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MSNBC ends suspension of host Keith Olbermann

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2010; C01

Keith Olbermann's "indefinite" suspension from MSNBC turns out to be definitely short: two days.

The liberal host will be back on the air Tuesday, the cable news network said Sunday night. Which means that Olbermann's punishment for violating NBC's policy against making contributions to political candidates amounted to being taken off the air for only two shows, on Friday and on Monday.

Olbermann, the host of the prime-time program "Countdown," was suspended by MSNBC on Friday after news broke that he'd contributed a total of $7,200 to three Democratic candidates in October.

MSNBC President Phil Griffin said in a statement that "after several days of deliberation and discussion, I have determined that suspending Keith through and including Monday night's program is an appropriate punishment for his violation of our policy."

MSNBC had been deluged with protests over the suspension of Olbermann, who vies with Rachel Maddow as the network's star attraction, with more than 1 million viewers a night.

Like many news organizations, including The Washington Post, NBC News prohibits its employees from making political contributions, a ban designed to prevent the appearance of partisanship by a news organization.

Olbermann's "indefinite" suspension without pay touched off a debate about the limits of political involvement by journalists, particularly in an era when many news organizations are erasing the lines between news reporting and advocacy. Partisanship is on particular display each night on the cable news networks, which typically cover the day's political developments from a single point of view (Olbermann's or Bill O'Reilly's programs, for example) or as a debate between talking heads from rival parties.

The issue becomes further blurred when opinionated hosts shuttle back and forth as anchors for major news events. Olbermann and Chris Matthews, who hosts "Hardball" on MSNBC, have both anchored the network's election coverage. Anchors have traditionally tried to stay impartial.

Some -- including Maddow, who follows Olbermann's program each night -- used the episode to attack rival Fox News, which places no restrictions on its commentators' contributions.

"Let this incident lay to rest forever the facile, never-true-anyway, bull-pucky, lazy conflation of Fox News and what the rest of us do for a living," she said on her program Friday. "Hosts on Fox News raise money for Republican candidates. They endorse them explicitly, they use their Fox News profile to headline fundraisers. . . . We are a news operation, and the rules around here are part of how you know that."

The liberal media watchdog group Media Matters found that more than 30 Fox News hosts and contributors had donated to conservative candidates.

But others saw much ado about nothing, in view of the fact that Olbermann is an avowed liberal who is not bound by the same standards of neutrality as traditional news reporters.

"Watch 'Countdown' for five minutes and it's clear that Olbermann is a fierce partisan who uses his program to bolster liberal causes," wrote Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, in a Web column. "It's an approach that has worked big time, hugely increasing MSNBC's audience during Olbermann's time slot." But he added, "Let's face it: neither Fox nor MSNBC is really a news organization, at least not in the traditional sense. Their primary mission is to espouse political causes. . . . Political activity is what Olbermann and Rachel Maddow and [MSNBC host] Ed Schultz do for a living."

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