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Friday, August 7, 2009

O'Reilly, Olbermann, the New York Times, and the Feud

Yesterday, I wrote a piece detailing a story written by Brian Stelter of the New York Times that purported to claim that higher ups at GE and News Corp, including CEO's Jeffrey Immelt and Rupert Murdoch, that negotiated with each other and then put pressure on their two main cable news commentators, Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann, to reduce the criticism of the other's networks and each other. The piece was published this past weekend.

The article was written very matter of fact even though the charge in the article was startling. If in fact major corporations are pressuring their anchors to present the news a certain way, then that is corrupt. If those anchors capitulated to that pressure rather than going public, their integrity is in question. The whole story purported to reveal a deep corruption within the news business.

Right after the story broke, Olbermann proclaimed the story bunk and used his Worst Person in the world bit to call out Stelter, O'Reilly, and Murdoch.

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Meanwhile, O'Reilly used his Wednesday Talking Points Memo to call out GE. So, I called out Stelter both here and in an email. He responded and he reiterated that everything in his story was accurate and that both anchors vocally going after each other was merely "asserting their independence" when the deal was exposed.

Now, looking at Stelter's article, I believe it was factually accurate however the "facts" were presented in such a way as to totally mislead the public. Here's all that Stelter revealed about conservations between he and Olbermann. Olbermann said this in the article.

I am party to no deal

Olbermann had apparently said plenty more to Stelter. We know this because in the clip above he says plenty about what he told Stelter. First, Olbermann said, on and off the record, that he wasn't party to the deal and that none of his bosses ever even approached him about such a deal. Furthermore, he said that this story was a misinterpretation of an on air announcement that Olbermann made that he would no longer joke about O'Reilly in the aftermath of the Tiller murder. None of these things were quoted in the article. Olbermann didn't merely say he was party to no deal, but he totally contradicted the entire story as written. Yet, that adament contradiction wasn't in the piece.

Meanwhile, conversations with O'Reilly aren't even referenced. Normally, if you reach out to someone and get no response, that's what you say in the story. Stelter doesn't even do that leading me to believe he didn't even try and speak with O'Reilly. So, what do we have? We have a story that centers on two anchors. One anchor adamently denies the story and the other one apparently isn't even asked. Yet, the author proceeds with the story accusing both of media corruption. How's that for fair?

Stelter uses several anonymous sources close to the supposed deal as his back up, and then he proclaims that in June and July attacks from each to each nearly stopped. The timeline here is important as well. Dr. George Tiller was killed on May 31st. For the next week, Olbermann and others at MSNBC actually accused O'Reilly of contributing to the murder. O'Reilly fired back and the shots went on for about a week. So, if there was a lull, it didn't start until then. Here's how Stelter characterized it.

But like any title fight, the final round could not end without an attempted knockout. On June 1, the day after the abortion provider George Tiller was killed in Kansas, Mr. Olbermann took to the air to cite Mr. O’Reilly’s numerous references to “Tiller, the baby killer” and to announce that he would retire his caricature of Mr. O’Reilly.

“The goal here is to get this blindly irresponsible man and his ilk off the air,” he said.

The next day, Mr. O’Reilly made the extraordinary claim that “federal authorities have developed information about General Electric doing business with Iran, deadly business” and published Mr. Immelt’s e-mail address and mailing address, repeating it slowly for emphasis

Now, this can only be read a few different ways. First, while the two sides were negotiating the end of the feud, the two anchors were taking extreme shots at the other side knowing all along that a deal was imminent. Or, it might be that they took these shots and then were told to cool it and they did. Stelter claims that following this vicious salvo back and forth that the two sides stopped throwing lobs at each other for June and July. Here's how he characterized it to me.

I examined Mr. O'Reilly's show carefully in June and July and verified that the references to GE and NBC stopped almost completely.

I asked him what his methodology was in examining the O'Reilly Factor "carefully" but Stelter ended the communication there. There are some things to keep in mind here. First, June and July are the two months that both Olbermann and O'Reilly work the least. Each take a vacation over the fourth (Olbermann even took another one) and each works almost no Fridays. As such, the time in question amounts to 27 shows. Second, without context, what does it mean that O'Reilly's references to GE and NBC almost stopped completely? During that time, Michael Jackson died, the health care debate unfolded, protest were held in Iran, and the President held two press conferences? How much time was supposed to be dedicated to GE during this time?

This supposed deal also just doesn't pass the sniff test. O'Reilly celebrated being the number one cable news show for 100 months earlier in the year. Olbermann has become the top guy at MSNBC mostly by demonizing O'Reilly. Are we really to believe that corporate bosses were going to try and tinker with two successful programs?

Furthermore, Stelter's article made it seem as though attacks from each to the other were mostly sort of childish and personal barbs. O'Reilly's stories on GE and NBC are part of themese of media bias, media corruption, and corporate corruption. For instance, Stelter says that O'Reilly made a "startling charge" that GE was doing business with Iran. Its only startling if you don't watch him regularly since he's made that charge for more than two years. So, are we to believe that O'Reilly would stop reporting on things he sees as news because the corporate bosses thought it was too vicious? Would O'Reilly really stop reporting GE's advantageous relationship in the Obama admin

If this were true, O'Reilly would be everything that he rails against. He made a huge deal about how MSNBC and CNBC reporters were told to tone it down on their criticism of Obama. Now, we're supposed to believe that when his bosses told him to tone down his criticism of NBC he just capitulated. Would he really risk his entire reputation and lifelong resume in order to please his bosses? Furthermore, Stelter quotes several anonymous sources that were close to the deal. If they were working on the deal, why would they then leak it to the media? Did these folks think that Stelter would sit on this story? What did they think would happen when word leaked? Why would you work on a deal for months and then leak word of said deal to the media so that the publicity would kill it?

Furthermore, Stelter claims that higher ups in both organizations felt that the feud was hurting both brands. The NBC and GE brand are hurt. There's no doubt about that. Yet, Fox, Fox News, and News Corps brands are thriving. Now, we're supposed to believe that a successful brand would risk its reputation by trying to muzzle its top personality.

The problem I have with this story is that it is primarily about two anchors, Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann. One, Olbermann, furiously denied the story and was willing to go on the record with that denial. The article totally downplayed this denial. The other anchor isn't even quoted and it appears he wasn't even contacted. So, one principle furiously denies the charges and the other isn't even contacted. How accurate can the story be? The story relies entirely on a few quotes, mysterious meetings, and unclear analysis of shows over a relatively small sample. It makes a startling charge with dubious evidence.

Since the article was published, Olbermann has railed against O'Reilly, Fox News, and Murdoch. O'Reilly has had a couple of segments focusing on GE, NBC, corruption. Stelter took this as affirmation that he was right. I challenge that, but there's an easy way to prove me wrong. If Stelter's August 1 assertion is right, then his storyis the biggest media story of the year. If it's true that corporate higher ups pressured anchors to tone down their rhetoric and those anchors capitulated, then that is media corruption of the highest order. Given that one of the two anchors, Bill O'Reilly, has made a living railing against corporate corruption, that's hypocrisy of the highest order. So, this is a story that requires follow up. If Stelter continues on this story and reveals more, he will be proven right. If this is the last we hear of this, then that also speaks for itself.

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