Aug 2, 2009

The pawn shops

The New York Times on Friday reported on a bizarre and troubling "cease fire" arranged by corporate executives at G.E. (owner of MSNBC) and News Corp. (owner of Fox News) to end an on-air feud between two of their companies' biggest stars, Keith Obermann and Bill O'Reilly. For some reason Charlie Rose of PBS was involved, too, as a mediator.

Astonishingly, the reason for negotiating a cease fire had nothing to do with journalistic integrity or bettering the civic dialogue. The discussions were triggered by a fear among top executives that the feud, which was good for ratings in the respective news divisions, would harm the carefully crafted images of the corporate parents. As the NYT writes:
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.

“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.”

Neither Fox's O'Reilly nor MSNBC's Olbermann are traditional journalists, so their bloviations are not bound by the ethics most newsrooms labor under. One could even argue that by letting their feud boil over, the two hosts had poisoned the atmosphere for their newsrooms by attracting more cynical and partisan audiences and crowding out good storytelling.

But the cease fire wasn't about content or responsible journalism. These discussions were because rich and powerful businessmen wanted to protect their profits. They obliterated the wall that separates news from business and meddled with news content. And their meddling didn't stop with Olbermann and O'Reilly, as the NYT found:
Shortly after, Phil Griffin, the MSNBC president, told producers that he wanted the channel’s other programs to follow Mr. Olbermann’s lead and restrain from criticizing Fox directly, according to two employees. At Fox News, some staff members were told to “be fair” to G.E.
If you need more convincing to be shocked, Glenn Greenwald at Salon offers an interesting analysis here. He gets breathless at times, but his outrage is aimed in the right direction.

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