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The Olbermann-O’Reilly Feud: Freedom of the Press and the Economic Value of the ‘News’

Few of us still labor under the delusion that what we are told is the 'news' is necessarily an unbiased reporting of fact.  Depending on your political leaning, you probably perceive it as either liberal propaganda or rightwing spew. 

But the silencing of the long-running Olbermann-O'Reilly feud is a reminder that what serves as our window to the 'news' is largely dictated  by corporate interests.  As the New York Times reports, General Electric, which owns MSNBC and News Corp., which owns Fox, decided the bickering between Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly had to end because it was bad for the corporate image. Rarely is the content of news programming so blatantly dictated, but it does point out the wide net of vested interests that hold our trusted sources of information captive.

GE wants you to think they are all about imagination and bringing good things to life. In terms of market capitalization, according to Corpwatch, it is the world's second largest company, and it is #12 in the 2008 Global Fortune 500 with a net income of $20.829 billion dollars.  You can't make that kind of money selling light bulbs, so what does GE actually do to earn that kind of income?

In addition to household goods, GE also builds nuclear power plants to power them, and is involved in providing nuclear fuel and reactor services. India recently announced that GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, "would be among the companies bidding for nuclear energy contracts worth as much as $10 billion."  In addition, GE is also a major player in uranium enrichment.

GE is also a significant player in the healthcare field. According to their website, GE Healthcare, "provides transformational medical technologies and services that are shaping a new age of patient care. Our expertise in medical imaging and information technologies, medical diagnostics, patient monitoring systems, performance improvement, drug discovery, and biopharmaceutical manufacturing technologies is helping clinicians around the world re-imagine new ways to predict, diagnose, inform, treat and monitor disease, so patients can live their lives to the fullest".  According to The Business Journal (Milwaukee), "GE Healthcare has been awarded two contracts with the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia valued at a maximum of $63 million a year for up to 10 years."  GE alsorecently opening a $165 million mammography production facility.

Another area in which the company has huge stakes is the defense industry. The Louisville (KY) Courier Journal recently reported that GE stands to lose out on significant income unless Congress funds new fighter planes that President Obama and the Pentagon have said are not needed.  At stake for GE is $100 billion in potential business over the next three decades.  Reuters reports that GE also recently received a $2 million DoD contract to "transform the Twentynine Palms facility, the world's largest Marine Corps base, into a model smart microgrid system."

Not surprisingly, GE is also a major player in the financial markets.  Its GE Money unit provides consumer financing through numerous partners.  If, for instance, you apply for a credit card through Toro to pay for that new rider-mower, you'll find that the Toro Online Credit Application Center is operated by GE Money Bank.  GE Commercial Finance has divisions for capital solutions, corporate financial services, healthcare, energy, real estate and aviation.

In late July, GE reported a 47% earnings fall in the second quarter due in large part to its financial unit. 

Without doubt, GE's wide and very substantial stake in so many significant parts of our economy should by itself be enough for us to question whether they can possibly also deliver news in a manner we can trust to be factual.  Indeed as The Daily Show's Jon Stewart so painfully pointed out, CNBC's Jim Cramer was a major economy cheerleader even when all evidence pointed to there being major problems that would certainly have an enormous impact on GE's bottom line. And that is certainly not the only instance when NBC/MSNBC/CNBC's integrity has been called into question as Glenn Greenwald notes,

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.

Greenwald also reminds us of a glaringly obvious example of when we should have questioned the impact of GE's substantial involvement in the defense industry,

when it was revealed that both news outlets ((NBC and MSNBC) 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."

Finally, even GE's generosity has an insidious impact on what is considered factual.  Here in Kentucky where I live, the GE Foundation has awarded a four-year $25 million grant to provide funding for math and science education to the local school system that will meet newly established "World Class Standards" that will "will revamp the curriculum with the focus of producing high school graduates who can compete successfully in the global marketplace." In an age of environmental crisis and complex energy issues, the involvement in science and mathematics curricula of a major player in a specific energy industry should certainly be suspect, as should the notion that math and science are taught to foster market competition.  Almost bizarrely, along with this description comes a banner on the school district's website that says, "Your coffee brought to you by chemistry." Leaving aside the grammar concerns that the banner evokes, one is left to wonder if the coffee bean, along with the 'news' is a relic of the past.

And that's the way it (really) is.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Lucinda Marshall

Lucinda Marshall is and artist, activist and writer. She is the Founder and Director of the Feminist Peace Network and the author of Reclaiming Medusa.

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