By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 8:18 PM
Now it's Joe Scarborough's turn to pay MSNBC's price for making undisclosed political contributions.
The cable news network slapped its "Morning Joe" host with a two-day suspension on Friday after he, too, was found to be in violation of a corporate policy. Political donations are forbidden for employees of MSNBC and NBC News, as Scarborough's on-air colleague, Keith Olbermann, found out two weeks ago when he was suspended for the same reason.
Scarborough confessed to violating the rule after Politico.com turned up five contributions of $500 each and MSNBC found three more that he'd made to candidates in local races in Florida over the past four years. Among others, Scarborough contributed to his brother, George Scarborough, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Florida's legislature in 2007, and to a candidate who had served as Scarborough's chief of staff in Washington when Scarborough was a Republican congressman from Florida.
Scarborough told MSNBC President Phil Griffin that he'd forgotten he'd donated the money to candidates Scarborough described in a statement as "close personal friends and family members." Griffin subsequently ordered Scarborough to sit out Monday and Tuesday's programs without pay, the same punishment the liberal Olbermann received.
The MSNBC suspensions and NPR's recent firing of commentator Juan Williams last month highlight the increasing complexity of defining and policing journalistic independence in an age in which opinion and reporting are becoming intermingled and sometimes indistinguishable.
MSNBC executives say their policy, which is similar to those used by news organizations such as the Washington Post, draws no distinction between news reporters and opinionated hosts like Scarborough and Olbermann. Typically, reporters are supposed to be bound to neutrality; hosts such as Scarborough are paid to render judgments.
The prohibition on undisclosed contributions is designed to limit the perception that NBC and MSNBC employees are secretly favoring one party or individual candidates, the network says. According to its policy, taking part in political activities or making contributions may jeopardize an employee's "standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest."
But many commentators have said those standards are becoming irrelevant, particularly when it comes to provocateurs like Olbermann and Scarborough.
"The old notion of 'objectivity' - really, a false, forced neutrality for appearances' sake - is becoming increasingly untenable," critic James Poniewozik wrote Friday on Time.com. "And I'd much rather news organizations focused on the actual quality of their coverage than pointless matters of public image like this, anyway. Would Scarborough be any more objective, or less opinionated, if he hadn't made the donations?"
In a statement, Scarborough acknowledged that he violated MSNBC's guidelines, though he noted that his contributions didn't involve issues or candidates that he'd discussed on the air. The campaigns "were local and not relevant to my work at MSNBC," he said.
Some organizations, such as the Fox News Channel, place no restrictions on political contributions by opinion hosts. Several of Fox's hosts and analysts have raised money for conservative candidates.
The difficulty for NBC and MSNBC is that its policy applies to two very different news organizations, said Kelly McBride, an ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. NBC is a traditional news network, while MSNBC is a scrappier cable outfit that has learned to compete, in part by stoking arguments and slamming opponents.
"I suspect that a lot of news organizations are finding themselves in a bit of an identity crisis right now because a lot of these guidelines are rooted in an old image of the newsroom," McBride said. "I think that some news organizations have changed their output so much that they need to reexamine who they apply these standards to and how. That's where MSNBC has gotten tripped up. They've gone from one type of newsroom to another. The political news ecosystem has changed, but the ethical standards haven't caught up."
The line between opinion and news, McBride notes, has been blurred by job titles. NPR, for example, at one point changed Juan Williams's job title from "correspondent" to "analyst," a distinction that was likely lost on much of the public.
In addition to his weekday show on MSNBC, Scarborough is a columnist for Politico, which broke the news of his contributions.
In a cryptic note that he posted on his Twitter feed before news of his suspension broke Friday afternoon, Scarborough echoed a famous British admonition during World War II: "Keep Calm and Carry On."