At Fox and MSNBC, Hosts Refire the Insult Machines
Executives at two of the country’s largest media companies are still trying to salvage what was essentially a cease-fire between MSNBC and the Fox News Channel.
The two cable news channels temporarily resumed their long-running feud this week after The New York Times reported that their parent companies, General Electric and the News Corporation, had struck a deal to stop each other’s televised personal attacks.
Fox News executives felt that MSNBC had broken the deal when Keith Olbermann, in an apparent show of independence, insulted his 8 p.m. rival, Bill O’Reilly, and the News Corporation’s chairman, Rupert Murdoch, on Monday. On his show, “Countdown,” Mr. Olbermann called Mr. O’Reilly a “racist clown.”
Mr. O’Reilly responded with his own attack two days later on his program, “The O’Reilly Factor,” where he claimed that G.E., through MSNBC, was “promoting the election of Barack Obama and then seeking to profit from his policies.”
The chief executives at General Electric, whose NBC News division operates MSNBC, and News Corporation, which owns Fox News, reached an unusual agreement last spring to halt the regular personal assaults on each other’s channels.
Eric Burns, the former host of Fox’s media criticism show “Fox News Watch” and the author of “All the News Unfit to Print,” said, “Even in an age where there seemed to be no boundaries, people at the very top of two networks thought, ‘Well, I guess there are boundaries, because they’ve been crossed.’ ”
But the agreement was strained almost from the start, according to employees at the channels, even though it mostly succeeded in stopping the vicious personal attacks lobbed by the two hosts until this week.
Despite the renewed tensions, Mr. Murdoch and his counterpart at G.E., Jeffrey R. Immelt, are still seeking a truce in a feud that has embarrassed both companies, said three employees at the companies with direct knowledge of the situation. Mr. Murdoch was said to be particularly incensed by Mr. Olbermann’s and Mr. O’Reilly’s sniping.
The deal extends beyond the prime-time hour that Mr. Olbermann and Mr. O’Reilly occupy. Employees of daytime programs on MSNBC were specifically told by executives not to mention Fox hosts in segments critical of conservative media figures, according to two staff members. The employees requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal matters.
In a statement, G.E. said, “While both companies agreed that the tone should be more civil, no one at G.E. told anyone at NBC News or MSNBC how to report the news.”
Some Fox employees said they were told in June and July not to flagrantly criticize General Electric. Fox said in a statement Friday, “This has nothing to do with preventing anyone from practicing journalism or interfering with freedom of speech — this is about corporate responsibility. We’ve never suppressed any stories about NBC or G.E. — both organizations are covered as news warrants.”
Still, some watchdog groups said the months-long cease-fire challenged the claims that the two media companies did not interfere in their on-air content.
The advocacy group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting asked its supporters on Friday to contact G.E., urging it to renounce the agreement with Fox.
Jeff Cohen, the founder of the group, said the deal between the two networks’ parent companies was a reason to be wary of corporate-owned TV news.
“It should remind news consumers of who calls the tune and pays the bills — and that TV reporters and even loud-mouthed commentators have corporate bosses whose interests are often not about unbridled journalism,” Mr. Cohen said.
Joan Walsh, the editor of Salon.com, said Thursday that it appeared that “the owners of two large news organizations colluded to make sure their audience got less, not more, information, and to promote their business interests, not the public interest.”
She asked, “How is it any different from a media organization making a deal with a politician not to expose a scandal in exchange for a political favor? We’d call that corruption, and I think this is the same thing.”
The executives had sought for years to tamp down the attacks by Mr. Olbermann and Mr. O’Reilly, to little success. Frustrated by the refusal by NBC’s chief executive, Jeffrey Zucker, to halt the attacks on Mr. O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, the chairman of Fox News, personally instructed Mr. O’Reilly’s program to aim at Mr. Immelt, people familiar with the situation said.
Peace talks, such as they were, resumed in the spring between G.E. and News Corporation executives. At a lunch in April, Mr. Ailes and Mr. Immelt agreed to tone down the attacks. It was not visible to viewers until after Mr. Immelt and Mr. Murdoch shook hands at an off-the-record conference sponsored by Microsoft in May and word of a cease-fire trickled down to both news divisions.
Mr. Olbermann told viewers on June 1 that he would halt his jokes about Fox News because he believed that Fox had played a part in inciting the death of the abortion doctor George Tiller. Inside Fox, executives chuckled. They knew that a pact had already been struck by Mr. Olbermann’s bosses to end the feud.
In the months after, when MSNBC would say something that strained the agreement, Fox News would respond accordingly, and vice versa.
In July, after Mr. Olbermann condemned Fox’s Glenn Beck for letting a guest assert that a terrorist attack in the United States might be a good thing, Mr. Beck booked a segment about G.E. and declared that a “merger between G.E. and the Obama administration” was “nearly complete.”
After the detente was reported by The Times on Monday, the fighting resumed and Mr. Olbermann claimed there was no deal among the parent companies. That was met by heated skepticism among bloggers.
Two days later, Mr. O’Reilly had his turn. His news hook: The Securities and Exchange Commission had fined G.E. $50 million on charges of misleading investors. And on Thursday, Mr. O’Reilly showed Mr. Immelt’s and Mr. Zucker’s faces and wondered how long they could allow “this barbaric display” — that is an Olbermann reference — “under the NBC News banner."
Mr. Olbermann and MSNBC declined to comment Friday.
It remains to be seen whether the personal attacks will be halted again. Fox’s stance on Friday suggested that the corporate criticism would not.
“At this point,” a Fox spokeswoman said Friday, “the entire situation is more about major issues at NBC and G.E. than it is about Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann.”