Last week, I wrote about how Keith Olbermann, one of the liberal media's most eloquent and persuasive speakers, may have transgressed his own moral standards when Countdown regular Richard Wolffe went to work with Public Strategies, a prominent PR firm. Although it brought me no pleasure to criticize one of my favorite on-air personalities, I felt that -- as Olbermann so often demonstrates -- a moral structure must be maintained, particularly when it is most difficult to do so.
This week, citing his mother's death as a reason for the Wolffe affair, Olbermann decided to address me directly in a public forum. As he wrote in this missive to the Web site TVNewser:
"If Jonathan Berr, whoever he is, does not like my prioritizing caring for my mother and dealing with her death, and then doing as many shows as I could, ahead of vetting the comments of our analysts and my management team, frankly, I feel sorry for him."
The death of a parent is a brutal, devastating experience, and I can only imagine how hard it has been for Olbermann. He has my deepest condolences, and I wish him the absolute best as he continues to deal with his pain.
Still, as he pointed out in his missive, Olbermann has analysts and a management team on staff. While it is certainly possible that they missed Wolffe's decision to work with a PR firm, this doesn't seem very likely. After all, as I previously mentioned, Wolffe and Public Strategies were both very open about the hiring. Wolffe even wrote about the job in his Daily Beast posts.
This issue goes beyond a petty squabble about cable TV news. Many reporters, like Wolffe, have parlayed their media expertise into lucrative consulting careers. Moreover, as more and more media outlets close their doors, this problem will only grow. A few years ago, the Public Relations Society of America addressed it by issuing a Professional Standards Advisory. It states, in part, that "The Code requires honesty and accuracy in all communications, and requires members to reveal the sponsors for causes and interests they represent and any financial interest they or their clients may have in the outcome of events or individual decisions."
These strictures are far from accidental: the code was a direct response to a scandal in which the Bush administration paid commentators to shill for the No Child Left Behind law. At that time, Olbermann -- among others -- was justifiably incensed about Bush's transgression. Unfortunately, however, the Olbermann/Wolffe affair fails to live up to standards of the code, not to mention the ethical standards that Olbermann so aggressively defends.
As Olbermann pointed out, he has had a lot going on in his life. In addition to his personal issues, he has had the daily grind of his show, and a fragile, problematic truce between his network and Fox News. What's more, mistakes happen, and only a troll would fail to account for the fallibility of his fellow humans. However, Olbermann's viewers -- including me -- are used to a certain level of integrity and a certain level of honor. If he intends to maintain his position as a proud spokesperson for truth and morality, then he needs to focus on maintaining those standards in his own house. Mistakes happen; however, shifting blame to producers and "Jonathan Berr, whoever he is" is not the way to rectify them.
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