GE’s Corporate Role Clouds MSNBC-Fox News ‘Truce’

Both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times are reporting about a supposed truce between Fox News Channel and MSNBC brokered by top News Corp. and General Electric executives.

Although I’ve long advocated that the two sides exercise some restraint in their increasingly heated war of rhetoric — which has come to resemble the HBO movie “Weapons of Mass Distraction” — let’s just say I’ll completely believe it when I see it. Hell, even corporate behemoths might discover that when it comes to star personalities, creating monsters is easier than controlling them.

At the source of the fracas are MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and FNC’s Bill O’Reilly. Having been made the butt of Olbermann’s barbs for the last several years, the thin-skinned O’Reilly has become increasingly venomous in leveling counter-attacks at NBC News and GE, clearly hoping to retaliate against those who employ his tormentor. (The odd part is that while Olbermann mentions O’Reilly almost nightly — regularly naming him “The worst person in the world” — O’Reilly will never stoop, in his view, to utter Olbermann’s name.)

Olbermann has been off the last couple of weeks, but via email he told the New York Times’ Brian Stelter that he was “party to no deal.” Without Olbermann agreeing to dial back his invective toward O’Reilly, it’s hard to imagine a unilateral cessation by Fox.

At least marginally toning down the vitriol would be a step in the right direction. It’s gotten to the point where the opposing sides have come close to accusing the other of murder — O’Reilly maintaining that GE is contributing to the death of Americans by doing business with Iran, Olbermann by alleging that O’Reilly’s frequent reports about George Tiller, a doctor who performed abortions, helped lead to his killing. Urging them to play a little nicer hardly seems out of line.

Thanks in part to Lou Dobbs and his pigheaded insistence on flogging the “birther” movement questioning President Obama’s origins, both networks seem to agree on at least one thing — sharing a common contempt for CNN, albeit not for the same reasons.

Given the overheated, conflict-driven climate in the talk/opinion space from which these networks have handsomely profited, it’s difficult to squeeze the genie back into the bottle. About the best the bosses can hope for, perhaps, is trading in one bogeyman for another.

Update: Salon’s Glenn Greenwald zeroes in on the most disturbing aspect of the story: That GE would seek to muzzle Olbermann (and potentially other MSNBC hosts) in order to protect its corporate interests. By that measure, O’Reilly’s retaliatory assault on GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt and NBC News — one often characterized by distortions and unsubstantiated allegations — will have paid off. Indeed, O’Reilly has transparently gone after GE specifically to bring about this sort of concession.

The real question, yet to be determined, is how the supposed “truce” will work in practice — and whether Olbermann can abide by the restrictions. If it’s strictly a matter of toning down or dialing back his commentary — as opposed to eliminating criticism of FNC — that falls under the heading of the network exercising editorial discretion over its talent. MSNBC brass has a right to ask that O’Reilly bashing no longer need be a nightly occurrence. The motives might be venal, but it’s not unheard of, which is why CNN is receiving such well-deserved criticism for behaving as if it has no control over what comes tumbling out of Dobbs’ mouth, just as Fox merits criticism for Glenn Beck’s more unhinged statements.

On the flip side, it’s hard to envision Olbermann (who is scheduled to return from his vacation next week) accepting an order to completely expunge references to O’Reilly or Fox News from his coverage simply to take the heat off of GE. If that’s really what’s happening here, this is a much more serious issue.

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