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Late Night: Elephants on Parade

Hey, waddya say tonight we go after some big game? Yeah, I know what you’re thinkin’: elephants by definition are big game. Or, maybe you’ve watched the video clip here, and you’re thinking, Bill O’Reilly is a big target, but kind of an easy one. Well, if that’s what you’re thinking, think bigger:

For years Keith Olbermann of MSNBC had savaged his prime-time nemesis Bill O’Reilly of the Fox News Channel and accused Fox of journalistic malpractice almost nightly. Mr. O’Reilly in turn criticized Mr. Olbermann’s bosses and led an exceptional campaign against General Electric, the parent company of MSNBC.

It was perhaps the fiercest media feud of the decade and by this year, their bosses had had enough. But it took a fellow television personality with a neutral perspective to bring it to an end.

At an off-the-record summit meeting for chief executives sponsored by Microsoft in May, the PBS interviewer Charlie Rose asked Jeffrey Immelt, chairman of G.E., and his counterpart at the News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch, about the feud.

Both moguls expressed regret over the venomous culture between the two networks. Then — even though the feud had increased the viewing audience of both programs — they instructed lieutenants to arrange a cease-fire, according to three people who work at the companies and have direct knowledge of the deal.

In early June, the combat stopped, and the anchors for the most part found other targets for their verbal missiles (Hello, CNN).

“It was time to grow up,” a senior employee of one of the companies said.

Instructed lieutenants??? Oh, wait, I should add this:

The rapprochement — 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.

And there we have it, don’t we? It wasn’t that it was personal, it’s that it was business—and not the news business, G.E.’s business.

To review: Olbermann goes after O’Reilly directly for Bill-O’s distortions, lies, and dangerous invective. In return, Fox’s angry anchor goes after. . . not Olbermann, not Olbermann’s politics, but after Olbermann’s paycheck—after KO’s corporate bosses.

When Olbermann chose to make O’Reilly his “Worst Person in the World,” The Factor folks would retaliate by accusing General Electric of aiding Iran and insurgent forces in Iraq:

“If my child were killed in Iraq, I would blame the likes of Jeffrey Immelt.” The resulting e-mail messages to G.E. from Mr. O’Reilly’s viewers were scathing and relentless.

Bill-O also sent his pachydermal pit poodle, Jesse Watters, to ambush Immelt, and pelt him with questions about G.E.’s business in Iran. That cannot have made Jeffrey happy.

Then, the day after MSNBC aired the Countdown segment above (a segment in which, after detailing the 28 times that Bill-O accused the murdered Dr. Tiller of being a “baby killer,” Keith calls on viewers to quarantine Bill-O, to refuse to watch, to boycott establishments that show O’Reilly on their TVs, and then announces he will make the first gesture by retiring the nickname and caricature), this:

O’Reilly made the extraordinary claim that “federal authorities have developed information about General Electric doing business with Iran, deadly business” and published Mr. Immelt’s e-mail address and mailing address, repeating it slowly for emphasis.

The next day, according to the New York Times, the attacks stopped.

Now, I have not done a careful catalogue of Countdowns since then. Olbermann, currently on vacation, told the Times, “I am party to no deal.” We will see what happens on air now that this story is public when Keith returns. But it does make for a high eyebrow raise.

But if Olbermann was pressured, he should not be the focus of our disgust. As they say, don’t hate the player, hate the game. And, in this case, the game is corporate-owned, overly consolidated media, and the guys who make the game’s rules are Rupert Murdoch and Jeffrey Immelt.

I don’t need to tell you about Rupe—arrrrrrrgh!—his failings are legendary, but what of Immelt? Is he tonight’s Elephant?

Immelt is a smart mogul, so he spreads the influence dung around, but there is a decidedly bigger pile on one side of the midway.

While Jeffrey maxed-out to Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd during the primaries, he also gave the legal limit to Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney. In the general, he gave his maximum $2,300 to John McCain. Immelt has also given generously to the RNCC and Mitch McConnell. (There are no reported commensurate donations to Democrats or their campaign funds.)

So, here’s what we have in tonight’s media circus: two ostensibly Republican ring masters—supposedly in competition—collude (with the help of Microsoft and Charlie Rose—wtf?) to silence one side of the debate in order to make the world safe for parent company profit.

In fact, I should go a little further: It is not that one side of a debate was silenced, it is that the only side in the debate was silenced. O’Reilly stoked a climate of hatred against a man that was eventually murdered for providing a necessary and legal service. Olbermann attacked O’Reilly for that. In return, Bill-O attacked Immelt and G.E., and, as a result, it seems, Immelt directed Olbermann to STFU.

Tell me again about the liberal media. . . . Tell me again why rolling back media consolidation shouldn’t be one of our main priorities during this Democratic era in national politics. . . .

Well, Keith’s paycheck is, for better or worse, dependant on a corporate parent. Mine is not; neither is yours (at least in this forum). I say the airways are a public trust, and O’Reilly seriously strains that trust. I say attack him all you want. What do you say?

[Small Update: I just remembered that back in March, I wrote about this other instance of corporate interference with on-air content at MSNBC.]

Gregg Levine

Gregg Levine