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David Sirota

David Sirota

Posted: August 3, 2009 09:25 AM

Taboo Alert: The Real -- And Most Disturbing -- News In the Olbermann-O'Reilly Feud


The New York Times story about MSNBC's corporate parent, General Electric, forcing the network to soften its criticism of Fox News has generated a lot of buzz over the weekend. But what's so telling about the story and the residual chatter is that, with the exception of Glenn Greenwald's typically terrific coverage, it largely misses the newsiest -- and most taboo -- part of the whole brouhaha.

What the Times story and the aftershock gossip focuses on is the personality feud and new detente between MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Fox News' Bill O'Reilly. That's supposedly the "news." And yet the real story is the heavy-handed intervention by the CEO of General Electric effectively forcing MSNBC's news team off a crucially important set of stories -- namely, Fox News' politicization/Republicanization of media.

For years, Establishment media voices like Charlie Rose (yes, the same Charlie Rose who the Times story says played a direct role in the corporate parents' intervention at MSNBC and Fox) have insisted that it's a black-helicopter-style conspiracy theory to assert that corporate parent companies pressure/impact/limit the newsrooms they control.

But, of course, the evidence has become overwhelming in the last 15 years.

The three most obvious that come to mind are:

  • 1995: CBS' 60 Minutes backs off it's expose of the tobacco industry, due, in part, to pressure from its parent company and the tobacco industry. This sordid affair was made famous by the movie The Insider.
  • 2001: NBC's president engages in direct political lobbying against a government order that would force NBC's parent company, General Electric, to clean up its mess in the Hudson River. At the same time, environmentalists noted that NBC did not give the Hudson River cleanup story nearly enough attention.
  • 2009: The Washington Post's parent company offers corporations and their lobbyists "off-the-record access" to its reporters and editors in exchange for direct financial contributions of up to250,000.

This, of course, says nothing of the even more nefarious and arguably more widespread practice of these same corporate media outlets promoting as "objective" voices reporters and editorialists* who have secret financial interests in the news they cover -- all without any disclosure. Just a few examples:

  • Richard Wolffe: This former Newsweek reporter is now a paid corporate PR consultant. Yet, he appears on MSNBC as a disinterested "political analyst," even hosting Olbermann's show. Wolffe, in fact, publicly sells his media prominence on MSNBC as a reason for corporations to hire him. The implicit suggestion is that the corporate client will be able to buy a spokesman who gets to go on television without disclosing his financial interests - that is, Wolffe offers the corporate client the veneer of non-partisan objectivity. I flagged this ugly situation a week ago, and think I was the first to even notice it, despite how blatant a conflict of interest it is. The fact that it has gone on for so many months without anyone -- much less MSNBC's management -- questioning it shows just how mundane this kind of thing is.
  • Doug Bandow: In 2005, Businessweek reported that this senior fellow at the Cato Institute "resigned from the libertarian think tank on Dec. 15 after admitting that he had accepted payments from indicted Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff for writing op-ed articles favorable to the positions of some of Abramoff's clients." Specifically, Bandow "had accepted money from Abramoff for writing between 12 and 24 articles over a period of years, beginning in the mid '90s."
  • Armstrong Williams: In 2005, this syndicated radio host and columnist took a quarter million dollars from the Education Department to promote President Bush's controversial education policy "on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same," according to USA Today.
  • Thomas Friedman: This New York Times columnist has become the single most prominent media voice in support of the multinational corporate agenda and the ultra-wealthy - and his credibility is based on the perception that Friedman is a completely disinterested commentator. However, Friedman -- by marriage -- is a member of the Bucksbaum empire, one of the biggest real estate conglomerates in the world.
  • Former Generals: David Barstow of the New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for "reveal[ing] how some retired generals, working as radio and television analysts, had been co-opted by the Pentagon to make its case for the war in Iraq, and how many of them also had undisclosed ties to companies that benefited from policies they defended."

A corporate media apologist might try to argue that both the latter and former sets of examples are just the very rare egregious examples and further, that in the case of Wolffe and Friedman, there's no direct corporate control/conflict-of-interest because they don't report on the companies they directly work for. But that's actually the bigger point: A newsroom or an individual reporter doesn't have to be directly shilling for their financial interest in order to be unduly compromised.

Sure, examples like CBS's corporate management backing off 60 Minutes on the tobacco story and General Electric heavy-handedly intervening in MSNBC's news decisions are probably somewhat rare. And sure, Wolffe and Friedman (at least to my knowledge) never shilled directly for a client/business interest they were making money off of. However, the direct connect/interest undoubtedly shapes their content by the silent processes of story selection, omission and tone.

For every blatant example of a newsroom or a journalist brazenly shilling for their corporate master's bottom line, there are infinite examples of those newsrooms or journalists avoiding or omitting stories that might offend those masters' in the first place. Is it, for instance, really just a coincidence that the frightening effects of corporate agriculture have rarely been the topic of all those Sunday "news" shows whose sponsor are Archer Daniels Midland? Is it really just a coincidence that Friedman shills for corporations and the wealthy, when he is member of a billionaire family? Is it really just a coincidence that a newspaper like the Washington Post, which was trying to effectively sell its news coverage to corporate interests, generates stories that tend to be particularly soft on corporations and chock full of unchallenged corporate PR?

The list of examples is endless -- and the obvious answer is that none of it is a coincidence, even if most of these conflicts are kept completely hidden from the news-consuming audience.

But, then, the deception -- and the ubiquity of the deception -- is a big part of the corruption that is destroying journalism. Indeed, the fact that the Olbermann-O'Reilly personality feud was presented as the "big" story -- and not the General Electric intervention -- is a tacit confirmation that corporate-media symbiosis has become such an assumed part of journalism, that many journalists themselves don't see it as any kind of problem, much less news.

Of course, there are certainly some who do. The New York Times' David Barstow did when he reported on the financial interests of former generals appearing on television. Rachel Maddow did when she went out of her way to inform viewers that a supposedly disinterested guest she had on the night before was actually on the board of a corporation the guest was effectively shilling for. And most leading bloggers -- as opposed to most leading journalists who criticize bloggers' ethics -- go out of their way to disclose to readers their personal/financial connections to the news stories they are covering. Those, however, are the exceptions, not the rule.

The victims of this increasingly corrupt media system are both the viewers who are unknowingly fed a steady diet of stealth propaganda, and those trying to build truly independent media. I can personally attest to the latter.

As an independent journalist, I have gone out of my way to avoid financial/personal conflicts of interest, at considerable financial cost to me and my family. That means, for example, turning down various job/client opportunities (even for political groups I agree with), even when money is tight in a recession.

I'm not complaining - I am proud of my independence and I can sleep at night knowing my credibility isn't compromised. However, now that the media ecosphere no longer demands, incentivizes or rewards that kind of independence, that decision to be independent has become purely a decision of personal virtue - not industry mandate. It therefore puts me at a financial/competitive disadvantage in the economy at large.

Like other journalists and outlets who work to protect their credibility, I am sacrificing job/income opportunities in order to preserve my journalistic independence. From a journalism ethics perspective, that makes sense: If I am simultaneously a "journalist" and in the business of trying to recruit corporate clients for, say, a PR firm, the latter business will naturally impact the former. For example, I might be less inclined to write hard-hitting pieces against corporate interests in general, for fear of scaring away potential PR clients.

However, from a career perspective, "ethics" no longer make as much sense. I am going out of my way to preserve independence in a journalism industry that doesn't even pretend to insist on that independence. Indeed, you can be Richard Wolffe and openly get paid by corporations and not risk your place on MSNBC or your billing as a supposed disinterested "political analyst."

The result is a truly corrupt incentive system: the economic incentive now for the average journalist isn't to protect one's independence by avoiding financial conflicts of interest - but to sell out knowing there probably won't be any ramifications for one's journalism career.

Will this ever change? Well, it's hard to know. But I can say this: You can bet that until we build a vibrant independent media and until the news consumers use their economic/audience power to demand more independence (or at least disclosure) from the corporate media, the rule will continue.

* Note: I know that editorialists/opinionists/commentators aren't "objective" in the sense that yes, of course, they have subjective opinions because that's their stated job. But the expectations of professional editorialists/opinionists/commentators is that their opinions are ideologically motivated - not motivated out of a desire to protect their own undisclosed financial interests. So, when I use "objective" when referring to editorialists/opinionists/commentators, I am referring specifically to that kind of personal financial objectivity.