9:56am

Wed June 8, 2011
All Politics are Local

Olbermann Explains Conway Donation

Former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann says his 2010 decision to donate to Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway’s campaign for the U.S. Senate was driven by frustration and fear. Olbermann was suspended from MSNBC for donating to Conway and Arizona representatives Gabrielle Giffords and Raul Grijalva.

“I literally felt angry enough to donate to campaigns for the first time in my life,” Olbermann told Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. “It seemed to me to be a very dangerous time in American politics.”

Olbermann went on to explain that as a reporter, he doesn’t vote. He compared it to not wagering on a sporting event if he were covering it, because he would have a vested interest in the outcome. That puts Olbermann in the same camp as Washington Post editor Len Downie, who also claims to not vote because of journalistic impartiality.

He discussed his position with On the Media in 2006.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Len Downie, the editor of The Washington Post, is the poster child for the opposing view – the one that says reporters should keep mum. But he takes it even further. When executive editor Ben Bradlee handed him the reins 20 years ago, he stopped voting.

LEN DOWNIE: Unlike the rest of our staff, I had the last word as to whether or not the paper was being fair in its reporting on these issues, and I didn’t want to take a position, even in my own mind, on them. I wanted to maintain a completely open mind.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, despite all the information that flows through your desk and all you know about the political environment of Washington, DC, you are able to not make up your mind?

LEN DOWNIE: Yes. Actually, it comes fairly easily to me. I guess it’s the nature of my personality to see all sides of most issues. In fact, I’m rather surprised at people that are so definite about things.

MICHAEL KINSLEY: Does he say he can bend forks with his mind? You know, some people can do remarkable things.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Kinsley.

MICHAEL KINSLEY: I mean, Len Downie, I admire. But I’m not sure that I would admire him as much if I thought that he was really able to go blank in his mind as easily as he claims to.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The argument against laying your cards, assuming you have any, on the table, is twofold. One says that if reporters state their conflict of interest right and left, editors would have to bar them from covering certain stories because the public wouldn’t trust them to be fair, even if they were. It’s about appearances. We’ll return to that one.

But there’s a second, more intriguing argument – the one that says that taking a political action makes your views stronger.