GE's silencing of Olbermann and MSNBC's sleazy use of Richard Wolffe

Two new major MSNBC scandals reveal much about how corporate journalism functions.

Published August 1, 2009 9:02AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

The New York Times this morning has a remarkable story, and incredibly, the article's author, Brian Stelter, doesn't even acknowledge, let alone examine, what makes the story so significant.  In essence, the chairman of General Electric (which owns MSNBC), Jeffrey Immelt, and the chairman of News Corporation (which owns Fox News), Rupert Murdoch, were brought into a room at a "summit meeting" for CEOs in May, where Charlie Rose tried to engineer an end to the "feud" between MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Fox's Bill O'Reilly.  According to the NYT, both CEOs agreed that the dispute was bad for the interests of the corporate parents, and thus agreed to order their news employees to cease attacking each other's news organizations and employees.

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 reconciliation -- 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. . . .

In late 2007, Mr. O’Reilly had a young producer, Jesse Watters, ambush Mr. Immelt and ask about G.E.'s business in Iran, which is legal, and which includes sales of energy and medical technology. G.E. says it no longer does business in Iran.

Mr. O’Reilly continued to pour pressure on its corporate leaders, even saying on one program last year that "If my child were killed in Iraq, I would blame the likes of Jeffrey Immelt."  The resulting e-mail to G.E. from Mr. O’Reilly's viewers was scathing. . .

Over time, G.E. and the News Corporation concluded that the fighting "wasn’t good for either parent," said an NBC employee with direct knowledge of the situation.  But the session hosted by Mr. Rose provided an opportunity for a reconciliation, sealed with a handshake between Mr. Immelt and Mr. Murdoch.

Though Olbermann denies he was part of any deal, the NYT says that there has been virtually no criticism of Fox by Olbermman, or MSNBC by O'Reilly, since June 1 when the deal took effect.  That's mostly but not entirely true.  On June 17, after President Obama accused Fox News of fomenting hostility towards his agenda, and Fox responded by saying that the "other networks" were pure pro-Obama outlets, Olbermann did voice fairly stinging criticisms of Fox as "more of a political entity than is the Republican National Committee right now, only it's fraudulently disguised as some sort of news organization." 

But a review of all of Olbermann's post-June 1 shows does reveal that he has not ever criticized (or even mentioned) Bill O'Reilly since then and barely ever mentions Fox News any longer.  And on June 1 -- the last time Olbermann mentioned O'Reilly -- Olbermann claimed at the end of his broadcast that he would cease referring to O'Reilly in the future because ignoring him (and "quarantining" Fox) would supposedly help get O'Reilly off the air ("So as of this show‘s end, I will retire the name, the photograph, and the caricature").

So here we have yet another example -- perhaps the most glaring yet -- of the corporations that own our largest media outlets controlling and censoring the content of their news organizations based on the unrelated interests of the parent corporation.  In light of that, just marvel at what the supreme establishment-power-worshiper Charlie Rose said dismissively in March, 2003, when he had Amy Goodman on his show as a condescending example of someone who opposed the Iraq War, after Goodman touted the vital importance of "independent media" in America:

ROSE:  I don't know what "independent" means -- "independent" in contrast to what?

GOODMAN:  It means not being sponsored by the corporations, the networks -- like NBC, CBS, ABC:  NBC owned by General Electric, CBS owned by Viacom, or ABC owned by Disney --

ROSE:  My point in response to that would be that we do need you . . . . Having said that, I promise you, CBS News and ABC News and NBC News are not influenced by the corporations that may own those companies.  Since I know one of them very well and worked for one of them.

That's the very same Charlie Rose who sat there with the CEO of GE and the CEO of News Corp. as an agreement was reached to order their news employees to stop criticizing the activities of Fox and GE in order to protect the corporate interests of those parents.

It makes no difference what one thinks of O'Reilly's attacks on the corporate activities of GE or Olbermann's criticisms of O'Reilly and Fox News.  Whatever one's views on that are -- and I watch neither show very often -- those are perfectly legitimate subjects for news reporting and commentary, and the corporate decree to stop commenting on those topics is nothing less than corporate censorship.  A reader last night put it this way by email:

It's interesting and somewhat shocking to me that a NYT article wouldn't even mention the effect on the hosts' journalistic freedom. . . . I assume that both Olbermann and O'Reilly would not have agreed to the truce, as the battle is ratings gold for both of them, and I'm sure they frankly hate each other and enjoy it.

The sad truth is that what Olbermann and O'Reilly were doing in this particular instance was one of the rare examples of good journalism on these types of shows. Olbermann was holding O'Reilly's feet to the fire about his repeated falsehoods and embarrassing positions. In turn, O'Reilly was giving the public accurate and disturbing information about General Electric, including extensive technology dealings with Iran. In my personal opinion, this was one of the rare useful pieces of information O'Reilly ever presented to his audience, and Olbermann was there to show how lousy the rest of O'Reilly's information was.  Though it was in the context of a bitter feud, the two men were actually engaging in real journalism, at least in this case.

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, while News Corp. is ensuring that the lies spewed regularly by its top-rated commodity on Fox News are no longer reported by MSNBC.  You don't have to agree with the reader's view of the value of this reporting to be highly disturbed that it is being censored.

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.

And now we have an example of GE's forcibly silencing the top-rated commentator on MSNBC -- ordering him not to hold Fox News accountable any longer -- because, in return, News Corp. has agreed to silence its own commentators from criticizing GE.  The corporations that own our largest news organizations have extensive relationships with the federal government.  Anyone (like Charlie Rose) who denies that those relationships influence how these news organizations "report" on the government -- driven by the desire which corporate executives have to avoid alienating the government officials on whom their corporate interests depend, or avoid alienating potential customer bases for their products -- is completely delusional.  GE's forcing Keith Olbermann to cease his criticism of Fox News and Bill O'Reilly is a clear and vivid example of how that works.

* * * * * 

On a very related note:  this week, former Newsweek reporter Richard Wolffe was a guest-host on MSNBC's Countdown while Keith Olbermann is on vacation.  When Olbermann is there, Wolffe is a very frequent guest on Countdown, where he is called an "MSNBC political analyst" and comments on political news.  All of this, despite the fact that Wolffe left Newsweek last March in order to join "Public Strategies, Inc.," the corporate communications firm run by former Bush White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett, its President and CEOAccording to the Press Release they issued to announce Wolffe's joining the company:

Wolffe, most recently Newsweek's senior White House correspondent, officially assumes his new position as a senior strategist on April 13, 2009. He will be based in the firm's Washington office, where he will advise several of its top clients. . . .

Public Strategies, Inc. is a business advisory firm that serves a diverse clientele including some of the world's largest and best-known corporations, nonprofit organizations, associations and professional firms. Public Strategies helps forward-thinking organizations assess public opinion and risk, and develops strategies for managing corporate reputation and uncertainty. Much of its practice involves managing high-stakes campaigns for corporate clients, anticipating and responding to crises. 

Having Richard Wolffe host an MSNBC program -- or serving as an almost daily "political analyst" --  is exactly tantamount to MSNBC's just turning over an hour every night to a corporate lobbyist.  Wolffe's role in life is to advance the P.R. interests of the corporations that pay him, including corporations with substantial interests in virtually every political issue that MSNBC and Countdown cover.  Yet MSNBC is putting him on as a guest-host and "political analyst" on one of its prime-time political shows.  What makes that even more appalling is that, as Ana Marie Cox first noted, neither MSNBC nor Wolffe even disclose any of this.  

This is a conflict so severe that it's incurable by disclosure:  who wouldn't realize that you can't present paid corporate hacks as objective political commentators?  But the fact that they don't even bother to disclose that just serves to illustrate how non-existent is the line between corporate interests and "news reporting" in the United States.  Then again, Wolffe himself -- when it was previously revealed that he was exploiting his position as a Newsweek reporter covering the Obama campaign to leverage access to Obama in order to write a glowing book about him -- said this:

And [Wolffe] suggested he’s not that different from other reporters in an era in which the business and the profession of journalism have gotten closer and closer.

"The idea that journalists are somehow not engaged in corporate activities is not really in touch with what's going on.  Every conversation with journalists is about business models and advertisers," he said, recalling that, on the day after the 2008 election, Newsweek sent him to Detroit to deliver a speech to advertisers.

"You tell me where the line is between business and journalism," he said.

That's who MSNBC is presenting as a host and "political analyst" on one of its news commentary programs:  someone who is paid by large corporations to propagandize the public and who explicitly says that "journalists are engaged in corporate activities."  Then again, MSNBC itself is censored by its corporate executives to ensure that the parent company's corporate interests are advanced by its "news reporting," so in many ways, Wolffe's sleaze and corporate whoredom are the perfect face for this network.

These dual stories of GE/Olbermann and Wolffe reveal what NBC and MSNBC really are about as vividly as anything since the "military analyst" scandal.  Remember that indescribably informative NBC News/MSNBC scandal:  when it was revealed that both news outlets (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."

There are many reasons why our establishment press exists to do little other than serve the interests of the political and financial establishment and to mindlessly amplify government claims.  The virtual disapparance of the line between large corporate interests and journalism (as Richard Wolffe himself noted) is certainly one of the leading factors.


UPDATE:  On Richard Wolffe's bio page at Public Strategies, Inc., the role he plays on MSNBC and NBC News is actually touted to the firm's corporate clients and potential clients:

In addition, Wolffe is an NBC political analyst. He provides political commentary on several MSNBC programs, Meet The Press, and TODAY.

They're basically telling their clients and prospective clients:  if you hire us to control and disseminate your political messaging, you'll have someone working for you -- Richard Wolffe -- who has a regular platform on MSNBC and NBC News, where he's presented as an independent "political analyst."  And this is how they describe what he does for the firm:  "Wolffe provides high-level counsel and insight to our clients on how to manage their reputations in a complex public environment."  How much more blatantly sleazy could that be?


UPDATE II:  More on GE's control of MSNBC and NBC here.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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