Murdoch Diplomacy: Behind O'Reilly's Electric Attacks
Monday, May 19, 2008; 9:48 AM
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."