More facts behind the GE/Fox deal and a new Olbermann statement

The MSNBC anchor confirms that my two columns on this matter were factually accurate.

Published August 4, 2009 12:05PM (EDT)

(Updated below - Update II - Update III)

On Saturday, I wrote a post under the headline: "GE's silencing of Olbermann and MSNBC's sleazy use of Richard Wolffe."  In it, I wrote:  "now we have an example of GE's forcibly silencing the top-rated commentator on MSNBC [Olbermann] -- 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." 

As I made clear, my basis for those Saturday statements was Brian Stelter's New York Times article, which reported that -- "according to four people who work at the companies and have direct knowledge of the deal" -- "lieutenants [of CEOs Jeffrey Immelt and Rupert Murdoch] arranged a cease-fire" and "in early June, the combat stopped, and MSNBC and Fox, for the most part, found other targets for their verbal missiles."  Stelter's article even quoted a GE executive, on the record, proudly confirming the deal: "'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.'"

Yesterday, I returned to this topic -- with the headline called "The Scope and Dangers of GE's Control of NBC and MSNBC" -- and explained I was writing about the GE/News Corp. deal again "because there are new facts I've obtained that shed light on what happened here."  I wrote that "GE's decree to silence Olbermann is only the most recent incident of GE's interference with the journalism decisions of NBC and MSNBC" and then added:

And now, [GE's CEO Jeffrey] 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.

Last night, however, Keith Olbermann went on Countdown and denied that he had been silenced by anyone (video is here).  He accused the NYT reporter of getting the story wrong, even naming him "Third Worst Person in the World" and claiming:

Mr. Stelter asked me at least twice last week if there was such a deal, and I told him on and off the record there was not, and I told him I rather obviously would have to be a party to such a deal, and I told him that not only wasn't I, but I had not even been asked to be by my bosses.

Olbermann also re-affirmed the claims he made in his June 1 broadcast -- exactly the time that GE executives decided there would be no more attacks on Fox -- that the reason he was no longer talking about O'Reilly was because the topic had become too serious to make light of in the wake of the Tiller murder and that -- Olbermann -- voluntarily decided not to mention O'Reilly and Fox in order to "quarantine" them.  Going further, Olbermann last night even mocked Bill O'Reilly for working at a place (Fox News) where corporate interference with editorial decisions is allowed, saying about Rupert Murdoch's interference:  he "could never get away with that here. . . ."

In light of Olbermann's denial that he had been silenced by GE -- indeed, in light of his denial that GE had even instructed or requested him to refrain from attacking O'Reilly --  I've been inundated by email, in comments, and elsewhere with suggestions that what I wrote was false and that my "credibility has taken a hit."  Even normally perceptive commentators like Juan Cole quickly rushed forward to pronounce the GE/Fox story "debunked" by Olbermann.  I've received all sorts of demands that I apologize, retract what I wrote, and/or explain what my basis was for writing what I wrote. 

As for the piece I wrote on Saturday, my basis was, quite obviously, Stelter's NYT article.  But my basis for the added facts about the GE/Fox deal which I wrote in yesterday's piece were statements made in not-for-attribution emails from a person who has first-hand knowledge of GE's newsroom edict.  Today, after I told Olbermann that his on-air denial last night had made it appear that what I wrote was untrue, when we both knew it was entirely accurate, Olbermann issued the following on-the-record statement to me about this matter (emphasis added):

I honor Mr. Greenwald's insight into the coverage of GE/NewsCorp talks, and have found nothing materially factually inaccurate about it. Fox and NewsCorp have continued a strategy of threat and blackmail by Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, and Bill O'Reilly since at least 2004.  But no matter what might have been reported by others besides Mr. Greenwald, and no matter what might have been thought around this industry, there's no "deal."  I would never consent, and, fortunately, MSNBC and NBC News would never ask me to.

I certainly believe that Olbermann is telling the truth when he says he was never a party to any deal and that nobody at GE or MSNBC asked him to consent.  That's because GE executives didn't care in the least if Olbermann consented and didn't need his consent.  They weren't requesting that Olbermann agree to anything, and nobody -- including the NYT's Stelter -- ever claimed that Olbermann had agreed to any deal.  What actually happened is exactly what I wrote:  GE executives issued an order that Olbermann must refrain from criticizing O'Reilly, and Olbermann complied with that edict.  That is why he stopped mentioning O'Reilly as of June 1. 

Once the NYT exposed this deal between GE and News Corp., MSNBC executives allowed Olbermann to attack O'Reilly last night because neither Olbermann nor MSNBC could afford to have it appear that their top journalist was being muzzled by GE.  For obvious reasons, such an impression would be humiliating and would harm MSNBC's "journalism" brand.  But over the last two months, muzzled by GE is exactly what Olbermann was -- precisely as I (and Brian Stelter) wrote.

I appreciate that Olbermann is now confirming that nothing I wrote about this matter was inaccurate.  This GE/News Corp. quid pro quo is an extremely significant incident, entailing one of the most transparent acts of extreme corporate censorship and suppression of journalistic freedom in one of our country's major news organizations (as well as at Fox News).  Making it far worse is that GE was motivated by nothing more than a desire to suppress all reporting (whether by Fox News, The Wall St. Journal or other Murdoch-owned outlets) that reflects poorly on them and their corporate activities.  That dangerous conduct by GE -- along with Fox's typically thuggish behavior -- is what the real story here is.


UPDATE: Jane Hamsher slowly walks, step by step, through an important logical point about Olbermann's new statement which, to be perfectly honest, I thought (incorrectly, as it turns out) would be too self-evident to require elaboration [link fixed].


UPDATE II: A few points in reply to some comments here and elsewhere:

(1) David Sirota explains the significance of this issue and of Olbermann's new statement.  For those confused about that, pay special attention to Sirota's "Addendum."

(2) Some people seem incapable of understanding the significance here.  It's really not complicated.  It's a major breach of journalistic freedom -- and a serious and self-evident danger -- for a corporation to use its ownership of large media outlets to suppress stories for its own corporate purposes.  Olbermann's statements are widely perceived as his denying that GE did this, even though GE unquestionably did exactly that.  That's what makes Olbermann's statements significant:  the question of what GE did here.  I suppose if one finds the issue of corporate control of journalism to be unimportant, then one will find Olbermann's statements unimportant -- but that's about the only view that could justify that reaction.

(3) Nothing is more irrelevant to the discussion than whether one "likes" Keith Olbermann or enjoys watching him on the TV.  That would be relevant if the topic were:  "Who are your favorite TV stars?"  But that's not the topic being discussed here.  I suppose one could say (as some are arguing in Comments) that one should refrain from ever covering a story that might reflect poorly on anyone who has the same political views as you do; that's the view that led most Republicans to justify everything George Bush did (he's on our side; why criticize him?).  But I hope nobody reading this blog expects that sentiment to prevail here (truth-telling and ethical obligations are only for Fox News and Republicans).

(4) One praiseworthy act that Olbermann undertook was announcing that Richard Wolffe would no longer be on Countdown in response to the ethical issues I raised here on Saturday.  On a related note, The New Republic's Gabriel Sherman examines how Wolffe is now attempting to leverage his close relationship with Obama officials to write yet another fawning, sycophantic book about Obama -- this one on his first 30 days in office.  To publishers, Wolffe even touts his "personal relationships with Obama officials at 'the highest level' who have already 'expressed support informally' for the project."  Wolffe has become a perfect embodiment of the total merger of political power, corporate interests and "journalism." 


UPDATE III: University of Illinois Professor Robert McCheseny made the following findings -- using a Factiva search -- that were sent to me via email:

Olbermann had criticized O'Reilly 40 times on air from February-May 2009, and had made O'Reilly one of his "worst persons in the world" 23 times.  In June and July O'Reilly received only one negative mention, in early June, and never made the worst person list.

Moreover, Olbermann criticized Rupert Murdoch 25 times on his program between February and May 2009, and only once in June and July.

Conversely, O'Reilly went from making 27 negative mentions of General Electric in February-May 2009, to just two in June and none in July.

I suppose if one is really desirous to cling to the notion that Olbermann wasn't muzzled by GE as part of its deal with News Corp., one can find a way to do that, but doing so would take extreme amounts of mental effort.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn Greenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Keith Olbermann Washington