By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2008
Bill O'Reilly, the Fox News star, is mounting an extraordinary televised assault on the chief executive of General Electric, calling him a "pinhead" and a "despicable human being" who bears responsibility for the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq.
On the surface, O'Reilly's charges revolve around GE's history of doing business with Iran. But the attacks grow out of an increasingly bitter feud between O'Reilly and the company's high-profile subsidiary, NBC, one that has triggered back-channel discussions involving News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch, Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, NBC chief executive Jeff Zucker and General Electric's CEO, Jeffrey Immelt.
Ailes called Zucker on his cellphone last summer, clearly agitated over a slam against him by MSNBC host Keith Olbermann. According to sources familiar with the conversation, Ailes warned that if Olbermann didn't stop such attacks against Fox, he would unleash O'Reilly against NBC and would use the New York Post as well.
Both Fox and the Post are owned by Murdoch, who complained about Olbermann's conduct in separate calls to Zucker and Immelt.
The high-level appeals failed, and O'Reilly has escalated his criticism of GE in recent weeks, declaring, "If my child were killed in Iraq, I would blame the likes of Jeffrey Immelt."
GE has long had a corporate presence in Iran, which U.S. officials say is providing weapons and training for Shiite militias in the Iraq conflict. Under growing criticism from the public and its own shareholders, GE announced in 2005 that it would accept no new business in Iran and would wind down existing contracts, which mostly involved sales of oil, gas and energy and health-care equipment. The remaining work, valued at less than $50 million, amounts to less than .01 percent of GE's income, and the company says the final four contracts will expire within weeks.
What began four years ago as a colorful feud between rival commentators, instigated by Olbermann as a way of drawing attention, has become a tale of bruised egos and secret maneuvering at the highest levels of two multinational giants.
Fox News spokesman Brian Lewis said Ailes never offered a "quid pro quo" involving a cease-fire by O'Reilly and Olbermann. "That's editorial control of Bill's show, and we don't do that," he said. "Bill doesn't run topics by Roger, or anyone else for that matter."
Lewis dismissed the notion that Ailes has ever suggested using Murdoch's tabloid for revenge, saying: "Roger doesn't control the editorial policy of the New York Post."
Olbermann delights in ridiculing "Bill-O" virtually every night for his style, his interviews and his opinions, lambasting what he calls "Fox Noise" and often bestowing on O'Reilly his "Worst Person in the World" award.
O'Reilly has denounced NBC just as vehemently but now aims higher on the corporate ladder. On his Fox News show this month, O'Reilly said that Immelt "is doing business right this minute with Iran, who are killing our soldiers. . . . That Immelt man answers to me. . . . That's why I'm in this business right now, to get guys like that."
Days later, O'Reilly interviewed Tom Borelli, a portfolio manager and dissident GE shareholder. The program played a clip of Borelli, at GE's annual meeting, telling Immelt that the company's products are keeping Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "comfy when he's plotting to kill U.S. troops and trying to annihilate Israel. It's just an outrage."
Last week, in an unrelated segment with CBS's Kimberly Dozier about being injured in Iraq, O'Reilly used a graphic that combined GE's logo with a photo of Ahmadinejad. The heading: "Business Partners."
GE spokesman Gary Sheffer called O'Reilly's remarks "offensive," saying: "He has a right to his opinion, and we equally have a right to be appalled by it. We felt he crossed the line. . . . Nothing we supply, or any goods and services we have supplied to Iran, is in any way endangering U.S. troops."
Asked about O'Reilly's motivation, Sheffer said that executives at Murdoch's News Corp. "tell us if the attacks on O'Reilly end, the attacks on GE will end. They've had conversations with our news executives saying, 'If you stop, we'll stop.' " An NBC spokeswoman confirmed the calls.
Fox would not comment on the criticism of Immelt, and O'Reilly declined to be interviewed. Some Fox staffers say Olbermann was out of bounds last month when he imagined the fate of "a poor kid" born to a transgendered man who became pregnant, adding: "Kind of like life at home for Bill's kids."
The sniping between O'Reilly and Olbermann initially seemed like good entertainment. But NBC News President Steve Capus grew alarmed when O'Reilly began saying that NBC correspondent Richard Engel was taking an antiwar position in his reporting from Iraq and that the network wasn't recognizing the early success of President Bush's surge.
"It is one thing to have corporate jousting between Keith and O'Reilly," Capus said. "When it becomes an over-the-top, inaccurate distortion and gross misrepresentation of the job being performed by Richard Engel, then I'm going to be concerned and feel the need to act."
Early last year, the sources say, Capus called Ailes to say that O'Reilly had gone over the line with reckless attacks on Engel. But, the sources recounted, Ailes said he agreed that NBC was against the war and had aligned itself with Olbermann's mockery. Capus, he said, had the power to shut down the situation by telling Olbermann to back off.
The conversation grew tense as Capus asked whether Ailes was threatening him with retaliation by O'Reilly and News Corp. if Olbermann kept up his criticism. Ailes kept returning to highly personal comments by Olbermann, whom he referred to with an expletive, and the impasse remained. The sources declined to be identified furnishing details of private conversations.
In last summer's conversation between Ailes and Zucker -- the two men have known each other since Zucker tapped him as a commentator for the "Today" show in the early 1990s -- the onetime Republican consultant asked whether NBC still cared about the truth. Olbermann had inaccurately called Ailes "the lead political consultant for Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign." Ailes worked for Giuliani's New York mayoral campaign in 1989, but no evidence has surfaced that he played a role in the presidential bid.
Zucker did nothing as a result of the call. "I have never asked Keith Olbermann to tone anything down," he said in a brief interview.
Olbermann said in an interview that his sources say Ailes was offering the campaign advice, which he did not explain or detail in his commentary. It would be a major breach of journalistic ethics for the head of a news channel to advise a politician, especially one his reporters are covering.
Fox's Lewis laughed off the charge, saying: "If he was offering Rudy advice, you think Rudy would have done as badly as he did? No way Roger was giving him advice."
Murdoch's call to Zucker, which was polite in tone, involved a request that Olbermann not air video from a Daily Kos blogger who had made a scene at O'Reilly's Long Island home. That, Murdoch said, should be off limits.
Activist Mike Stark had confronted O'Reilly when he was retrieving his newspaper, planted derogatory signs on his street and distributed derogatory material to neighbors. Olbermann says the only time he ever talked to Stark was to interview him about a stunt in which he called O'Reilly's radio show and mentioned Olbermann's name.
Olbermann says that NBC Senior Vice President Phil Griffin called to ask him to exercise restraint but that he had already decided to criticize Stark for going to O'Reilly's home. He told viewers, "with great regret," that Stark's behavior was "not acceptable."
He and NBC are fair game for O'Reilly, Olbermann says, but "when you start accusing a corporation of murdering Americans, with the thinnest and most ridiculous arguments behind it," it is unfair to GE employees.
While O'Reilly is cheered by conservatives and Olbermann is a hero on the left, their dispute is more personal than ideological. Fox staffers say they don't share O'Reilly's obsession with Olbermann, noting that the "O'Reilly Factor" audience of 2.5 million viewers is 2 1/2 times the size of Olbermann's. "Countdown," however, has become increasingly competitive among younger viewers.
O'Reilly initially retaliated in 2006 with a petition on his Web site that urged MSNBC to fire Olbermann. But he does not mention Olbermann's name on the air. Instead, he routinely assails NBC -- sometimes naming Zucker and Capus -- as an organization that "spews out far-left propaganda," is "the most aggressive anti-Bush network" and is "in the tank" for Barack Obama.
Immelt had GE put out an internal memo last month, saying "a Fox News personality" has been "misleading viewers about our company." GE may continue selling equipment to Iranian hospitals under a humanitarian program licensed by the U.S. government.