Anatomy of a non-Truce: The ABC’s of MSNBC vs. Fox

Keith Olbermann skewered Glenn Beck and the “Fox & Friends” gang on Monday. Bill O’Reilly insisted again that NBC News is corrupt, accused MSNBC of “left-wing lunacy” and gloated (despite saying that he wasn’t) about Fox News Channel’s booming ratings.

Gee, if this is a truce, it’s hard to imagine what war would look like.

The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz assembled a good deconstruction of the supposed Fox News-MSNBC truce that wasn’t, and also visited the issue on his CNN program “Reliable Sources” (clip below). Meanwhile, the New York Times’ Brian Stelter seemed more determined to defend his original over-statement of the story than actually advance it in his follow-up piece.

Kurtz’s key passage states that the high-level talks between News Corp. and General Electric about their respective networks was “never intended to be a cease-fire.” Rather, he writes, “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.”

Kurtz also paraphrases Fox News CEO Roger Ailes as saying that he can control his nutcases but that GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt couldn’t wrangle his. This dovetails with my latest column, which makes the point that diva talent isn’t easy to control.

Frankly, I still think the simple goal of toning down the barbs and restoring a semblance of civility is a laudable one. The big problem is where it originated.

If the guys actually running these networks imposed editorial control over their news stars, that would be fine. In print, after all, that’s what editors are supposed to do.

In other words, it wouldn’t be unreasonable if MSNBC President Phil Griffin prevailed upon Olbermann to be less personal or merely less relentless in skewering O’Reilly — and let’s face it, he often veers outside his lane just to run him over — in the same way CNN Prez Jonathan Klein theoretically ought to talk to Lou Dobbs about backing off on his “birther” movement obsession, and Ailes should curb the rhetorical excesses of his “nutcases.”

What’s troubling is for that mandate to filter down from Immelt, who was clearly reacting to O’Reilly’s unsubstantiated slams against the company. Update in response to comment below:  These include charges that Immelt is a “despicable human being” directly responsible for the death of American soldiers because GE conducted business with Iran and allegations that NBC has given the Obama administration favorable coverage in exchange for favors from the government. At one point, O’Reilly said it’s “not a stretch to assume” that NBC might be assisting Obama hoping for a payoff. Sorry, but that’s innuendo, not evidence.

As for Ailes, if all the reporting is accurate he has been fairly unabashed about the quid pro quo twist that says, “Leash your dogs and I’ll restrain mine.”

The odd part is the hand-wringing assumption that criticism of Fox News would somehow be silenced if MSNBC dialed down its nightly jabs. Historically, though, networks haven’t targeted each other (think of it as “Honor among thieves”), leaving it to print critics — or more recently, satirical outlets such as “The Daily Show” — to analyze, expose and shame TV channels.

This whole “feud” started, remember, when Olbermann began mischievously punching up at O’Reilly, who took the bait more fabulously than he ever could have imagined — to the point where the FNC host now sees “smear merchants” around every corner.

But now — with so much vitriol already in the ether — the tit for tat has grown petty. There are bigger fish to fry, and these networks should get to the business of frying them. As for the Times’ Stelter, he should probably wait until he actually sees a white flag waving before reporting on the next “truce.”

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  1. Matt Jackson says:

    “O’Reilly’s unsubstantiated claims”? Are you serious? NBC and MSNBC have been the most partisan networks for past two years. They’ve led the way in the destruction of real journalism in favor of Obama cheerleading. Olbermann is a left-wing nutcase who is more interested in embarrassing himself and the network then just doing a news show.
    O’Reilly may not be a saint, but his claims are easily substantiated to anyone who’s been listening and/or has a pulse.

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