Friday night is for dumping embarrassing news, as media companies well know. So it is that the New York Times now surfaces a secret deal in which NBC is said to cravenly promise to ease its criticism of Fox News.
Such an agreement would mitigate the most high-profile battle within contemporary media, a feud that hearkened back to the newspaper wars of the early 20th century and which offered heartening — ever so slightly heartening — evidence that, in an era of 500 channel television sets, corporate media didn't have to be toothless or dull media.
But it's last chapter is all too predictable: A powerful, suited overlord got embarrassed by all the boat-rocking and called things to a halt. The suit, in this case, would be GE's Jeffrey Immelt, a frequent target of Fox shouting head Bill O'Reilly and his professional stalker Jesse Waters; according to the Times, Immelt sealed a deal with News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch this past May, "with a handshake" at Microsoft headquarters.
Details were left to underlings Jeff Zucker, at NBC, and Gary Ginsberg, at News Corp:
[They] agreed that hosts on Fox and MSNBC would resist lobbing mortars at each
other or their parent companies, according to an employee with direct knowledge of the agreement.... "For this war to stop, it meant fewer headaches on the corporate side," the employee said...
Then the orders went out to the troops — meaning, to journalists, now being told what true things they should avoid saying or investigating, because it was not in the interests of their corporate parent companies. Or at least that's what the Times' sources say:
Phil Griffin, said on a daily conference call with producers that he wanted the channel's other programs to follow Mr. Olbermann's lead and restrain from criticizing Fox directly, according to two employees. At Fox News, some staff members were told to "be fair" to G.E.
The feud between the two corporations dates back at least five years, to the first of MSNBC Countdown host Keith Olbermann's relentless attacks on O'Reilly, who uses his highly-rated Fox News show to attack various lefty targets, including an abortion doctor, "Tiller the Baby-Killer," who O'Reilly railed against some 28 times on his show, until someone finally murdered the guy.
O'Reilly attacks ginned up Olbermann's ratings, but the feud spread; O'Reilly, who refused to utter Olbermann's name, lashed out at General Electric and NBC News; News Corp.'s New York Post was enlisted to repeatedly jab at Olbermann.
Olbermann can be an insufferable blowhard, and there was no small amount of ego and self-interest behind his O'Reilly slams, a point emphasized in the Times' story. His attacks could go too far; Olbermann once wore an O'Reilly mask and gave a Nazi salute, on air. "It was time to grow up," a source told the Times.
But it's out of a swamp of impure motives and foolish mistakes than good journalism must arise, and for those who distrusted Fox News there was something comforting in the idea that MSNBC was ready to jump on the network's misstatements, tasteless moments and overreaches. Fox-lovers no doubt relished monitoring of the liberal media housed at 30 Rock.'
Olbermann protests to the Times that "I am party to no deal," but the paper documents how he appears to have led the way on this one. Our jaded hearts twinge only slightly for those NBC News staff who consider themselves journalists but swallow these sorts of orders from above; far more upset is our id, at the prospect of relinquishing the great fun of a vigorous — and vigorously cleansing — media feud.