Hosts rage on both ends of political spectrum

As cable news becomes more indistinguishable from talkradio, network officials are learning that the benefits of creating monsters — otherwise known as over-sized, hard-to-control talent — can be mitigated when they break their bonds and begin pillaging the countryside.

It appears obvious that CNN would just as soon Lou Dobbs shut up about President Obama’s birth certificate. Fox News Channel would probably rather that Glenn Beck not be so bold as to call the president a “racist” with a “deep-seated hatred for white people.” And NBC — or at least its parent General Electric — would prefer that MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann not bait Bill O’Reilly until the ripostes trigger counter-attacks from his Fox News rival accusing GE of killing Americans by transacting business with Iran.

Yet if executives privately yearn for cooler heads to prevail — or at least slightly toned-down rhetoric — there’s little evidence such messages are being impressed upon the hosts with any urgency. And in a cable universe where success is measured in fractions of a ratings point, talent that enjoys a strong bond with a like-minded audience is not easily trifled with by bosses who value their positions.

On-camera talent’s independent streak was recently highlighted when the New York Times reported on a supposed “truce” negotiated between GE and News Corp. that would have curbed the war of words at their respective cable channels, MSNBC and FNC. Apparently, the memo didn’t reach Olbermann, who on his very first day back from vacation lobbed multiple volleys toward Fox, including gibes at Beck, O’Reilly and News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch.

In terms of mandates from on high, Olbermann jested on air, “It’s a half-baked newscast, and I make all the rules.”

As the mainstay of MSNBC’s most-popular program, Olbermann’s influence is substantial. Indeed, the channel has built its profile around the footprint he established, adding radio hosts Rachel Maddow and (less successfully) Ed Schultz to flesh out its left-of-center lineup.

Fox, meanwhile, has strengthened its conservative credentials with the addition of Beck and revision of Sean Hannity’s program minus the perennially overmatched voice of Alan Colmes. Its ratings surge in catering to disaffected Republicans has emboldened Beck, in particular, to make statements that are often more volatile, arguably, than the race-based comments that led to Don Imus’ firing by MSNBC.

These hosts clearly exercise considerable editorial control over their programs. But they do work for these networks, which have to endure the heat from their employees’ pronouncements in addition to reaping the financial rewards.

Writing on website the Daily Beast, Lloyd Grove noted that O’Reilly and Olbermann (but he could have just as easily been speaking of Dobbs, Beck or Rush Limbaugh) are “remarkably thin-skinned, unable to resist responding to the least little criticism with overwhelming force.” Indeed, the aforementioned “feud” only bubbled over because O’Reilly reacted to the broadsides Olbermann aimed his way with a scorched-earth, fact-twisting strategy designed to expand the fight to Olbermann’s bosses at NBC and GE.

In the case of Dobbs’ persistence regarding the “birther” movement, CNN’s headaches have multiplied, as network officials endure criticism for their complicity in perpetuating what CNN prez Jonathan Klein has called “a dead issue” in terms of its factual merit. At the same time, channel brass act as if they are powerless to exert any direction over the topics discussed by Dobbs, who seems to relish the negative blowback to this pigheadedness to paint himself, laughably, as a victim.

Beck’s populist rage has already drawn mostly derisive comparisons to the movie “Network,” but while most people are familiar with the memorable “I’m as mad as hell” rant, few have evoked that movie’s final turn. Unable to rein in the outspoken, tantrum-throwing Howard Beale — an out-of-control but still reasonably popular personality — the amoral network suits finally decide their best course of action is simply to “kill the son-of-a-bitch.”

Obviously that’s an exaggeration (let’s hope, anyway), but if you’ve seen enough old horror movies, you know that once the monsters are unleashed, their creators frequently face a terrible “What have I done?” moment. And by then, short of summoning the military — or in this case maybe an army of lawyers — it’s usually too late to stop them.

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