MSNBC returned Keith Olbermann to his regular slot on Tuesday after nearly 300,000 people signed an online petition. What lesson should MSNBC and other mainstream media learn from his suspension? Change your rules on political activity.

Most major media outlets require reporters and anchors to remain politically neutral, even prohibiting political contributions, marching in demonstrations, or signing petitions.

Such rules allegedly show the public that the news is reliable and unbiased. The artifice doesn’t fool anyone, but does interfere with First Amendment rights of media workers.

NPR took this notion to its absurdist extreme by asking reporters and editors not to attend the Jon Stewart/ Stephen Colbert rally in Washington because it might show a liberal bias. (One certainly wouldn’t want the public to perceive that NPR has a liberal bias, now would one?) I’ve been a reporter for 42 years, writing for many mainstream dailies and radio networks. The old paradigms are breaking down. Fox News’ on air personalities regularly donate money to political campaigns and openly advocate for conservative causes. MSNBC has two strong liberals, Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, presenting news and opinion. In the old days, this would have been called “advocacy journalism.” Today it’s perfectly acceptable. So why keep the old rules about political neutrality? Would the public really be surprised if Fox or MSNBC hosts show up at a rally for one of their causes?

Junk the old rules. I propose instead that reporters and other media workers have the same right to political expression as anyone else. If such activity could be perceived as impacting their reporting, it should be disclosed.

In the case of Olbermann, who donated to the campaign of someone who appeared on his show, he should have said, “I was so impressed with this guy, I donated $2400 to his campaign.”

Given full disclosure, the public is smart enough to figure out whom to believe.


Freelance foreign correspondent Reese Erlich’s new book is “Conversations with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence and Empire.” His national book tour takes him to Miami on Nov. 19-20. For details, see www.reeseerlich.com. His blog appears on Tuesdays on The Real News.

Reese Erlich

Reese Erlich is a best-selling book author and freelance journalist who writes regularly for the Dallas Morning News, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Radio and National Public Radio. He has won numerous journalism awards, including the prestigious Peabody (shared with others). He is the author of several books, and is currently touring across the country promoting his most recent one called: Conversations with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence and Empire, published in September 2010. Reese Erlich received a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for his reporting from Bahrain.www.reeseerlich.com.