Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Media boardrooms: The places for politics

MSNBC’s longtime slogan — “The Place for Politics,” with a silly vocal inflection on the word “the” — is more revelatory than the marketing mavens who devised the moniker may have realized. A stunningly categorical two-part broadside by Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com reveals just how much corporate boardrooms of media organizations are the places for a brand of politics that profoundly affects the American electronic newsgathering process — and what we get as news.

Greenwald began on Saturday with a synthesis of an Aug. 1 story in The New York Times, in which reporter Brian Stelter recounts a May meeting at which PBS talk-show host Charlie Rose brought together Jeffrey Immelt, the chairman and CEO of General Electric, parent company of MSNBC (my former employer), and Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation, parent of Fox News. Charlie Rose (in the role of George Mitchell) attempted to broker a truce between the two companies — or more specifically, between MSNBC's acerbic, progressive “Countdown” host Keith Olbermann and Fox's provocative, conservative Bill O'Reilly.

Greenwald writes:
According to the NYT, both CEOs agreed that the dispute was bad for the interests of the corporate parents, and thus agreed to order their news employees to cease attacking each other's news organizations and employees.

Most notably, the deal wasn't engineered because of a perception that it was hurting either Olbermann or O'Reilly's show, or even that it was hurting MSNBC. To the contrary, as Olbermann himself has acknowledged, his battles with O'Reilly have substantially boosted his ratings. The agreement of the corporate CEOs to cease criticizing each other was motivated by the belief that such criticism was hurting the unrelated corporate interests of GE and News Corp. …

The deal, as it was, went into effect on June 1. Greenwald notes how the once-incessant criticism of O’Reilly by Olbermann — most notably in the “Worst Persons in the World” segment of “Countdown” — more or less ended almost immediately.

Greenwald:
[A] review of all of Olbermann's post-June 1 shows does reveal that he has not ever criticized (or even mentioned) Bill O'Reilly since then and barely ever mentions Fox News any longer. And on June 1 -- the last time Olbermann mentioned O'Reilly — Olbermann claimed at the end of his broadcast that he would cease referring to O'Reilly in the future because ignoring him (and "quarantining" Fox) would supposedly help get O'Reilly off the air ("So as of this show‘s end, I will retire the name, the photograph, and the caricature").

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Curiously, Greenwald doesn’t mention Olbermann’s ostensible reason for this network quarantine: June 1 was the day after Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was shot to death at his church by Scott Roeder, a disturbed anti-abortion activist. That evening, in a state of high dudgeon, Olbermann all but laid Tiller’s murder at O’Reilly’s feet, claiming that Tiller’s murder was a direct result of relentlessly inflammatory language O’Reilly — “a facilitator for domestic terrorism” — had used against Tiller on the air for months.



Olbermann cited O’Reilly for creating the social climate that made Tiller’s murder possible. By attempting to excommunicate O’Reilly from the church of the national media conversation, Olbermann seemed to be stepping out on principle.

Greenwald may think otherwise. He didn’t think enough of Olbermann’s explanation to include it in either story. The breadth of the scholarship of his two Salon pieces points to at least the possibility that, rather than making a decision based purely on journalistic principle, Olbermann may have been seeking legitimate journalistic cover for a corporate decision that had, effectively, been made for him.

What’s significant, of course, has more to do with the meeting in May than the public cessation of hostilities in June: It’s the fact that the chairmen of the parent companies of the news organizations were central to an editorial decision, rather than the brass at the news organizations themselves.

That distinction should be of serious concern to supporters of a free and independent American media.

◊ ◊ ◊

Greenwald goes on to examine the ways in which MSNBC/GE’s corporate muzzling of its journalists has occurred before. Past victims included Ashleigh Banfield, once a star at the network in its early days, but fired for comments about the media, Fox in particular, in coverage of the early days of the Iraq war; and Phil Donahue, the veteran talk-show host who was cashiered for liberal views that didn’t dovetail with the pro-war sentiment loose in America in early 2003.

What seems to have happened to Olbermann has a parallel with the boardroom scene in the film “Network,” in which CCA chairman Arthur Jensen reads the riot act to the mercurial news anchor Howard Beale:

“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Olbermann … and you … will … atone!”

Greenwald also explores the ways news orgs cross ethical and political lines that should have been a red flag for any presumably independent news organization.

Richard Wolffe, a former Newsweek reporter and for many months now one of MSNBC’s better political analysts, apparently left Newsweek to join Public Strategies, Inc., a corporate communications advisory firm directed by Dan Bartlett, former Bush White House communications director.

Wolffe, author of the Obama biography “Renegade,” joined Public Strategies on April 13. He’s filled in periodically as a host on “Countdown” since then.

“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,” Greenwald observes.

“ … 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? But the fact that they don't even bother to disclose that just serves to illustrate how non-existent is the line between corporate interests and ‘news reporting’ in the United States.”

On Monday, Olbermann wrote to Daily Kos, saying that for the time being, Wolffe’s services will no longer be required.

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In the previous graph by Greenwald is a well-written nutshell of the central problem with the giantism, the connections and the cozy lobbying that infect much of American media today. In its negotiations with Fox News, MSNBC locked itself into a network-specific agreement to engage in hands-off journalism, when the problem — a willing ignorance of the facts to boost ratings and stoke partisan sentiment — is hardly particular to O’Reilly or to Fox.

Any complicity by Olbermann in any MSNBC/Fox negotiation would seem to be unlikely; Olbermann came back from vacation on Monday and promptly resumed his "Worst Persons" segment. Two of the winners? Rupert Murdoch and ... Bill O'Reilly. MSNBC's managers should have known better thinking they could control Olbermann. In recent weeks, he's taken up the cudgel against Fox nitwit agitators Glenn Beck and Brian Kilmeade … as well as CNN’s nativist blowhard flamethrower Lou Dobbs. Would a hands-off deal with CNN be next on MSNBC’s agenda?

The trouble with media organizations making deals with the devil is, it’s hard to know when to stop. The trouble with the parent companies of those media organizations making such deals is making them in the first place.
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Image credits: MSNBC logo: © 2009 MSNBC. Fox News logo: © 2009 Fox News Channel. Still from "Network": © 1976 MGM. Wolffe: Still from MSNBC's "Countdown With Keith Olbermann." Olbermann: Still from "Countdown."

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