By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
On June 1, after the slaying of George Tiller, Olbermann savaged O'Reilly. Noting that O'Reilly had repeatedly attacked the abortion doctor with such broadsides as "Tiller has blood on his hands," Olbermann suggested that O'Reilly contributed to the climate surrounding the fatal shooting. Olbermann announced that things had gotten so serious he would no longer use an O'Reilly caricature and Ted Baxter voice in mocking him. "The goal here," he said, "is to get this blindly irresponsible man and his ilk off the air."
The next night, O'Reilly retaliated. He said MSNBC was spewing "hate," declaring: "Immelt is using his news operation to promote the Obama administration and liberal activities, while seeking billion-dollar government contracts from the president." O'Reilly said his program was looking into whether GE was doing "deadly business" with Iran. He gave out Immelt's e-mail address.
Immelt called Ailes the next morning, saying O'Reilly had gone way too far. Ailes was sympathetic and again said they should take a stand against personal and gratuitous attacks. The war, Ailes said, is over.
But the war was just beginning at MSNBC, where an opinionated culture is often at odds with NBC News. The day after Olbermann's comments about the Tiller slaying, executives convened a large meeting and talked about Fox and the importance of striking the right on-air tone. Olbermann later expressed a willingness to make minor adjustments in his style, but he and his allies, concerned about setting a precedent, dug in for a fight. Olbermann left Zucker and executives with the impression that he might quit if the dispute wasn't resolved to his satisfaction.
Things mostly quieted down. Several MSNBC commentators ripped Fox host Glenn Beck late last month for calling President Obama a racist, but both sides felt such criticism was within bounds.
Last Saturday, the Times carried a front-page story with the headline, "Voices From Above Silence a Cable TV Feud." It said that executives on both sides had "arranged a cease-fire" between Olbermann and O'Reilly -- which officials at both networks say overstated the case. In a seemingly contradictory passage, Olbermann was quoted as saying, "I am party to no deal."
But with a GE spokesman quoted as saying the corporation was "happy" about the new "level of civility," Olbermann and others felt they could not live with the appearance of buckling under, executives say. Forty-eight hours later, Olbermann made a journalistic declaration of independence -- from his own company -- with a blistering "Worst Persons in the World" segment.
He gave the bronze award to the author of the Times piece, saying Brian Stelter had asked him "at least twice last week if there was such a deal, and I told him, on and off the record, there was not." He gave the runner-up award to "Bill-O the clown," rehashing a controversy about remarks that O'Reilly made when he dined at a Harlem restaurant in 2007. And the winner was Murdoch, who, Olbermann said, citing the same Times story, had "muzzled Bill-O, kept him from speaking his mind."
Fox felt the agreement had been shattered. "This is more of an internal issue that NBC and GE need to work through," a Fox spokesman said. Fox executives disputed the contention of some NBC officials that any understanding was amorphous. "There was an agreement for no personal attacks," one said. GE and NBC declined to comment.
By Wednesday, a breaking news story gave O'Reilly an opening. He went after Immelt, noting that GE had paid $50 million to settle Securities and Exchange Commission charges that the company had misled investors. O'Reilly said that "NBC News, owned by GE, has been perhaps Barack Obama's biggest supporter in the media. And Jeff Immelt was rewarded for that when President Obama appointed him to his economic advisory board."
Several liberal bloggers have chastised their ally Olbermann. The Huffington Post's Jason Linkins wrote that Olbermann is lying, charging that he stopped talking about O'Reilly after June 1 because he had been silenced by the GE brass.
But Olbermann told another critic, Salon's Glenn Greenwald, that "there's no 'deal.' I would never consent, and, fortunately, MSNBC and NBC News would never ask me to."