Glenn Greenwald, the Salon blogger known as much for his stinging critiques of the corporate media as he is for his passionate defense of civil liberties, highlighted this New York Times story about how General Electric, the corporation that owns NBC and MSNBC, collaborated with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp to quietly silence the public—and occasionally obnoxious—feud between MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and FOX News’s Bill O’Reilly.
Olbermann is often a blowhard, and his feud with O’Reilly often descended into mere name-calling and spouting off his ratings, but there is no denying that he is a progressive voice on cable news. What’s more, he and MSNBC’s other leftist host, Rachel Maddow, have been as willing to critique behavior from President Obama as they were from President Bush.
Olbermann and Maddow have been the loudest voices in the corporate media calling for attention to Obama’s continuation of Bush policies like indefinite detention, almost as loud as Greenwald himself.
That said, Olbermann (and Maddow) work for MSNBC, which is run by GE. GE is one of the world’s leading weapons manufacturers and one of its largest corporations. No matter how much Maddow and Olbermann may appear to be the good guys, they always have to work within a series of constraints, which are always going to be defined by the interests of the corporation and its profits.
It appears that those profits were being affected by O’Reilly’s tendency to go after GE in retaliation for Olbermann’s attacks on him. Greenwald writes:
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.
It should be shocking to no one reading this—as I assume GlobalComment readers are here because they support independent media and find something lacking in corporate coverage—that MSNBC is no more of a good guy than FOX. Olbermann and Maddow have prime-time television shows because MSNBC can make money from them, not because MSNBC owners and producers suddenly had a flash of conscience. Olbermann and Maddow are articulate advocates for their cause because MSNBC knows that trust is key in maintaining an audience. But as this event shows, when authenticity competes with corporate interests, corporate interests usually come first.
I wouldn’t cry for the loss of Olbermann’s feud with O’Reilly—it often seemed like less media critique and more macho dick-swinging. O’Reilly is odious, lies, harasses people and treats his guests abominably. Yet Olbermann’s attacks on him often seemed less about principle and more about ratings—Greenwald even notes that Olbermann has admitted his battle with O’Reilly spikes his ratings. I found it aggravating because it was going after low-hanging fruit rather than reporting on actual stories, and while Olbermann’s “Worst Persons In The World” segment was occasionally funny, it was all too often just another excuse to poke at O’Reilly and others.
When Pat Buchanan spilled his inner racist all over the Rachel Maddow show, many lefties wrote and petitioned MSNBC to dump “Uncle Pat” from the lineup of commentators. One of the more thoughtful posts came from Tami at Racialicious, who wrote:
So, what should responsible progressives and people dedicated to anti-racism do? I mean, this is “our” station giving Buchanan a platform, not Faux News. It is MSNBC that pays handsomely for a talking head that has said that women are “simply not endowed by nature with the same measures of single-minded ambition and the will to succeed in the fiercely competitive world of Western capitalism.” . . . On the other hand, you know being fired from MSNBC wouldn’t shut Buchanan down. In short order, he’d be spewing his foolishness on rightwing media with even less accountability and contradiction.
While Tami articulated the problems with arguing for Buchanan’s firing, she fell into the trap that many do: assuming that MSNBC is “our” network. Even if MSNBC were full to the brim with Maddows and Olbermanns and Ed Schultzes and Buchanan was given his walking papers, it wouldn’t be our network. “Morning Joe” provides three hours of the repugnant Joe Scarborough and the sycophantic Mika Brzezinski. Chris Matthews, despite being a nominal Democrat, has been the target of many complaints for his sexist comments about Hillary Clinton, among others. Andrea Mitchell, one of NBC’s straight news commentators, is the wife of former Fed chairman and deregulator extraordinaire Alan Greenspan.
The Olbermann/GE/FOX story only serves to confirm what we already knew. As Douglas Rushkoff eloquently pointed out, corporations are interested in one thing and one thing only: profit. While FOX News’s ideological bias neatly coincides with the corporation’s profit interests, MSNBC’s hosts are often opposed to those interests. The freedom any journalist enjoys to report what they like how they like is constrained by the company that publishes or broadcasts their work. While the right likes to claim media bias and show as evidence the fact that more journalists vote Democrat than Republican, the fact remains that the real control of the news comes from above.
I think Olbermann, and especially Maddow, are valuable commentators to have, and the fact that MSNBC has them at all shows a remarkable shift in the perception of left-of-center beliefs in this country. The sphere of legitimate debate has widened; the feud between O’Reilly and Olbermann, however juvenile it may have seemed, showed the value of a partisan press arguing across the divide by forcing each commentator to fact-check the other and dig for dirt. In a perfect world, they would have helped keep each other honest.
This story, though, highlights all the flaws of a for-profit media scheme and even more so of corporate consolidation. If MSNBC was its own company, the only thing it would care about would be Olbermann’s ratings, and no doubt they’d encourage him to do whatever he had to do to inflate them. While that on its own might not be good for journalism, the fact that Olbermann’s freedom to speak is compromised because of unrelated interests of the parent company should give everyone pause. What if the big story of the day is about GE? Will MSNBC simply fail to report it? And since GE is one of the largest companies in the world, how many important stories are falling by the wayside because the profit motive keeps reporters from investigating?
It’s funny, in a way. The drive for profit from the parent company can kill the thing that drives the audience for news and thus the profits of the news company: trust.