Mixed Media: GE, NBC and the myth of independence

Chief executives are normally the sort of folks who like to be in control, or at least be seen as in control, of everything going on around them. One exception is the CEOs of conglomerates that contain media companies. More often than not, they're anxious to be seen as utterly hands-off when it comes to their news operations, a pose that wins them the admiration of independent-press advocates and gives them a gives them a ready-made excuse when their powerful friends call to complain about coverage.

Of course, it's usually just that -- a pose, and, for GE's Jeff Immelt, it's suddenly not a very convincing one. When White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel called Immelt to ask that NBC carry President Obama's most recent prime time press conference live, even though it meant forgoing millions in advertising revenues, Immelt made a big show of deferring to his subordinate, NBC Universal chairman Jeff Zucker. "Immelt told [Emmanuel] that it was Zucker's decision, and a subsequent call to Zucker yielded an agreement that NBC would provide live coverage," according to today's Washington Post.
But Immelt's 'Hey, I just sign the checks' act would've carried more weight had it not been for a story two days earlier in The New York Times about an armistice between GE and News Corp. and their ever-feuding cable news arms. According to Brian Stelter, Immelt and Rupert Murdoch quietly agreed in May that the war of words between Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly and their confederates was doing harm to both conglomerates and needed to be suspended. A GE spokesman confirmed the truce, saying, "We all recognized that a certain level of civility needed to be introduced into the public discussion." (See Jonathan Berr's take on the ceasefire here.)

Needed to in whose view, exactly? Not that there was every much genuine news value in Olbermann and O'Reilly's verbal cross-bombardment; that was always more about ego and ratings than anything else, and viewers will hardly suffer if the two men choose to devote their shows to national affairs rather than their own grudges.

But it sets an ugly precedent when the executive in charge of a $145 billion corporation with business interests in a multiplicity of industries and countries starts dictating making decisions, however anodyne, about the content of news programs. At least now Immelt can no longer claim it's the sort of thing he'd never, ever do.
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