In a report in the New York Times, the corporate parents of NBC and Fox News were brought together at a summit for CEO’s in an attempt to settle a long-simmering feud. Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE, and Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corp, sat down to try to work things out.
What they were striving to resolve was the eternal and bitter competition between MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly. This affair has been a rancorous, and often humorous, battle wherein Olbermann frequently awarded O’Reilly his “Worst Person in the World,” trophy, and O’Reilly countered by slandering NBC, GE, and Immelt personally (O’Reilly would never utter Olbermann’s name). According to the Times’ Brian Stelter…
“It was a media cage fight, televised every weeknight at 8 p.m. But the match was halted when the blood started to spray executives in the high-priced seats.”
There are two things that are immensely disturbing about this backroom handshake. First and foremost, the corporate parents of news enterprises ought not to be dictating the content of their news divisions, or the opinions of their commentators. That is especially true if the reason for the ivory tower interference is to dampen any blowback on the parent company’s business or executives resulting from controversial positions. This is about the best example of why it is unwise for corporations with vested interests in broader business and government affairs to own news publishers to begin with.
Secondly, the result of this inter-cable warfare is precisely what Fox News wanted. MSNBC is caving in to a deliberate tactic designed to halt criticism of Fox and its personnel. It is a one-sided victory for Fox that comes at the expense of MSNBC’s best interests and dignity. It was less than four months ago that Fox News CEO, Roger Ailes, laid down the threat from which they are now reaping the harvest. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post reported the tantrum Ailes threw in response to the escalating on-air debate:
“Ailes warned that if Olbermann didn’t stop such attacks against Fox, he would unleash O’Reilly against NBC and would use the New York Post as well.”
That’s precisely what happened, and it didn’t even take two weeks for Fox to follow through on its threat. Now we see this truce in effect at least partly because Immelt doesn’t like being called “a despicable human being” by O’Reilly. And the worst part is that Fox’s blatant bullying is being rewarded with a complete capitulation by MSNBC.
For these networks to enforce this agreement is nothing short of censorship. Olbermann responded with an email that said that he was not a party to any agreement, but he also seems to have halted his once routine attacks on O’Reilly and Fox News. As for Fox, their position now is that it is appropriate to direct their commentators to steer clear of certain topics. But that appears to apply only to topics that negatively impact the company brass. Just last week, after Glenn Beck called President Obama a racist, Fox released a statement that said that beck had merely…
“…expressed a personal opinion which represented his own views, not those of the Fox News Channel. And as with all commentators in the cable news arena, he is given the freedom to express his opinions.”
That freedom, of course, has limitations. From the Fox News point of view, it is alright for one of their hosts to comment disparagingly on the President of the United States, but it is not OK to comment on the president of the company. The company, after all, is sacrosanct and its interests are superior to those of the nation.
It is disheartening to see this sort of corporate thuggery imposed on what should be independent news divisions. One can only hope that the truce will fail and free expression will prevail.
Update: Olbermann returned from vacation and struck down any notion that the network brass would dictate the content of his program. To prove it, he returned Bill O’Reilly to the “World’s Worst” list and reprised his old “Bill-O the Clown” routine. Apparently, news of a network truce were exaggerated. That’s good news.