Political Donations Are OK for Executives, Who Don’t Influence News…on Some Other Planet

MSNBC host Keith Olbermann’s indefinite suspension for violating network policies regarding political donations lasted all of two work days. On his Wednesday show (11/10/10), Olbermann brought up the point that FAIR made in our alert–the difficulty of squaring such a policy with MSNBC parent General Electric‘s political giving and multi-million dollar lobbying.

Olbermann was joined by Nation blogger Greg Mitchell and Howard Kurtz of CNN/Daily Beast. Olbermann asked Kurtz:

Howard, how far up the tree does it go? If you and I and Greg can’t donate, can our bosses donate? Can our bosses’ boss donate? Can Rupert Murdoch donate? Because surely, no matter what you might think of what I did, he must have more influence on what appears on TV news than I do. And if it’s not Rupert, what about the chairman of GE or of Comcast?

Kurtz replied:

Once you get up to the corporate level, where they’re not meddling with newsroom decisions, whether it’s Time Warner, General Electric, News Corp, then corporations are going to give money. They lobby. They have corporate interests.

That left Olbermann to say:

OLBERMANN: Greg, to your experience, is there a part of a company–another part of a company that puts on a news broadcast or publishes a newspaper that isn’t involved, to some degree? Do you know any chairman of the ultimate authorities who don’t get involved in news decisions in some large sense, at least?

MITCHELL: You could probably talk about that better than I could, but, again, in the real world, the owners of companies have an interest.

Indeed. The temporary squelching of the Olbermann/Bill O’Reilly feud last year was reportedly arranged at the corporate level, between GE and NewsCorp executives.

And during an interview with Al Franken (10/25/05), Olbermann once explained how political pressure from inside the news division worked:

You were good enough to come on this newscast with me late in the summer of 2003. It was August or September. And by coincidence, either the next day or the day before, Janeane Garofalo had been a guest on the newscast. And I got called into a vice president’s office here and told, “Hey, we don’t mind you interviewing these guys, but should you really have put liberals on, on consecutive nights?”

And a recent New York magazine article recounted the fight inside MSNBC over Phil Donahue’s program, which was seen by some as too critical of the drive to war with Iraq. MSNBC heavyweights like Chris Matthews seemed to know that going to the bosses was how to change what was on the air:

Donahue’s problems only increased when Chris Matthews let it be known that he wanted Donahue off the air. Matthews was a rising force at the network, with a reported salary of $5 million. He cultivated former GE CEO Jack Welch and had the ear of NBC CEO Bob Wright. (The two summered together on Nantucket.) Matthews saw himself as MSNBC‘s biggest star, and he was upset that the network was pumping significant resources into Donahue’s show. In the fall of 2002, U.S. News & World Report ran a gossip item that had Matthews saying over lunch in Washington that if Donahue stays on the air, he could bring down the network.

That piece also quotes NBC CEO Robert Wright saying that MSNBC‘s post-9/11 strategy was to try and outfox Fox News: “We have to be more conservative than they are.”

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.