OLBERMANN’S CHECKBOOK…. [Update: there’s an important follow-up to this story]

There’s a reasonable debate to be had over the propriety of media professionals donating to political candidates. I have a hunch the discussion might heat up again.

MSNBC host Keith Olbermann made campaign contributions to two Arizona members of Congress and failed Kentucky Senate candidate Jack Conway ahead of Tuesday’s election — a potential violation of NBC’s ethics policies.

Olbermann, who acknowledged the contributions in a statement to POLITICO, made the maximum legal donations of $2,400 apiece to Conway and to Arizona Reps. Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords. He donated to the Arizona pair on Oct. 28 — the same day that Grijalva appeared as a guest on Olbermann’s “Countdown” show. Grijalva, a prominent liberal who was only declared a winner in his race Thursday night, was in a tight contest against tea party-backed candidate Ruth McClung when he appeared on Countdown — one of several appearances he made on the show.

NBC has a rule against employees contributing to political campaigns, and a wide range of news organizations prohibit political contributions — considering it a breach of journalistic independence to contribute to the candidates they cover.

Now, if Olbermann’s employer has a policy prohibiting these kinds of contributions, I can assume the “Countdown” host should expect a call to the principal’s office today. How that shakes out is between Olbermann and the folks who sign his checks.

But before Olbermann’s critics get on their high horse, a little context seems appropriate. The MSNBC host donated a total of $7,200 in checks to help three candidates. He did so in his personal capacity; he disclosed his contributions; and did not encourage others to support these campaigns.

At the same time, News Corp made multiple undisclosed donations to the Republican Governors Association, totaling at least $1.25 million, in addition to a $1 million contribution to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for its pro-Republican election-year activities. Fox News has helped GOP candidates raise money on the air; Fox News personalities are featured guests at Republican fundraisers; while other Fox News personalities continue to help generate financial support for Republican candidates now, even after the elections.

I suspect Olbermann will take some heat over $7,200 in donations, but the qualitative and quantitative differences seem relevant here.

Postscript: In the interests of disclosure, I should note that I did not financially support any candidates for public office in 2010. I also did not donate to any political party or party campaign committee.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.