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Flacks, Mouthpieces, And Other Objective Political Commentators

As Gabriel Sherman mentions in his piece, quite a kerfuffle has erupted over MSNBC's using Newsweek reporter turned corporate flack Richard Wolffe as a regular commentator--and this week as a guest host--on Keith Olbermann's show. The basic criticism is that Wolffe, now a member of Dan Bartlett's communications shop, is essentially if not technically a paid lobbyist and so cannot possibly serve as an objective analyst, much less a primetime host. As Salon's Glenn Greenwald energetically objected:

Having Richard Wolffe host an MSNBC program--or serving as an almost daily "political analyst"--is exactly tantamount to MSNBC's just turning over an hour every night to a corporate lobbyist. 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. Yet MSNBC is putting him on as a guest-host and "political analyst" on one of its prime-time political shows. What makes that even more appalling is that, as Ana Marie Cox first noted, neither MSNBC nor Wolffe even disclose any of this.

This is a conflict so severe that it's incurable by disclosure: who wouldn't realize that you can't present paid corporate hacks as objective political commentators?

Really? So beyond the pale that "it's incurable by disclosure?" I agree that MSNBC should have made clear Wolffe's potential conflicts. And if the network is still pretending Wolffe is a journalist, they should be slapped for misleading viewers. But, as impediments to "objective" political commentary go, is the Wolffe situation really so much more egregious than allowing Howard Dean to guest host? As former head of the DNC, Dean is by definition not politically objective. And he's certainly not a journalist.

Of course, many of the analysts used by the networks are professional political consultants and party mouthpieces peddling their own--or their team's--agenda. The major difference is that viewers are aware of these folks' raging biases. So if Wolffe and his MSNBC handlers come clean about his day job, I don't see why he'd be any more insidious than most of the other barkers out there.

--Michelle Cottle