The Scope -- and Dangers -- of GE's Control of NBC and MSNBC

I want to return to the subject of GE's silencing of Keith Olbermann both because there are new facts I've obtained that shed light on what happened here and because this is one of the most blatant examples yet of pernicious corporate control over America's journalism.

I want to return to the subject of GE's silencing of Keith Olbermann both because there are new facts I've obtained that shed light on what happened here and because this is one of the most blatant examples yet of pernicious corporate control over America's journalism. The most striking aspect of this episode is that GE isn't even bothering any longer to deny the fact that they exert control over MSNBC's journalism. They've brazenly dispensed with the long-held fiction of the sanctity of journalistic independence from interference by the corporate parents that own America's largest news organizations.

Instead, GE is now openly and proudly boasting of their editorial control over the news organizations they own, and publicly rubbing it in the faces of NBC News journalists that they're subservient to GE's corporate agenda. Look at this smug, creepy quote from GE executive spokesman Gary Sheffer explaining inThe New York Times why GE issued its gag order preventing Olbermann from criticizing Fox and O'Reilly, all but mocking NBC and MSNBC journalists as nothing more than GE's office of corporate spokespeople:

"We all recognize that a certain level of civility needed to be introduced into the public discussion," Gary Sheffer, a spokesman for G.E., said this week. "We're happy that has happened."

Why is GE even speaking for MSNBC's editorial decisions at all? Needless to say, GE doesn't care in the slightest about "civility" in general. Mika Brzezinski can spout that people who dislike Sarah Palin aren't "real Americans" and Chris Matthews can say about George Bush that "everybody sort of likes the president, except for the real whack-jobs," and GE executives won't (and didn't) bat an eye. What they mean by "civility" is: "thou shalt not criticize anyone who can harm GE's business interests or who will report on our actions." Thus: GE's journalists will stop reporting critically on Fox and its top assets because Fox can expose actions of GE that we want to keep concealed.

Does anyone need it explained to them why it is so dangerous and destructive to have our political debates controlled by GE executives, sitting in their offices censoring the journalism of our leading media outlets in the name of "civility," code for: you will respect those who can harm us? Our entire political culture is already designed to ensure corporate control of our political institutions. Their lobbyists literally write the laws enacted by Congress and control their implementation. The reason the journalism industry insisted for so long on the ludicrous fiction that corporate parents never violated the sanctity of journalistic independence is precisely because everyone understood why that would be so dangerous. Apparently, they no longer feel a need to maintain that fiction.

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GE's control over two major American news outlets -- NBC, which uses our public airways, and MSNBC -- is inherently dangerous even without evidence of its editorial interference. GE's corporate interests in the outcome of our political process is vast and impossible to overstate. In 2006, The Boston Globe reported:

General Electric Co. spent $21.5 million last year trying to influence the US government, the most of any corporation, as total lobbying costs rose even as Congress began looking at ways to rein in such activities.

GE's relationship with the U.S. Government is a vital aspect of its business:

Federal contracts for General Electric, based in Fairfield, Conn., rose to $3.8 billion during the two years ending Sept. 30, 2004, the last period for which figures are available.

In June of this year, in an article headlined "General Electric is Once Again the Lobbying Champion," The Washington Timesreported:

General Electric spent more on lobbying in this year's first quarter than any other company, newly filed federal lobbying reports show. The company shelled out $7.2 million for lobbyists in April, May, and June--that's $160,000 each day Congress was in session.

The only other company to spend more than $6 million was Chevron, and GE almost equaled the Chamber of Commerce's lobbying budget.

GE is perenially atop this list, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The company has spent $187 million on lobbying over the past decade, 44% more than runner-up Northrup Grumman.

Why? Because no other company is so intimately tied up with government -- a dynamic that has only intensified in the Obama administration.

And just today, by sweet coincidence, Fred Hiatt turned over his Washington Post Editorial Page to GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, along with Silicon Valley investor John Doerr, to argue that the U.S. government must spend more on wind power technology. Why? Because GE is the only American company in the world's top six largest wind technology manufacturers and had a major stake in the use of such technology by governments. GE constantly manipulates our political process and institutions for its own self-interest. And it now manipulates our political debates, through its control over our leading news outlets, for the same purposes. Who wouldn't be seriously disturbed by GE's control over substantial aspects of America's journalism?

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Critically, GE's decree to silence Olbermann is only the most recent incident of GE's interference with the journalism decisions of NBC and MSNBC -- interference that has been triggering increasing (though largely impotent) anger and resentment among NBC employees. Much of the tension goes back to last year when GE executives directed MSNBC to remove Olbermman and Chris Matthews as election show anchors, according to an MSNBC source with management responsibilities, who insisted on anonymity because he is divulging information adverse to his bosses and because having his name attached to these leaks would jeopardize his job security (exactly the circumstances I've always argued renders anonymity appropriate).

Last year's GE/MSNBC controversy occurred because the McCain campaign -- which had been constantly complaining about MSNBC -- threatened to pull out of a presidential debate to be hosted by NBC's Tom Brokaw if Olbermann and Matthews continued anchoring election coverage. Brokaw then went to GE 's CEO Jeffrey Immelt -- not to NBC executives -- to demand that Olbermann and Matthews be removed as anchors in order to preserve his prestigious status as debate moderator. In fact, as The New York Observer reported at the time, Andrea Mitchell also wanted Olbermann and Matthews removed as anchors and thus raised the issue at a dinner for a handful of NBC stars hosted by Immelt.

Though MSNBC denied it at the time, it was GE -- just as they're doing now in barring Olbermann from talking about O'Reilly -- which capitulated to the Right's demands by instructing MSNBC to remove Olbermann and Matthews as election anchors. When it happened, I wrote about the removal of Olbermann/Matthews as anchors under the headline: "The Right dictates MSNBC's programming decisions."

That it is GE which controls the editorial decisions of NBC and MSNBC is an open secret in Washington. Just today, The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz wrote about Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's actions after learning that the news networks were reluctant to broadcast Obama's most recent press conference on health care. Did Emanuel attempt to pressure NBC executives to capitulate to White House demands to broadcast that event? No; he obviously knew who really makes editorial decisions for those networks:

In the days before President Obama's last news conference, as the networks weighed whether to give up a chunk of their precious prime time, Rahm Emanuel went straight to the top.

Rather than calling ABC, the White House chief of staff phoned Bob Iger, chief executive of parent company Disney. Instead of contacting NBC, Emanuel went to Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric. He also spoke with Les Moonves, the chief executive of CBS, the company spun off from Viacom.

Apparently, Rahm Emanuel isn't confused about who the real bosses are at America's major news networks. Although Kurtz claims that Immelt -- who was named by Obama as a member of his Economics Advisory Board -- told Emanuel that this would be a decision for NBC's Jeff Zucker to make, all networks ultimately acceded to Emanuel's demands, directed to the CEOs of the parent corporations, and broadcast Obama's press conference, just as the White House demanded they do.

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GE -- deeply concerned about Fox's reporting of its actions in Iran and other potential disclosures -- has long been discussing a quid pro quo with Rupert Murdoch, whereby GE would give in to O'Reilly's demands that Olbermann be barred from criticizing him in exchange for O'Reilly's agreement to cease reporting on GE's dubious corporate activities. More than a year ago, Howard Kurtz noted:

Asked about O'Reilly's motivation [in criticizing GE], [GE's] Sheffer said that executives at Murdoch's News Corp. "tell us if the attacks on O'Reilly end, the attacks on GE will end. They've had conversations with our news executives saying, 'If you stop, we'll stop' " . . . .

Early last year, the sources say, [NBC President Steve] Capus called [Fox's Roger] Ailes to say that O'Reilly had gone over the line with reckless attacks on Engel. But, the sources recounted, Ailes said he agreed that NBC was against the war and had aligned itself with Olbermann's mockery. Capus, he said, had the power to shut down the situation by telling Olbermann to back off.

Immelt was essentially being blackmailed by News Corp.: we will continue to report on GE's corporate activities unless you bar Keith Olbermann from criticizing Fox and O'Reilly. And now, Immelt has succumbed to those threats and ordered Olbermann to cease reporting on Fox. There is simply no doubt -- none -- that this happened. That is the reason that O'Reilly's name has not passed Olbermann's lips since June 1 -- because GE, petrified of further reporting by Fox of its corporate activities, has barred Olbermann from doing so. Another source who regularly appears on MSNBC -- demanding anonymity for fear of jeopardizing further appearances -- was recently told by a segment producer that explicit mentions of Fox News were prohibited.

According to the above-referenced MSNBC management source, there has been talk among MSNBC employees ever since the GE edict was issued about ways to protest it and to stand up for their journalistic freedom. Many are afraid that their journalistic reputations will suffer by being so publicly humiliated by GE, while others are concerned that they are no longer allowed to alienate the Right since GE has made clear that they will censor editorial content and publicy embarrass even highly profitable stars like Olbermann whenever the Right targets GE with grievances over NBC's reporting. Since the GE/Olbermann decree was issued, everything has been discussed at MSNBC from joint defiance of this edict to mini-strikes in the form of prolonged vacations and absences. Although Olbermann did take an unusually long vacation in the ratings-important month of July, there is little evidence yet that any genuine pushback has occurred or has been effective.

It's worth underscoring that these incidents of overt GE control over NBC and MSNBC are merely the ones that have been publicly described (David Sirota, who first raised concerns about corporate flack Richard Wolffe's guest-hosting Countdown, today documents similar examples of corporate interference at other networks). It is highly likely there are other undisclosed examples at NBC, but more important, corporate employees don't need to be told what their bosses want. They know without being told. GE's business vitally depends on favorable relationships with the Government, and they have signaled that they are unwilling to alienate the Right generally or News Corp. and Fox News specifically. It takes no effort to see how profoundly those corporate interests affect the "journalism" of NBC and MSNBC. Given GE's insistence that NBC advance its corporate agenda, do you think Brian Williams, earning $10 million a year, would ever do anything contrary to GE's corporate interests?

If corporations that own media outlets engage in quid pro quos to prevent critical reporting about one another, then large corporations -- which own the Congress and control regulatory agencies -- have no checks imposed on them at all. By law, the "public airwaves" are required to be used for the "public interest." Clearly, NBC News -- which depends on use of the public airwaves -- is used for GE's interests. They assume that they don't need to hide this any longer because nobody is willing to do anything about it.

UPDATE: Also regarding yesterday's column here about MSNBC: TPM today front-pages and headlines MSNBC's use of "corporate strategist" Richard Wolffe as a "political analyst" and guest-host, and TPM's Zachary Roth has an excellent analysis of why that relationship is so profoundly sleazy and how it further blurs the lines between corporate interests and "journalism."

UPDATE II: TPM's Roth reports that MSNBC, in response to inquiries about Richard Wolffe, now says it "should have disclosed Richard's connection to public strategies. We will do so in the future."

That solves nothing. It's better for them to disclose Wolffe's employment at Public Strategies than to conceal it as they've been doing. But for reasons too obvious to require explaining, it's completely inappropriate to employ a paid corporate propagandist as a "political analyst." Worse, the fact that they'll merely be disclosing Wolffe's employment at Public Strategies, but not the identity of the corporations that pay that firm and/or Wolffe to disseminate propaganda, makes the disclosure next to meaningless. How can a viewer possibly assess whether Wolffe is carrying out his corporate clients' agenda if the identity of those clients remains entirely concealed?

Is it OK to have a news organization employ a corporate lobbyist as a host of a news program as long as they disclose that the person is a lobbyist without disclosing on whose behalf they lobby? To ask the question is to answer it, at least for an organization with the most minimal division between corporate activities and real journalism.

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