The agreement between top brass at General Electric and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation – to tamp down the war of words between MSNBC host Keith Olbermann and Fox News star Bill O’Reilly – has broken down after the truce was revealed by the New York Times last weekend.
Stung by criticism of caving in to corporate pressure, Olbermann gave a runner-up “Worst Persons in the World” award to “Bill-O the Clown” and the top prize to Murdoch for having “muzzled Bill-O, kept him from speaking his mind.”
That prompted O’Reilly to go after GE chief executive Jeffrey Immelt about a $50 million fine that GE paid to settle a Securities and Exchange Commission complaint.
Olbermann also attacked the New York Times story for not reflecting his denial of any deal. Olbermann added in a comment to Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald that "there's no 'deal.' I would never consent, and, fortunately, MSNBC and NBC News would never ask me to."
But it’s been apparent to some watchers of Olbermann’s “Countdown” and other liberal-oriented shows on MSNBC that there had been a toning down of the taunts toward right-wing Fox News following the reported truce that was initiated by Immelt and Murdoch in the spring.
As Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz noted on Friday, “a GE spokesman [was] quoted as saying the corporation was ‘happy’ about the new ‘level of civility.’”
Also, it fell to Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart to highlight the Fox News role in promoting and praising the disruptive protests at “town hall” meetings of Democratic lawmakers trying to discuss health care reform with their constituents. MSNBC’s attention to the hooliganism focused on the medical industry ties of protest backers.
Despite Olbermann’s umbrage over suggestions that he had been muzzled, the process as described in the New York Times story is not unusual in the mainstream news media. I’ve personally witnessed similar behavior at major media companies where I’ve worked.
For instance, in the 1980s at the Associated Press, we would occasionally cite stories that had appeared in the right-wing Washington Times and often we would note – as a warning to readers – that the newspaper was founded by South Korean religious leader Sun Myung Moon.
After all, not only was Moon a controversial cult leader who was accused of “brainwashing” young Americans but he had been cited in a congressional investigation as an agent of South Korean intelligence, had access to vast reservoirs of mysterious cash that led to a tax fraud conviction, and had bankrolled the Times explicitly to bolster his political influence in Washington.
The AP also wasn’t picking on Moon and his newspaper. We would often note relevant connections of publications, such as “semi-official” news outlets of foreign governments or sponsorship by special interests.
However, when the Washington Times signed up for the AP wire service (in AP parlance becoming “a member” of the news cooperative), Moon’s executives demanded that AP reporters and editors forgo any references to Moon’s connection when citing Times news articles.
The demand led the AP’s assistant bureau chief to post a letter on the office bulletin board prohibiting references to Moon except in business stories about the Washington Times. The prohibition quickly stopped any warning to readers about the curious ownership of the newspaper or the possibility that its stories had a propaganda purpose.
By the nature of such edicts, some editors soon expanded the restriction and deleted Moon references even from business stories about the Times. Better to be safe, the thinking went, than sorry.
The AP’s decision to treat the Washington Times as a legitimate American newspaper, rather than a propaganda sheet that was tied to a foreign cult leader with an overt political agenda, enhanced the Times influence in Washington. Its stories and reporters came to be treated respectfully on C-SPAN and other news programs.
That meant that Americans – tuning in and hearing the Washington Times’ harsh attacks on critics of Republican policies – weren’t alerted to the propaganda distortions that often pervaded Times articles. [For details on Moon and his propaganda, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Even earlier in the 1980s, AP executives had cracked down on staff reporters and editors when we tried to fact-check false or misleading claims made by President Ronald Reagan.
After his first presidential press conference, the Washington bureau produced a story citing factual errors and other distortions in Reagan’s answers. The article prompted a counterattack from the White House and complaints from Reagan’s many supporters in the U.S. news media, including owners of some AP “member” newspapers.
Since AP’s own general manager Keith Fuller also was an ardent Reagan admirer, the AP's Washington bureau was on shaky ground when we sought to fact-check Reagan’s next news conference, which also was filled with misstatements and unsupported claims.
As the fact-checking article was being compiled, the AP's New York brass brought down the hammer, making clear that no further challenges to Reagan’s fact-challenged statements would be tolerated.
Soon, nearly the entire Washington press corps had joined the AP in ignoring Reagan’s many errors, as author Mark Hertsgaard later noted in his book, On Bended Knee.
I witnessed similar pressures brought to bear inside Newsweek (where senior editors made clear their displeasure over my continued investigation of the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra cover-up) and at PBS “Frontline” (where Republicans applied pressure via the budget process and through ideological appointees to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting).
In all these cases, the news organizations surely would deny they had bent to political pressure, either internal or external. But that is simply the way of the world in media enterprises that lack financial independence from the people who write the checks.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on August 7, 2009.