The Biggest Loser

Published: November 10, 2010

By Jim Lichtman
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MSNBC opinionate Keith Olbermann was suspended last week for having violated the political donation provision in the company’s standards by contributing donations totaling $7,200 to three Democratic politicians he had supported on his show.

Olbermann returned to his regular Tuesday night slot withoutapologizing to the network. He did, however, offer a written apology to his fans for “having precipitated such anxiety and unnecessary drama.”

“You should know,” Olbermann continues, “that I mistakenly violated an inconsistently applied rule – which I previously knew nothing about – that pertains to the process by which such political contributions are approved by NBC.”

Olbermann is an issue for another day, but the whole event raises an important question. What are the ethical standards at news organizations regarding political donations? An article on the MSNBC web site itemizes those standards put forth by a variety of popular news organizations.

Time magazine allows donations.

Time’s policy states, “Employees are free to engage in personal volunteer political activity and contribute personal resources to candidates and parties in any manner consistent with federal, state, and local laws. Employees may not use Company resources or coercive solicitations to further their own personal political activities.”

Newsweek forbids donations, generally.

We have an expectation that Newsweek journalists will not make any contributions to political campaigns,” said spokeswoman Jan Angilella. “Are there exceptions to this general expectation?  Yes, depending on the particular circumstances, including an employee’s or freelancer’s specific role or responsibility.”

Fox News Channel allows campaign contributions, as long as the money doesn’t come from corporate funds. (Corporate donations wouldn’t be allowed anyway, under federal law. But campaigns are required to report the occupation and employer of donors.)

“The prohibitions and limitations on political contributions outlined above relate only to the use of corporate funds and services and are not intended to discourage employees from making personal contributions to candidates or political parties of their choice. Personal involvement in political activity is permitted as long as the activity does not interfere with or impair the performance of the employee’s duties for the Company.

“In addition, any employee who becomes involved with a political group must make it clear that his or her activities are being conducted purely in a personal capacity and not on behalf of or in connection with the Company.”

ABC News forbids donations.

“We do not permit editorial employees to make campaign contributions,” said Jeffrey Schneider, senior vice president.

CBS News forbids donations. (Until September, they were discouraged.)

“Avoid any active participation in politics and political campaigns. This prohibition includes wearing buttons or otherwise publicly identifying yourself on one side or the other in political campaigns. CBS News policy also forbids contributions to political campaigns.”

NBC and MSNBC TV require permission of the president ofNBC News.

“Anyone working for NBC News who takes part in civic or other outside activities may find that these activities jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest.  Such activities may include participation in or contributions to political campaigns or groups that espouse controversial positions.  You should report any such potential conflicts in advance to, and obtain prior approval of, the President of NBC News or his designee.”

“The powers of the press,” ethicist Michael Josephson reminds us, “should be treated as a public trust.”

With that ideal in mind, the clearest and best standard, from an ethical standpoint, is that of The New York Times, which forbids donations, and explains the importance of avoiding even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Staff members of The Times are family members and responsible citizens as well as journalists. The Times respects their educating their children, exercising their religion, voting in elections and taking active part in community affairs. Nothing in this policy is meant to infringe upon those rights. But even in the best of causes, Times staff members have a duty to avoid the appearance of a conflict.

“Journalists have no place on the playing fields of politics. Staff members are entitled to vote, but they must do nothing that might raise questions about their professional neutrality or that of The Times. In particular, they may not campaign for, demonstrate for, or endorse candidates, ballot causes or efforts to enact legislation. They may not wear campaign buttons or themselves display any other insignia of partisan politics. They should recognize that a bumper sticker on the family car or a campaign sign on the lawn may be misread as theirs, no matter who in their household actually placed the sticker or the sign.

“Staff members may not themselves give money to, or raise money for, any political candidate or election cause. Given the ease of Internet access to public records of campaign contributors, any political giving by a Times staff member would carry a great risk of feeding a false impression that the paper is taking sides.”

From an ethical perspective, journalism’s chief duty is to inspire trust and confidence in the honesty, accuracy and fairness of the information they disseminate. Without that trust, the public becomes the biggest loser.


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