GE's Silencing of Olbermann and MSNBC's Sleazy Use of Richard Wolffe

The New York Times this morning
has a remarkable story, and incredibly, the article's author, Brian
Stelter, doesn't even acknowledge, let alone examine, what makes the
story so significant. In essence, the chairman of General Electric
(which owns MSNBC), Jeffrey Immelt, and the chairman of News
Corporation (which owns Fox News), Rupert Murdoch, were brought into a
room at a "summit meeting" for CEOs in May, where Charlie Rose tried to
e

The New York Times this morning
has a remarkable story, and incredibly, the article's author, Brian
Stelter, doesn't even acknowledge, let alone examine, what makes the
story so significant. In essence, the chairman of General Electric
(which owns MSNBC), Jeffrey Immelt, and the chairman of News
Corporation (which owns Fox News), Rupert Murdoch, were brought into a
room at a "summit meeting" for CEOs in May, where Charlie Rose tried to
engineer an end to the "feud" between MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Fox's
Bill O'Reilly. 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
reconciliation -- not acknowledged by the parties until now --
showcased how a personal and commercial battle between two men could
create real consequences for their parent corporations.
A G.E. shareholders' meeting, for instance, was overrun by critics of
MSNBC (and one of Mr. O'Reilly's producers) last April. . . .

In late 2007, Mr. O'Reilly had a young producer, Jesse Watters, ambush Mr. Immelt and ask about G.E.'s business in Iran, which is legal, and which includes sales of energy and medical technology. G.E. says it no longer does business in Iran.

Mr.
O'Reilly continued to pour pressure on its corporate leaders, even
saying on one program last year that "If my child were killed in Iraq,
I would blame the likes of Jeffrey Immelt." The resulting e-mail to
G.E. from Mr. O'Reilly's viewers was scathing. . .

Over time, G.E. and the News Corporation concluded that the fighting "wasn't good for either parent,"
said an NBC employee with direct knowledge of the situation. But the
session hosted by Mr. Rose provided an opportunity for a
reconciliation, sealed with a handshake between Mr. Immelt and Mr.
Murdoch.

Though Olbermann denies he was part of any deal, the NYT
says that there has been virtually no criticism of Fox by Olbermman, or
MSNBC by O'Reilly, since June 1 when the deal took effect. That's
mostly but not entirely true. On June 17,
after President Obama accused Fox News of fomenting hostility towards
his agenda, and Fox responded by saying that the "other networks" were
pure pro-Obama outlets, Olbermann did voice fairly stinging criticisms
of Fox as "more of a political entity than is the Republican National
Committee right now, only it's fraudulently disguised as some sort of
news organization."

But 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").

So here we have yet another example -- perhaps the most glaring yet -- of the corporations that own our largest media outlets controlling and censoring the content of their news organizations
based on the unrelated interests of the parent corporation. In light
of that, just marvel at what the supreme establishment-power-worshiper Charlie Rose said dismissively in March, 2003,
when he had Amy Goodman on his show as a condescending example of
someone who opposed the Iraq War, after Goodman touted the vital
importance of "independent media" in America:

ROSE: I don't know what "independent" means -- "independent" in contrast to what?

GOODMAN: It
means not being sponsored by the corporations, the networks -- like
NBC, CBS, ABC: NBC owned by General Electric, CBS owned by Viacom, or
ABC owned by Disney --

ROSE: My point in response to that would be that we do need you . . . . Having said that, I promise you, CBS News and ABC News and NBC News are not influenced by the corporations that may own those companies. Since I know one of them very well and worked for one of them.

That's
the very same Charlie Rose who sat there with the CEO of GE and the
CEO of News Corp. as an agreement was reached to order their news
employees to stop criticizing the activities of Fox and GE in order to
protect the corporate interests of those parents.

It makes no
difference what one thinks of O'Reilly's attacks on the corporate
activities of GE or Olbermann's criticisms of O'Reilly and Fox News.
Whatever one's views on that are -- and I watch neither show very often
-- those are perfectly legitimate subjects for news reporting and
commentary, and the corporate decree to stop commenting on those topics
is nothing less than corporate censorship. A reader last night put it
this way by email:

It's interesting and somewhat
shocking to me that a NYT article wouldn't even mention the effect on
the hosts' journalistic freedom. . . . I assume that both Olbermann and
O'Reilly would not have agreed to the truce, as the battle is ratings
gold for both of them, and I'm sure they frankly hate each other and
enjoy it.

The sad truth is that what Olbermann and O'Reilly
were doing in this particular instance was one of the rare examples of
good journalism on these types of shows. Olbermann was holding
O'Reilly's feet to the fire about his repeated falsehoods and
embarrassing positions. In turn, O'Reilly was giving the public
accurate and disturbing information about General Electric, including
extensive technology dealings with Iran.
In my personal
opinion, this was one of the rare useful pieces of information O'Reilly
ever presented to his audience, and Olbermann was there to show how
lousy the rest of O'Reilly's information was. Though it was in the
context of a bitter feud, the two men were actually engaging in real
journalism, at least in this case.

So
now GE is using its control of NBC and MSNBC to ensure that there is no
more reporting by Fox of its business activities in Iran or other
embarrassing corporate activities, while News Corp. is ensuring that
the lies spewed regularly by its top-rated commodity on Fox News are no
longer reported by MSNBC. You don't have to agree with the reader's
view of the value of this reporting to be highly disturbed that it is
being censored.

This is hardly the first time evidence of corporate control over the content of NBC and MSNBC has surfaced. Last May, CNN's Jessica Yellin said that when she was at MSNBC, "the press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives,
frankly, to make sure that this [the Iraq War] was a war that was
presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the
nation"; "the higher the president's approval ratings, the more
pressure I had from news executives ... to put on positive stories
about the president"; and "they would turn down stories that were more
critical and try to put on pieces that were more positive." Katie Couric said
that when she was at NBC, "there was a lot of undercurrent of pressure
not to rock the boat for a variety of reasons, where it was corporate reasons or other considerations" not to be too critical of the Bush administration. MSNBC's rising star, Ashleigh Banfield, was demoted and then fired after she criticized
news media organizations generally, and Fox News specifically, for
distorting their war coverage to appear more pro-government. And, of
course, when MSNBC canceled Phil Donahue's show in the run-up to the
Iraq war despite its being that network's highest-rated program, a corporate memo surfaced indicating that the company had fears of being associated with an anti-war and anti-government message.

And
now we have an example of GE's forcibly silencing the top-rated
commentator on MSNBC -- ordering him not to hold Fox News accountable
any longer -- because, in return, News Corp. has agreed to silence its
own commentators from criticizing GE. The corporations that own our
largest news organizations have extensive relationships with the
federal government. Anyone (like Charlie Rose) who denies that those
relationships influence how these news organizations "report" on the
government -- driven by the desire which corporate executives have to
avoid alienating the government officials on whom their corporate
interests depend, or avoid alienating potential customer bases for
their products -- is completely delusional. GE's forcing
Keith Olbermann to cease his criticism of Fox News and Bill O'Reilly is
a clear and vivid example of how that works.

* * * * *

On a very related note: this week, former Newsweek reporter Richard Wolffe was a guest-host on MSNBC's Countdown while Keith Olbermann is on vacation. When Olbermann is there, Wolffe is a very frequent guest on Countdown, wherehe is called an "MSNBC political analyst" and comments on political news. All of this, despite the fact that Wolffe left Newsweek
last March in order to join "Public Strategies, Inc.," the corporate
communications firm run by former Bush White House Communications
Director Dan Bartlett, its President and CEO. According to the Press Release they issued to announce Wolffe's joining the company:

Wolffe, most recently Newsweek's senior White House correspondent, officially assumes his new position as a senior strategist on April 13, 2009. He will be based in the firm's Washington office, where he will advise several of its top clients. . . .

Public Strategies, Inc. is a business advisory firm that serves a diverse clientele including some of the world's largest and best-known corporations,
nonprofit organizations, associations and professional firms. Public
Strategies helps forward-thinking organizations assess public opinion
and risk, and develops strategies for managing corporate reputation and uncertainty. Much of its practice involves managing high-stakes campaigns for corporate clients, anticipating and responding to crises.

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? 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. Then again, Wolffe himself -- when it was previously revealed
that he was exploiting his position as a Newsweek reporter covering the Obama campaign to leverage access to Obama in order to write a glowing book about him -- said this:

And [Wolffe] suggested he's not that different from other reporters in an era in which the business and the profession of journalism have gotten closer and closer.

"The idea that journalists are somehow not engaged in corporate activities is not really in touch with what's going on.
Every conversation with journalists is about business models and
advertisers," he said, recalling that, on the day after the 2008
election, Newsweek sent him to Detroit to deliver a speech to
advertisers.

"You tell me where the line is between business and journalism," he said.

That's
who MSNBC is presenting as a host and "political analyst" on one of its
news commentary programs: someone who is paid by large corporations to
propagandize the public and who explicitly says that "journalists are
engaged in corporate activities." Then again, MSNBC itself is censored
by its corporate executives to ensure that the parent company's
corporate interests are advanced by its "news reporting," so in many
ways, Wolffe's sleaze and corporate whoredom are the perfect face for
this network.

These dual stories of GE/Olbermann and Wolffe
reveal what NBC and MSNBC really are about as vividly as anything since
the "military analyst" scandal. Remember that
indescribably informative NBC News/MSNBC scandal: when it was revealed
that both news outlets (along with most other major television
outlets) were presenting as "independent military analysts" a whole
slew of former Generals with substantial, undisclosed corporate interests in the policies they were promoting and doing so in coordination with a secret Pentagon propaganda program? Despite front-page NYT promotion, Congressional investigations, and even a Pulitzer Prize awarded to the NYT's David Barstow for uncovering all of that, NBC's Brian
Williams (like virtually every other news outlet) to this day has never
so much as informed his viewers of this story
, and they continue to use some of those very same former generals as "analysts."

There
are many reasons why our establishment press exists to do little other
than serve the interests of the political and financial establishment
and to mindlessly amplify government claims. The virtual disapparance
of the line between large corporate interests and journalism (as
Richard Wolffe himself noted) is certainly one of the leading factors.

UPDATE: On Richard Wolffe's bio page at Public Strategies, Inc., the role he plays on MSNBC and NBC News is actually touted to the firm's corporate clients and potential clients:

In
addition, Wolffe is an NBC political analyst. He provides political
commentary on several MSNBC programs, Meet The Press, and TODAY.

They're
basically telling their clients and prospective clients: if you hire
us to control and disseminate your political messaging, you'll have
someone working for you -- Richard Wolffe -- who has a regular platform
on MSNBC and NBC News, where he's presented as an independent
"political analyst." And this is how they describe what he does for
the firm: "Wolffe provides high-level counsel and insight to our
clients on how to manage their reputations in a complex public
environment." How much more blatantly sleazy could that be?