The case of Olbermann -- who was suspended for slightly longer than it takes to go the men's room over the last few days for making contributions to Democratic candidates during the midterms -- is one of those stories that looks like one thing, when it's actually another. On the face of it, it's simply a case of an employee violating policy, that policy being that NBC News prohibits its employees from making political contributions.
But while Olbermann clearly violated policy -- and, even if there wasn't such a policy, should have made his contributions known -- the issue isn't really about rules at all, but about how NBC News needs to man up and face the branding issue that MSNBC creates as the cable net more fully embraces its long-time liberal leanings. MSNBC's "Lean Forward" campaign, launched last month, is only half of what needs to be done. The Olbermann case emphasizes there are still significant issues -- some on the back-end -- that also have to be dealt with.
I'm about the 538th blogger to point out that it's kind of obvious where Olbermann's political leanings lie -- so if the objective of the NBC News policy is to keep its employees' motives hidden, than that battle was lost a long time ago. It's all to the company's benefit, since Olbermann's Countdown is the top-rated show in MSNBC primetime.
The Web site branding I referred to is certainly part of what NBC needs to do from here. The plan -- as yet not carried out -- calls for MSNBC.com to be renamed something else since it is more or less an outlet for NBC News, not the liberal MSNBC cable brand. The MSNBC URL, meanwhile, would be dedicated to making the cable brand's personalities -- including not just Olbermann, but Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell -- shine. As The New York Times' David Carr points out, it just goes to show how confused the company is over its news branding issues that it had Olbermann anchoring its midterm elections coverage. I thought it a little strange at the time, since on nights like the midterms, the channel tends to go more middle-of-the-road. In hindsight, his anchor-ship was not just strange, it was wrong.
The idea to shift the URLs and missions of the Web sites is a good one, as far as it goes -- but here's what also has to happen: NBC has to break NBC News and MSNBC completely apart, both on the back-end and the front, by coming up with completely separate management structures for the two organizations and creating a new name -- sans the three letters "NBC" -- for MSNBC. Oh, and lose the peacock. If that sounds like a bridge too far, consider that cable channels including Bravo and Syfy are also owned by NBC Universal; the fact many people don't get the connection is neither here nor there.
It's funny, but the Olbermann situation isn't the first time I've contemplated, of all things, a hat -- an MSNBC.com baseball hat that made its way into my coat closet as long as a decade ago during the years when Internet reporters were receiving graft on a daily basis from Web sites desperately looking to establish themselves. Over time, I've grown more reluctant to wear it, no matter how sunny it is outside. The reason is that whereas the hat used to advertise a news brand, now it brands the wearer. MSNBC doesn't mean what it used to, and it's time for NBC to make a clean break.
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