Out and a Bout
Friday, August 7, 2009
It was never intended to be a cease-fire.
The best that the men who run two of the nation's media giants were hoping to achieve was a ratcheting down of the rhetoric between their warring commentators.
But Keith Olbermann refused to play along this week, Bill O'Reilly returned fire, and the New York Times got wounded in the crossfire.
The peace talks with Fox sparked a fierce battle within MSNBC, where a faction led by Olbermann argued that the network's journalistic integrity was at stake -- and that any leak of a nonaggression pact with Fox could damage NBC's reputation for independence.
Things had looked very different in April. When Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes left the private dining room of Jeffrey Immelt, the General Electric chief executive whose company includes NBC, at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, they thought they had a firm deal. But as in any high school grudge match, neither brawler wanted to back down.
For viewers, the constant attacks have been a grand spectator sport, but their bruising nature has at times been painful to watch. Olbermann started the assault on "Bill-O" five years ago as a way of boosting his fortunes against "The O'Reilly Factor," which roughly triples his ratings; O'Reilly refuses to mention the "Countdown" host by name, instead training his ammo on MSNBC, NBC and Immelt.
The Washington Post reported last year that a series of back-channel discussions involving Ailes, Immelt, Fox owner Rupert Murdoch and NBC chief executive Jeff Zucker failed to halt the sniping. Last spring, according to executives familiar with the matter who declined to be identified discussing private meetings, the brass tried again at 30 Rock. A GE executive called a senior Fox official, and a secret lunch was arranged. A Fox representative confirmed the meeting.
After using a side entrance to Immelt's 53rd-floor dining room -- their Manhattan buildings are a block apart -- Ailes offered a blunt, if slightly jocular, diagnosis of the problem. He could control his nutcases, Ailes said, but Immelt couldn't control his.
Immelt detailed his grievances. His elderly parents in Cincinnati, he said, watch O'Reilly every night. How did Ailes think his mother felt when O'Reilly put up Immelt's picture and blamed him for involvement in the killing of American soldiers in Iraq?
(GE had done business in Iran, a nation which U.S. officials said was arming Shiite militias in Iraq, but the corporation has since ended those contracts and now provides only health-care aid licensed by the federal government. "If my child were killed in Iraq, I would blame the likes of Jeffrey Immelt," O'Reilly once told viewers.)
Ailes countered by asking Immelt how O'Reilly's wife must feel when Olbermann made references to the Fox host's personal life and a long-settled sexual harassment suit. Olbermann once 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."
Immelt and Ailes agreed to talk to their troops about lowering the temperature. In May, during a private Microsoft conference in Redmond, Wash., Immelt and Murdoch confirmed the understanding. If either host or network was in the news, that would be fair comment, but the personal stuff had to stop.