Taboo Alert: The Real - And Most Disturbing - News In the Olbermann-O'Reilly Feud

by: David Sirota

Mon Aug 03, 2009 at 07:45

The New York Times story about MSNBC's corporate parent, General Electric, forcing the network to soften its criticism of Fox News has generated a lot of buzz over the weekend. But what's so telling about the story and the residual chatter is that, with the exception of Glenn Greenwald's typically terrific coverage, it largely misses the newsiest - and most taboo - part of the whole brouhaha.

What the Times story and the aftershock gossip focuses on is the personality feud and new detente between MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Fox News' Bill O'Reilly. That's supposedly the "news." And yet the real story is the heavy-handed intervention by the CEO of General Electric effectively forcing MSNBC's news team off a crucially important set of stories - namely, Fox News' politicization/Republicanization of media.

For years, Establishment media voices like Charlie Rose (yes, the same Charlie Rose who the Times story says played a direct role in the corporate parents' intervention at MSNBC and Fox) have insisted that it's a black-helicopter-style conspiracy theory to assert that corporate parent companies pressure/impact/limit the newsrooms they control.

But, of course, the evidence has become overwhelming in the last 15 years.  

David Sirota :: Taboo Alert: The Real - And Most Disturbing - News In the Olbermann-O'Reilly Feud
The three most obvious that come to mind are:

- 1995: CBS' 60 Minutes backs off it's expose of the tobacco industry, due, in part, to pressure from its parent company and the tobacco industry. This sordid affair was made famous by the movie The Insider.

- 2001: NBC's president engages in direct political lobbying against a government order that would force NBC's parent company, General Electric, to clean up its mess in the Hudson River. At the same time, environmentalists noted that NBC did not give the Hudson River cleanup story nearly enough attention.

- 2009: The Washington Post's parent company offers corporations and their lobbyists "off-the-record access" to its reporters and editors in exchange for direct financial contributions of up to $250,000.

This, of course, says nothing of the even more nefarious and arguably more widespread practice of these same corporate media outlets promoting as "objective" voices reporters and editorialists* who have secret financial interests in the news they cover - all without any disclosure. Just a few examples:

- Richard Wolffe: This former Newsweek reporter is now a paid corporate PR consultant. Yet, he appears on MSNBC as a disinterested "political analyst," even hosting Olbermann's show. Wolffe, in fact, publicly sells his media prominence on MSNBC as a reason for corporations to hire him. The implicit suggestion is that the corporate client will be able to buy a spokesman who gets to go on television without disclosing his financial interests - that is, Wolffe offers the corporate client the veneer of non-partisan objectivity. I flagged this ugly situation a week ago, and think I was the first to even notice it, despite how blatant a conflict of interest it is. The fact that it has gone on for so many months without anyone - much less MSNBC's management - questioning it shows just how mundane this kind of thing is.

- Doug Bandow: In 2005, Businessweek reported that this senior fellow at the Cato Institute "resigned from the libertarian think tank on Dec. 15 after admitting that he had accepted payments from indicted Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff for writing op-ed articles favorable to the positions of some of Abramoff's clients." Specifically, Bandow "had accepted money from Abramoff for writing between 12 and 24 articles over a period of years, beginning in the mid '90s."

- Armstrong Williams: In 2005, this syndicated radio host and columnist took a quarter million dollars from the Education Department to promote President Bush's controversial education policy "on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same," according to USA Today.

- Thomas Friedman: This New York Times columnist has become the single most prominent media voice in support of the multinational corporate agenda and the ultra-wealthy - and his credibility is based on the perception that Friedman is a completely disinterested commentator. However, Friedman - by marriage - is a member of the Bucksbaum empire, one of the biggest real estate conglomerates in the world.

- Former Generals: David Barstow of The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for "reveal[ing] how some retired generals, working as radio and television analysts, had been co-opted by the Pentagon to make its case for the war in Iraq, and how many of them also had undisclosed ties to companies that benefited from policies they defended."

A corporate media apologist might try to argue that both the latter and former sets of examples are just the very rare egregious examples and further, that in the case of Wolffe and Friedman, there's no direct corporate control/conflict-of-interest because they don't report on the companies they directly work for. But that's actually the bigger point: A newsroom or an individual reporter doesn't have to be directly shilling for their financial interest in order to be unduly compromised.

Sure, examples like CBS's corporate management backing off 60 Minutes on the tobacco story and General Electric heavy-handedly intervening in MSNBC's news decisions are probably somewhat rare. And sure, Wolffe and Friedman (at least to my knowledge) never shilled directly for a client/business interest they were making money off of. However, the direct connect/interest undoubtedly shapes their content by the silent processes of story selection, omission and tone.

For every blatant example of a newsroom or a journalist brazenly shilling for their corporate master's bottom line, there are infinite examples of those newsrooms or journalists avoiding or omitting stories that might offend those masters' in the first place. Is it, for instance, really just a coincidence that the frightening effects of corporate agriculture have rarely been the topic of all those Sunday "news" shows whose sponsor are Archer Daniels Midland? Is it really just a coincidence that Friedman shills for corporations and the wealthy, when he is member of a billionaire family? Is it really just a coincidence that a newspaper like the Washington Post, which was trying to effectively sell its news coverage to corporate interests, generates stories that tend to be particularly soft on corporations and chock full of unchallenged corporate PR?

The list of examples is endless - and the obvious answer is that none of it is a coincidence, even if most of these conflicts are kept completely hidden from the news-consuming audience.

But, then, the deception - and the ubiquity of the deception - is a big part of the corruption that is destroying journalism. Indeed, the fact that the Olbermann-O'Reilly personality feud was presented as the "big" story - and not the General Electric intervention - is a tacit confirmation that corporate-media symbiosis has become such an assumed part of journalism, that many journalists themselves don't see it as any kind of problem, much less news.

Of course, there are certainly some who do. The New York Times' David Barstow did when he reported on the financial interests of former generals appearing on television. Rachel Maddow did when she went out of her way to inform viewers that a supposedly disinterested guest she had on the night before was actually on the board of a corporation the guest was effectively shilling for. And most leading bloggers - as opposed to most leading journalists who criticize bloggers' ethics - go out of their way to disclose to readers their personal/financial connections to the news stories they are covering. Those, however, are the exceptions, not the rule.

The victims of this increasingly corrupt media system are both the viewers who are unknowingly fed a steady diet of stealth propaganda, and those trying to build truly independent media. I can personally attest to the latter.

As an independent journalist, I have gone out of my way to avoid financial/personal conflicts of interest, at considerable financial cost to me and my family. That means, for example, turning down various job/client opportunities (even for political groups I agree with), even when money is tight in a recession.

I'm not complaining - I am proud of my independence and I can sleep at night knowing my credibility isn't compromised. However, now that the media ecosphere no longer demands, incentivizes or rewards that kind of independence, that decision to be independent has become purely a decision of personal virtue - not industry mandate. It therefore puts me at a financial/competitive disadvantage in the economy at large.

Like other journalists and outlets who work to protect their credibility, I am sacrificing job/income opportunities in order to preserve my journalistic independence. From a journalism ethics perspective, that makes sense: If I am simultaneously a "journalist" and in the business of trying to recruit corporate clients for, say, a PR firm, the latter business will naturally impact the former. For example, I might be less inclined to write hard-hitting pieces against corporate interests in general, for fear of scaring away potential PR clients.

However, from a career perspective, "ethics" no longer make as much sense. I am going out of my way to preserve independence in a journalism industry that doesn't even pretend to insist on that independence. Indeed, you can be Richard Wolffe and openly get paid by corporations and not risk your place on MSNBC or your billing as a supposed disinterested "political analyst."

The result is a truly corrupt incentive system: the economic incentive now for the average journalist isn't to protect one's independence by avoiding financial conflicts of interest - but to sell out knowing there probably won't be any ramifications for one's journalism career.

Will this ever change? Well, it's hard to know. But I can say this: You can bet that until we build a vibrant independent media and until the news consumers use their economic/audience power to demand more independence (or at least disclosure) from the corporate media, the rule will continue.

* Note: I know that editorialists/opinionists/commentators aren't "objective" in the sense that yes, of course, they have subjective opinions because that's their stated job. But the expectations of professional editorialists/opinionists/commentators is that their opinions are ideologically motivated - not motivated out of a desire to protect their own undisclosed financial interests. So, when I use "objective" when referring to editorialists/opinionists/commentators, I am referring specifically to that kind of personal financial objectivity.

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"until we build a vibrant independent media..." (4.00 / 1)
Couldn't agree more with:

You can bet that until we build a vibrant independent media and until the news consumers use their economic/audience power to demand more independence (or at least disclosure) from the corporate media, the rule will continue.

The technology to do this, in terms of a replacement for TV media, is either already available, or could be easily created. (Think miro , plus a set top box with interfaces with your TV and the internet, plus digital rights management plus peer to peer networking. The set top box is the piece that may need to be created, but it's basically a hard drive with a low end microprocessor, so I think it should probably weigh in at  less than $160). Basically, what is needed now is a good business plan and an entrepreneur or two. I even think that "uncommercials" could help strip audience away from the mainstream fare, in the same way that Super Bowl ads help draw viewers to the Super Bowl. And that is by making them so entertaining or novel, that they rival the Super Bowl, itself, in terms of drawing power. I mean, imagine that there is, relatively speaking, no taboos on what can be in your ads. You could not only tell the truth about so many evil products and activities, you could do so in the most shocking and entertaining way, possible. (Well, within some limits.) Really creative types would have a field day, as long as they could keep their down costs.

Think adbusters put to video and some of the Moveon ads. Heck, think about all the ads you could make about conventional ads, but telling the audience what the original ad deliberately left out.

Hmmm. I've been meaning to dust off my proposal "Putting the NY Times Out of Business"....

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Two worst examples (4.00 / 6)
The single worst example, by far, was GE head Jack Welch telling the newly installed news anchor Brian Williams that he wanted Bush to win.  GE, of course, is a major defense contractor, and Bush was good for that business.

The second worse example was CBS taking a correct story with wrong details from Dan Rather and making the AWOL Bush a persecuted victim and the long-serving Rather into a Democratic propagandist.

Both stories hit the same time.  In crawling to the GOP the corporate owner of CBS, the aged megabucks Sumner Redstone said his network, too, wanted Bush to win.  Redstone was mainly concerned about Bush appointees censoring and fining the profitable MTV subsidiary.

Big corporate ownership of the networks is more than a problem. It is a built-in recipe for Republican control and dominance of big media.  In the not-so-distant past when  CBS, NBC, and ABC were independent and Fox did not exist, we got an even break (mostly) despite the constant whining of Nixon and Agnew.  Today, I suspect, Nixon would not have been forced to resign because Watergate would have been mostly suppressed by the Redstones, Immelts, Welches, and Murdochs.

And don't forget the excuses they use now ... (4.00 / 2)
of why BushCo can't be investigated ... because they'd have likely used those same excuses

[ Parent ]
Excellent post, David. (4.00 / 2)
One of your best and an example of why we need your voice.

These are the limits of Olbermann and Maddow: General Electric.

No msnbc critique will ever be allowed to go the roots of our problems, to the systemic issues.  

And don't forget BillO's role in all this ... (4.00 / 1)
if you read the NYT story ... you'll see that instead of going back after KO(which would have been the manly thing to do) ... BillO the Clown decided to take personal shots at Immelt .. giving out his direct email and phone number over the air .. which is what likely lead to the "feud" ending ... because Immelt said to make it stop .. because he was getting personally affected by it(thanks to BillO the Clown)

Just as the State, in the advanced mediated society, (0.00 / 0)
needs only to kill a handful of its citizens to make its point (as long as they have it on tape and can recycle the lesson at need), so to the CorpoRats need only intervene overtly in a few cases to be completely and wholly understood by the underlings...

This began with the Reagan regime's withdrawal of the Fairness Doctrine, and the subsequent loosening of regulatory strictures that prohibited aqny corpoRat from owning more than a given number of media outlets in any given market. It was assisted by the Clintoon-era revisions to the Communications Act of 1933. It is now so embedded that the only way that CorpoRats will relinquish control is after they've eviscerated any property and can sell off the husks...

Olberman could've and should've (0.00 / 0)
refused to follow their orders, and forced a confrontation with his corporate overlords. Imagine a Special Comment denouncing GE's attempt to censor him. He has the clout to stand up to them, and such a confrontation could've been a flashpoint in the push for anti-corporate media reform.

Alas, he folded.  

Jack Welch has had a lot of influence (0.00 / 0)
He wanted Bush and Matthews has been jumping through his hoops forever.  So was Russert.   Their Clinton hatred was not just about them.  

Welch and his millionaire pundit boys all play together, socialize together.
I don't want to relive the primaries, but I truly believe Welch knew a republican being elected after the disaster of W was impossible and I believe he "THOUGHT" Obama would be easier to manipulate than Clinton (not saying I agree, cause I don't but I think that was the MSNBC mentality.......from Welch).  

[ Parent ]
Has he really folded? (0.00 / 0)
From the NY Times article:

"Mr. Olbermann, who is on vacation, said by e-mail message, "I am party to no deal," adding that he would not have been included in any conversations between G.E. and the News Corporation"

Keith has been laying off Bill-O, but he still attacks Fox on a regular basis.

Keith returns from vacation tonight.  Let's see if he has anything to say about this.  If he doesn't, I'll be very disappointed.

[ Parent ]
Needless to say, I wasn't disappointed ;) (0.00 / 0)

[ Parent ]
More of the same (0.00 / 0)
Thom Hartmann, in his book, "Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class -- And What We Can Do About It," chronicles multinational corporate strategy and process toward undermining the dissemination of accurate information and manipulation of the media in order to effectively control the public to its ends. Knowledge is power, and information feeds that knowledge. Controlling the content and timbre of what the public is allowed to 'know' is but another aspect of that control toward elimination of the middle class in order to hoard the wealth that the middle class would otherwise possess. The Republican party is but the government-in-power arm of this effort. These robber baron corporate interests have been chipping away at the public's right to know what's really going on in the world since just after World War I, and it's been effective in its insideousness and ubiquity.

Thank you, Mr. Sirota, for your hard hitting exposés.  The only way we can effectively combat this corruption is to call it, in every instance, for what it is. Unfortunately, these guys are as good at silencing dissent and alternatives to thier preferred views. I sincerely fear for you life and the quality of life among those who would listen to and believe you.

The real problem is the word "news" (0.00 / 0)
I think the only thing that needs to happen is that these cable "news" networks need to stop using the word "news" in their names/descriptions.  The reason that they've been so quick to abandon journalistic principles is that they've almost completely abandoned journalism itself.  

So little of what they do is the actual gathering and reporting of news.  Therefore, the corporate parents view these outlets not as news organizations that must remain above ownership interests, but their legitimate editorial voices.  They hide behind the veil of opinion and commentary.  That way, all they can be accused of is not disclosing the interests of the commenter (likely assuming that it is a given).

I don't think you'll ever be able to address this problem unless you can draw a brighter line between news and opinion.  I think we're all grown up enough to know that every commentator has a bias, whether we know what his or her affiliations are or not.  We need to start valuing the reporting of the news again and make a clearer distinction between what is reported as fact and what is expressed as opinion.

Maybe a disclaimer before Olbermann, O'Reilly, Maddow, etc. saying that the comments of the talking heads not only are their own opinions and don't reflect the opinions of the network, but that they are in fact opinions and not reported facts.

Fox News IS a story (0.00 / 0)
The Colbert Report makes millions lampooning them on a comedy network.  Fox News is an enormous cultural phenomenon, and is a story.  That the leadership of GE can't or won't appreciate that after Fox News accused GE's CEO of personally killing American soldiers is pretty depressing.  This isn't a deal; it's a collapse on the part of GE.  

It will indeed be interesting to see if Olbermann goes along with the deal.  He's financially important enough to MSNBC that he could keep right on reporting on Fox, and dare his overlords to fire him.  And his "reporter" aspirations are large enough that he might resent the censorship enough to push back.  It does look like a career-defining moment for him.  There is no validity whatsoever to the order to cease-and-desist, at least not in terms of newsroom values.  In fact the deal itself is newsworthy.  Olbermann should report it.

Here's the much more direct link (0.00 / 0)
I like the attention that David and others are focusing on the "Feud" story, but that situation seems fairly benign  compared to this.  In writing an editorial about Rahm Emmanuel pressuring the networks to carry Obama news conferences live, Howard Kurtz just glosses right over the fact that Rahm didn't even bother with the networks themselves, and went right to their parent companies:

I guess this is the new, and apparently widely accepted, way to pressure a network news operation.  Seems that G.E. and Fox are just embracing the Rahm Emmanuel way to do things!

Missing Point (0.00 / 0)
I may be off kilter here but all points seem to be moot.

Unlike the day anchors on MSNBC and the like none of the folks mentioned, Olbermann (Former sports caster), O'Reilly (all-around jackass), and Maddow (Rhodes scholar, radio hostess) profess to be 'journalist'.  They are simply commentators and giving their opinions on issues much as Bill Maher does so, I don't see why all the brohaha.

Keith stopped mentioning O'Reilly months ago after the death of Dr. Tiller (or the baby killer as O'Reilly labeled him).  Keith, and I as well, believed the dortor's death was a direct result of O'Reilly's repeated verbal assults calling out the doctor as a baby killer.  

I am comfortable/smart enough, as I believe most people who watch Matthews, Scholtz, Olbermann, and Maddow, to view, listen, follow-up, and decide for myself what to accept as truth/fact.  I can't say the same for viewers who watch the comedians/racists/birthers/idiots on Fox.  

Opinions (commentary) are given on any of these shows and one takes from it what one will on MSNBC or FOX so again, I miss the point of the whole brohaha.

So, if I have this right, since the NY Times (who has real 'journalist') wrote a commentary about this shake-up that makes it jouralism?  I just don't get it.


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