Opinion

Williams and Olbermann have no ‘conflict of interest’

First Juan Williams and now Keith Olbermann. Indeed, both journalists were canned for alleged “conflicts of interest,” which supposedly inhibit their ability to be “impartial” and “objective” news analysts. But this alleged “conflict of interest” is utter nonsense; both men have been seriously wronged.

Olbermann’s case broke today after it was found that he had donated money to three Democratic candidates — Kentucky Senate candidate Jack Conway and Arizona Reps. Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords — during the just-now-concluded 2010 election cycle. As a result, Olbermann has been suspended indefinitely without pay.

Williams, of course, was fired by NPR after opining on Fox News about his fear of Muslims. “His remarks on The O’Reilly Factor…were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR,” the station explained in a prepared statement.

Williams’ credibility supposedly suffered because by voicing opinions on certain topics he allegedly undermined his “objectivity” and “impartiality” on those same topics.

Ditto Olbermann, we are told: By donating money to candidates, he tells viewers, in effect, that he is not fair, objective and impartial. News organizations like NPR and NBC depend on viewers’ belief that they are impartial and objective dispensers of the news.

That’s the rationale, anyhow, used to justify the firing of both men. But that rationale won’t wash, and here’s why:

First, everyone knows that objectivity is a myth; it doesn’t exist. After all, everyone, including reporters and journalists — heck, especially reporters and journalists! — has opinions. And these opinions simply cannot be divorced from a journalist’s work.

In fact, these opinions shape and influence a journalist’s story selection and focus, sources and reporting — and it is foolish and naïve to suggest otherwise.

To be sure, there is such a thing as fairness and balance. And, in a free and open marketplace of ideas, readers and viewers can and do judge for themselves whether a reporter is fair and balanced.

After all, the great thing about journalism is that it is in the public domain for everyone to assess, judge and criticize. Consequently, news consumers can and do scrutinize and analyze a journalist’s work.

News executives, then, should not short-circuit this market-driven process by falsely imposing upon journalists their own artificial sense of “objectivity” and “impartiality.” Their so-called standards represent nothing more than the executives’ own biases and prejudices.

Certainly, this is true in the case of Juan Williams, whose only sin seems to be that he voiced a politically incorrect sentiment on a network, Fox News, that NPR executives hate and despise.

Ditto Olbermann, whose political views have long been on public display every night during Countdown with Keith Olbermann. So the idea that Olbermann is a left-wing Democratic partisan will surprise and shock no one. Indeed, as John Podhoretz observes:

Olbermann [was] suspended because giving Democrats $100 million worth of free commercial time is ethical, but writing a few thousand [dollars] in checks isn’t. Hilarious.

That’s exactly right. And what’s more, it is by no means clear that “objective” journalists are necessarily any more successful at unearthing news and information and delivering said information to consumers.