journalistic mindset is to be skeptical - but not cynical.So I won't be watching Mr. Olbermann or his co-conspirators at Fox News. Watching them is like trying to follow a football game by focusing all your attention on the home team's pep squad.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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