Explosive GE/NBC and News Corp/Fox News censorship scandal grows wider with talk of “joint defiance”, mini-strikes, and prolonged absences from inside the newsroom

I hesitate to write about this issue because it has been covered so well thus far by Glenn Greenwald for Salon, and by Talking Points Memo, that anything I would contribute amounts to little more than a rerun. On the other hand, this is so disgusting, so embarrassing, and so explosive that it’s impossible not to do whatever possible to spread the word about what is going on.

This all began with a story written by Brian Stelter in the New York Times on Friday, reporting that the noticeable cease fire between MSNBC and Fox News’s two most visible faces and valuable assets – Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly, respectively – was the direct result of an agreement negotiated by the cable news network’s corporate parents to censor their respective news divisions in order to protect their respective business interests.

According to Stelter, a couple of days after a “summit meeting” for CEOs, agents of the two conglomerates agreed that Olbermann’s constant criticism of Fox and O’Reilly, and O’Reilly’s retaliatory attacks on General Electrics’ business dealings with Iran had to stop in order to protect GE’s and News Corp’s business dealings.

The key players appear to have been Jeffrey Immelt, chairman of GE, and Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corp. Not Steve Capus, President of NBC News, and not Roger Ailes, President of FNC.

Forget violating journalistic ethics, actions like this pretty much destroy any rational idea of journalism or integrity. These former news divisions have become little more than PR agencies for GE and News Corp when GE and News Corp tell them who they can report on.

Glenn Greenwald, writing for his wonderful Salon column, picked up on this immediately and as his signature move, pointed out the stunningly obvious which Stelter seems to have missed. PBS’ Charlie Rose was the catalyst for this reconciliation, a supposed journalist that took two powerful conglom executives aside and conspired with them to end the feud between Olbermann and O’Reilly by directly ordering the news divisions to stop reporting on each other.

The problems are many:

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 two highest rated shows on MSNBC and FNC are hosted by Olbermann and O’Reilly, and the feud serves as a ratings magnet, so it’s not even the business interests of the news divisions we’re talking about here, but the business interests of their corporate parents.

More importantly, as a reader of Greenwald’s column pointed out, the “feud” was actually some of the finest (and practically only) real journalism that either network has been practicing:

Olbermann was holding O’Reilly’s feet to the fire about his repeated falsehoods [and those of Fox News] and embarrassing positions. In turn, O’Reilly was giving the public accurate and disturbing information about General Electric, including extensive technology dealings with Iran.

“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”, Greenwald wrote, “while News Corp. is ensuring that the lies spewed regularly by its top-rated commodity on Fox News are no longer reported by MSNBC.”

Greenwald recalls past incidents of corporate interference at MSNBC during the early years of the Iraq war. According to CNN’s Jessica Yellin, “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”, describing her time spent working for MSNBC.

Phil Donahue was the only MSNBC host to feature anti-war guests (we’re not talking about protestors, but analysts who thought the war was a bad idea that would create significant problems for the United States that were routinely kept off the air on every other show on practically ever other network) and perhaps the only host to speak out against the war, and his show was canceled by MSNBC even though it was the highest rated show on the entire network.

Katie Couric, who worked for NBC during most of the war and long before that, was also quoted saying “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.”

And that was just what was known as of Saturday.

A new column from Greenwald this morning recalls more acts of corporate censorship forced on MSNBC by General Electric executives, such as the infamous incident of Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews being removed as news anchors covering the conventions and debates last year:

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.

It’s hard to say much about what happened without either quoting all of Greenwald’s column from this morning, or without just repeating it in my own words, but it’s so vitally important that people understand how big a deal this is that there’s no other choice.

Contrast what happened with Olbermann and Bill O’Rielly to what you can find on Morning Joe every single day of the week:

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.

When I see stories like this, my natural tendency is to want to talk about the obvious political bias in our press, where conservatives get away with murder while liberals are held to an impossible standard, such that the only possible way to meet it is to kick all liberals off the airwaves permanently.

Greenwald is fond of repeating a spiffy slogan attributed to Atrios: “Your liberal media: no liberals allowed.”

But that’s not the big story, to the contrary, by now it should be obvious that our media jumps to attention whenever conservatives complain about their news coverage, but snores loudly whenever liberals complain. Not because of any intentional bias, but because conservatives have power via their very deep connections with corporate America, which liberals do not have.

A fictional character on Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 who was the chairman of the equally fictitious “NBS” television network once said the following, when talking about the supposed “liberal Hollywood” and television media. (paraphrasing): “Look anywhere at the corporate boards of the companies that own and run the television networks, you’d be pretty hard pressed to find a single liberal amongst them.”

I’m not trying to distract from what Greenwald is doing by lowering this scandal to simple partisan mud slinging. I don’t think Jeffery Immelt is a secret conservative and I really don’t have to guess what Rupert Murdoch is. My point is that, increasingly, decisions are being made by people who don’t care about politics, or news, in the least. It’s all about business interests and not just figuratively. Saying that America is owned and run by corporations is cute, but it now, more than ever, it’s true and it’s hurting America.

This is what is destroying journalism, not blogs, not the Internet or the age of instant information. The news industry was doing just fine after television was invented and that it was every bit as instant then as it is now. It’s the lack of actual journalism that is killing the news industry, it’s General Electric and News Corp that are killing it.

But here’s the part that excites me the most, and I’m just going to repeat it verbatim:

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.

What’s amazing is that in violating every basic principle of journalism – a corporate parent dictating reporting behavior to the news division in order to protect business interests was a critical plot point in “The Insider”, a feature film that included attempts by CBS corporate to spike an inflammatory 60 Minutes feature on the tobacco industry during a time when Laurence Tisch was trying to sell CBS to Westinghouse, which actually happened – both General Electric and News Corp have created one of the most newsworthy scandals in recent times.

One that will almost certainly be swept under the rug by both GE and News Corp. Because if they wont allow their news divisions to report on each other, why would they have any qualms about censoring it further to prevent those divisions reporting on the very act of corporate censorship?

As Greenwald noted almost immediately after this story broke in the Times, this by all rights should be a rather large and penetrating scandal that permeates every corner of broadcast news, but there hasn’t been a peep about it anywhere outside of the Times.

These new events are not at all surprising for any number of reasons, but particularly because of a story I wrote for a website called Newsvine regarding Fox’s refusal to broadcast the most recent two presidential press conferences. The story was somewhat popular and had a vibrant discussion underway in the comments, but was censored by conservatives within a day purely because it was criticism of the right, which even online, apparently is no longer tolerated.

As Greenwald pointed out with shows like Morning Joe that feature conservatives attacking the left, “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'”, but any reporting on the activities of the right or news agencies controlled by right-wing ideologues like Rupert Murdoch are simply unacceptable.

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