Big Bad Wolffe: Different Standards for Moonlighting Television Pundits


wolffeolberman-300x225Almost lost in the brouhaha over the reported truce between GE/Keith Olbermann and Fox News/Bill O’Reilly was the news that Olbermann had kicked replacement host Richard Wolffe off of Countdown. Olbermann cited the appearance of a conflict of interest between Wolffe’s consulting job and his duties as a political analyst for MSNBC. But given the landscape of cable news, in which many big name “politicos” consult on the side quietly or not-so-quietly, why was Wolffe singled out?

Wolffe consults for a firm called Public Strategies, Inc.: in his Salon column, Glenn Greenwald made the point that “Wolffe’s role in life is to advance the P.R. interests of the corporations that pay him, including corporations with substantial interests in virtually every political issue that MSNBC and Countdown cover.” Responding on Daily Kos, Olbermann wrote, “What appears to be the truth here is certainly not what Richard told us about his non-news job … until we can clarify what else he is doing, he will not be appearing with us.”

But nearly all of the established political analysts in cable news do exactly the same thing. In fact, many of them would consider themselves consultants first, who then appear on television as a means to a larger end. Should they disclose any conflicts of interest? Absolutely. But it makes little sense that Wolffe would be singled out for so commonplace a practice. Consider these pundits, all paid contributors to the networks:

  • CNN’s Donna Brazile is the founder and managing director of Brazile & Associates. From their website: “Brazile & Associates LLC assists corporate clients with diversity training, earned media strategies, crisis management and message development. Working with groups of all ages and orientations, Brazile & Associates seeks to provide its clients with the skills to develop a greater civic focus with a stronger advocate voice.” When we called the firm, a spokesman declined to name any clients.
  • Fox’s Newt Gingrich founded The Center for Health Transformation, a for-profit network of health care professionals and companies “striving towards system-wide transformation.” His client list includes AstraZeneca, Microsoft, UPS, NextGen, and the American Cancer Society.
  • MSNBC’s Mike Murphy has independently consulted for senators and governors including Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney (not presidential campaign), Christine Whitman, and McCain’s presidential campaign.
  • CNN’s James Carville has consulted for many foreign leaders.  To name a few: the former PM of Israel, the former PM of Greece, Bolivia’s former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and now, Ashraf Ghani, a challenger in Afghanistan’s presidential election.
  • MSNBC’s Harold Ford works as vice chairman and senior policy advisor for Merrill Lynch where he “advises senior management on domestic policy issues, and supports a variety of business development initiatives in the institutional and retail markets”.
  • Fox’s Frank Luntz‘s Luntz, Maslansky Strategic Research has consulted for, among others, AOL, 20th Century Fox, Pfizer, NBC, Freddie Mac, and USA Today.
  • CNN’s J.C. Watts‘s Watts Companies consults for, among others, ACLU, AT&T, NASCAR, West Point, Aetna.
  • Fox’s Al D’Amato‘s Park Strategies has a $50,000 contract with World Trade Center Memorial Fund.
  • CNN’s Ed Rollins‘ New Strategies Group consults for; they would not disclose other clients when we called them.

If we were to hold these commentators as the same standard that took Wolffe off the air, cable news would be dangerously low on punditry. So, why did Richard Wolffe get singled out?

Kevin Gotkin contributed additional reporting.

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