Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Bad times for journalists

By Don Klein

My old journalism professor smugly reminded us bright eyed students that no one really enjoys freedom of the press except the publishers of newspapers. Today that holds true for owners of radio and television companies as well.

That might explain why the bosses at MSNBC came down so hard on Keith Olbermann for breaking a work rule that many believe was unjust to begin with. When it comes to political donations only the bosses are free to make commitments.

The Supreme Court saw to that when it ruled earlier this year that corporations have the right to secretly donate any amount to support political candidates. But when TV commentator Olbermann donated $7,200 to three Democratic candidates in the recent election he was summarily suspended “indefinitely” by MSNBC.

Although I don’t particularly care for the snarling, sneering, antagonistic journalism practiced by Olbermann, nevertheless I believe MSNBC was wrong in suspending him for exercising his sacred right as an American citizen.

Most of the time I agree with Olbermann’s stances and believe he is an excellent foil for the reactionary mouthpieces on conservative Fox Network but, as already mentioned, I am not fond of his style. He has my political head but loses my heart with his antics.

Obviously, the network realized that it did not do itself any favor by suspending him and lifted his “indefinite” ban after just two broadcast days. I suppose the 250,000 listeners who signed a petition demanding Olbermann’s return had its effects on management.

Also I would hope they realized that no employer has the right to establish work rules that deny anyone their legal right to support political candidates of his/her choice.

Having said that, allow me to add that I object to the way Sarah Palin was treated in a story heavily criticizing her by a number of unnamed GOP sources as carried online by Politico. I don’t like Palin and believe she is an awful example of the worst in the American political environment today, but I dislike hidden hatchet jobs using masked marauders as sources.

I know occasionally anonymous sources are important to gathering news especially in the secret environment that now exists in many organizations. Certainly confidentiality is a necessary evil when writing about criminal activities, corporate corruption or governmental malfeasance and whistle blowers deserve protection from retaliation as the price for their cooperation.

However, this protection should not be extended to people seeking political advantage by telling malicious stories to gain favor or to scuttle the opposition. Anyone who has information that should be put into the public domain ought to have the gumption to identify themselves so we can evaluate the source of their claims.

I think newspaper and broadcast news editors should apply strict rules for using unnamed sources in major stories because of the tendency for unfair political gain. Many editors are careful about such matters but it still happens too often.

Palin was maligned by unknown sources and had the right to be ticked off. There are plenty of good reasons to confront Palin as a harmful element in our national politics and we need brave people to step up and do so. Journalists should never become back fence gossipmongers.

There is a third media story that bothered me recently. That was the firing of Juan Williams by NPR for describing on air his negative reaction to boarding an airliner which included passengers in Muslim garb. Williams was expressing an opinion held by millions of Americans and felt justified by the many instances of terror attacks committed by Muslims here and abroad.

Many believe Williams was fired for other reasons and that NPR used the Muslim remark as a convenient cause of the moment. I lean to the belief that his superiors at NPR did not like his frequent appearances on Fox News as a contributor which they felt reflected badly on them.

If that was the case they should have told him to stop or resign and let him make the decision. NPR can be considered a competitor of Fox and demand that someone on their payroll not share his talents with a rival. To blame his dismissal on his Muslim comment is being devious.

Getting back to the point of journalists with personal political opinions, I don’t think there should be any restrictions on supporting anyone they please as does every other private citizen as long as their professional work is honest, fair, and does not favor anyone or thing other than the truth.

If you are a liberal and have an extremely conservative doctor treating you, the only thing that matters is how well he takes care of your medical needs. He has to maintain professional perfection. He has to have your good health in mind and you won’t care one twit about his political leanings.

We’ve all heard the saying that in combat, GIs don’t care if the soldier sharing his foxhole is a conservative or a liberal as long as they cover each other. The same is true in civilian life and a reporter who writes fair and accurate stories is not to be feared by readers or restrained by their employers when it comes to his personal choices.

Commentators like Olbermann are different. They are paid to have strong opinions and be crusty promoters of causes. In such cases it is even more outlandish to punish him for showing his preferences by donating to certain candidacies. The MSNBC practice to have rules restricting editorial personnel from supporting political candidates when it pleases them is iniquitous.