Parent companies embroiled in grudge match

After recapping the five-year-old Keith Olbermann-Bill O’Reilly feud that has spilled over to other assets of their respective employers GE and News Corp., the gossip site Gawker cheerily noted: “The real winners, as always: us!”

Indeed, anyone with a taste for mud wrestling or a pissing match has to enjoy the back-and-forth that has sprung from MSNBC host Olbermann’s fateful decision to “punch up” at O’Reilly, Fox News’ top-rated personality and his time-period rival. As for whether viewers or something so quaint as journalistic standards are “winning” in the eye-poking Three Stooges act that has ensued — maybe not so much.

The convoluted affair has begun to resemble “Weapons of Mass Distraction,” an HBO satire written by Larry Gelbart, in which two dueling media moguls bring their various holdings to bear in an escalating war to ruin each other. Yet what passed for satirical farce in 1997 seems almost restrained by comparison now.

For those who have somehow ignored this food fight, Olbermann started it by regularly jabbing at O’Reilly and naming him the “Worst Person in the World,” a nightly segment on his MSNBC talker.

Thin-skinned in his best days, O’Reilly has grown especially sensitive to criticism (or as he’s prone to call it, “vicious personal attacks,” emanating from “vile left-wing smear sites”) since the embarrassment of having a sexual-harassment suit filed against him in 2004. That irritation has rather transparently led him to retaliate against NBC higher-ups, including NBC News and even parent General Electric, going so far as to have a producer ambush GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, stretching to accuse him of shady dealings with Iran and, this week, of personally despoiling the Hudson River.

All of this has been fodder for Olbermann, who has gone public with claims that O’Reilly and Fox News CEO Roger Ailes have threatened retaliation if NBC doesn’t rein him in.

News Corp.’s assault, whether coordinated or not, is now happening. The company’s New York Post Page Six column has joined the fray with several unflattering items about Olbermann. Those rumors are then parroted by Fox News’ dimwitted morning show, “Fox & Friends,” creating a circular echo chamber.

Olbermann responded, of course, by preemptively lashing out against the Post on air, calling Page Six “entirely disreputable” and crowning Richard Johnson and Paula Froelich, at separate moments, as the “Worst Person.” Nor has Rupert Murdoch — who Olbermann impersonates by affecting a snarling pirate voice — escaped his wrath.

Murdoch was recently quoted noting that he fired Olbermann from Fox Sports several years ago, saying, “He’s crazy.” For her part, Froelich told Gawker that Olbermann is “as infantile as he is narcissistic.”

Whichever side you’re on, there’s surely plenty of narcissism to go around here — and it raises a few troubling issues for both.

Critics have long muttered about Murdoch — more than any other mogul — openly using his corporate assets to buttress each other and lash out at his foes. Even if it’s not an orchestrated campaign — as opposed to like-minded foot soldiers simply knowing what the boss wants — the collaboration by Fox News and the Post in this particular endeavor has a bilious odor and doesn’t provide much comfort to nervous journalists seeking reassurance that Murdoch won’t lead his newest toy, the Wall Street Journal, stumbling down a similar credibility-sapping path.

NBC News, meanwhile, risks allowing its talk-driven personalities — the mother’s milk of cable, where loud and inexpensive is the formula — to eclipse what little solid journalism the news division still generates. And while it was initially amusing watching Olbermann playfully try to nudge O’Reilly off the deep end, there’s a significant difference between that and self-indulgently using his forum as a pulpit to bash enemies, which actually makes him more like his Fox counterpart than he would care to admit.

To borrow a phrase from his sports days, there really is such a thing as too “inside baseball.”

Tellingly, Gelbart’s movie incorporates a fictional blue-collar family who continue vegetating in front of the TV even as their lives become collateral damage in the moguls’ war.

One is tempted to say “Grow up” and leave it at that, but the combatants should be cautious against becoming too embroiled in this private skirmish. Because whatever blows they land, both might look up between rounds to find that while the other guy is bloodied, the bored spectators have finally opted to do their vegetating elsewhere.

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