Fox O'Reilly Olbermann MSNBCWhen News Corp. (NWS) made two high-profile donations to Republican organizations totaling $2 million, liberals were outraged, saying it proved the media conglomerate and its Fox News Channel were fronts for the Republican Party. On the opposite side of the political aisle, the same point was made after Keith Olbermann was caught making donations to Democratic candidates. The truth, though, is more ambiguous.

As the Center for Responsive Politics has noted, all media companies play politics, and have done so for years. For instance, General Electric (GE), the parent of MSNBC, has donated more than $12.5 million to federal political entities over the past 20 years, "slightly favoring the right." CEO Jeffrey Immelt donated to Republican candidates including Rob Portman, the newly elected senator from Ohio, and several Democrats including Michigan's Debbie Stabenow during the last election cycle. He also gave $10,000 to the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee and $2,500 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Immelt's warmer embrace of the GOP should not be a surprise, given his public criticism of the Obama administration's policies.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with Immelt's donations, which are protected by the First Amendment. Comcast Corp. (CMCSA), which is attempting to gain control of NBC Universal, and Time Warner (TWX), parent of CNN, are not shy about supporting candidates. The difference with Fox, however, is that some of its on-air contributors like Newt Gingrich have helped raise political money. Moreover, the network employs Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, two potential candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. A total of five presidential candidates have appeared on Fox at least 269 times in 2010, according to the liberal media watchdog Media Matters. However, unlike MSNBC, Fox News has not used commentators for its election coverage.

Just How Different?

In the minds of his admirers, Olbermann's sins pale in comparison. What his admirers are overlooking, however, is that they are sins. After all, Olbermann gave air time to Rep. Raul Grivalja on the very day he donated to him. Olbermann and his MSNBC colleagues, who have already shown they can be just as snarky if not more so than their opponents at Fox News, have now shown that they play fast and loose with basic journalistic standards. Maddow and other liberals who have defended Olbermann have missed this point entirely.

"I know everybody likes to say, 'Oh, that's cable news, it's all the same. Fox and MSNBC, mirror images of each other,' said Maddow, who protested Olbermann's suspension. "Let this lay that to rest forever. Hosts on Fox News raise money for Republican candidates."

Olbermann doesn't get it either. The broadcaster has remained defiant, saying in a statement that the political donations policy, which he knew nothing about, was "inconsistently applied." His mistake "merited a form of public acknowledgment and/or internal warning" and could have been discussed on the air. Instead, the network suspended him after assuring his agent that no such action had been contemplated. "I was suspended without a hearing, and learned of that suspension through the media," his statement says. The network declined to comment.

Olbermann is hardly alone. The Center for Responsive Politics says that 235 journalists who identified themselves as employees of news organizations donated more than $469,900 to federal political candidates, committees and parties during the 2010 election cycle. Among the donors were Fox's Sean Hanity, economist Ben Stein, analyst Marc Ginsberg and commentator Martin Frost. Chris Hayes, the Washington editor of The Nation, donated $250 to Josh Segall, a Democratic candidate in Alabama's 3rd congressional district. Hayes, a regular MSNBC guest host, decided against filling in for Olbermann during his suspension, which ends Tuesday. Paul Tharp, a business reporter for the New York Post, last year donated $750 to Rep. Michael McMahon (D-N.Y.).

Noise All Around

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with commentators giving money to politicians, provided it's disclosed. Reporters could also do it provided that they are not writing about the candidate. What's wrong is how cable news turned political discourse into a contact sport with undisclosed game plans. It turns out that the only difference between Fox and MSNBC in that regard is that Fox has a lot more viewers.

During his recent rally in Washington, D.C, Comedy Central's Jon Stewart offered a scathing critique of the bombastic style used at both networks, arguing. "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing."

Good point, no?

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