The War Inside NBC

The guest list for the funeral mass for “Meet the Press” anchor Tim Russert was an “A list” of politicians and media mentionables.  Real reporters mixed with the television personalities and the network executives who control their lives.  It was a black day for journalism in NBC:  Russert’s death released one of the last brakes slowing NBC’s descent into political activism and journalistic irrelevance.

NBC was once the proud home of real journalists.  People such as Chet Huntley and David Brinkley brought its standards to — and above — the level prevalent in most news organizations.  But now, it’s an asylum for people such as Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann.

Matthews has made himself a caricature of the liberal news anchor.  In one memorable moment of the primary season he said he felt, “…this thrill going up my leg…” while listening to an Obama speech. 

Were that not bad enough, NBC’s leadership — NBC-Universal CEO Jeffrey Zucker and NBC News President Steve Capus — are pushing the network off into liberal la-la land.  Russert, who tried hard to be fair to liberals and conservatives alike, was in a shrinking minority.  Except for Russert, the moderates have been marginalized in favor of hyperventilating liberals such as MSNBC dolt-laureate Keith Olbermann. 

The war within NBC is between the network suits and the real journalists who remain.  They see what’s happening: the suits are using NBC to make MSNBC credible and to get their political jollies. 

NBC’s news reporting has long been riddled with liberal bias.  But over the past two years it’s divorced itself from the news business and gone into political activism.  Its programming is so biased it could be confused with a broadcast arm of the New York Times. 

Exhibit A is the May 19 letter written by Presidential Counselor Ed Gillespie to NBC News president Steve Capus.  The letter was precipitated by the previous night’s Nightly News broadcast of an interview with President Bush.  The interview was a setup, and the tape edited deceptively to make the President’s answers to questions from reporter Richard Engel appear to be something the clearly weren’t. 

A perfect sin in journalism, the editing made it appear that the President accepted Engel’s premise that Bush’s speech to the Israeli Knesset equated negotiations with Iran to appeasement and was a calculated political attack on Barack Obama.  In print journalism, this wouldn’t have made it past a rookie city desk editor.  On NBC, it made the prime-time broadcast. 

Gillespie’s letter went on to document a series of anti-war, anti-Bush positions NBC had taken in its reporting.  What he didn’t document was the hyperbole MSNBC’s hosts engage in regularly.

Exhibit B is Olbermann’s relationship with the NBC’s leadership.  Buoyed by some of the highest ratings among MSNBC’s shows, Olbermann regularly delivers himself of near-profane rants.  In one last May, he advised the President to “shut the hell up.”  Two years ago, he denounced then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as a “quack” pushing “fascism.”   In a June 23 article in the New Yorker, Peter Boyer reports that the Rumsfeld rant earned Olbermann an attaboy from Capus.

Boyer wrote that Capus told him, “I think we’re onto something. That’s what we keep hearing from the audience, more and more, is that they appreciate that we have people who are actually speaking truth to power, or being transparent in their own personal viewpoints.”

Transparency in their personal liberal viewpoints, that is.  That attitude — and its leakage into NBC’s primary network news operation — is the cause of the conflict within the network. 

NBC’s corporate parent — General Electric — is feeling the heat generated by the Olbermann rants.  Capus’ favorite screecher created a feud with Fox and its most popular host, Bill O’Reilly.  Olbermann had falsely accused Fox Chairman Roger Ailes of providing campaign advice to Rudy Giuliani, and was regularly attacking O’Reilly in very personal terms. 

As Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz reported on May 19, the feud triggered high-level conversations between Ailes and Zucker as well as between News Corporation owner Rupert Murdoch and Jeffrey Immelt, chairman of GE. The latter were apparently about O’Reilly’s criticism of GE for trading with Iran. 

O’Reilly’s high-temperature criticism of GE and Immelt — calling him a “despicable human being” responsible for the deaths of American troops in Iraq — may even have contributed to GE’s stock slide.  From a high of $42.15 on October 2, 2007, GE’s shares have lost 36% of shareholder value, closing last Friday at $26.83.   

That fall is comparable to the New York Times’ loss in shareholder value under Pinch Sulzberger.  Liberal bias and media political activism don’t benefit shareholders.

Russert’s death left NBC’s best news show without a host in the critical time of the presidential race.  Zucker and Capus have brought back liberal elder statesman Tom Brokaw to host the show until the election. 

Zuker reportedly believes the future of NBC is not the broadcast news of old, but MSNBC and its online presence.  According to a report published in “Broadcasting and Cable” in February, Zucker told a Harvard Business School conference, “The definition of NBC News is really changing, and it’s becoming more MSNBC and”  Zucker added, “I think [MSNBC has] found its identity.  Politics is their calling card.”

As Boyer reports, politics — going far beyond liberal bias and into political activism — is behind the turmoil in the network.  He wrote that Brokaw is uneasy about the conflict within the network:  “Listen, it’s a strain,” says Tom Brokaw, the longtime anchor of ‘Nightly News,’ who remains an active and revered figure at NBC. ‘And it’s under constant examination. There’s dialogue going on behind the scenes all the time. It’s not perfectly sorted out.’”

Nor will it be before November.  The professional journalists in NBC are more frustrated by it every day.  They know they’re losing the battle.  With Russert gone, there’s no one left to stand up for them in the fight against the suits.

NBC has chosen sides, and its reporting will continue to boost Obama, attack the President and paint Sen. John McCain’s candidacy as the promise of another Bush term.  Republicans — especially senate candidates — will be targeted as often as McCain.

When the New York Times published its thinly-sourced smear of McCain in February, implying a non-platonic relationship with an attractive lady lobbyist, McCain’s top advisor Charlie Black told the Politico, “We’re going to war with them now.”  So far, that war is entirely one-sided. 

Sen. McCain needs to respond reflexively.  If his campaign is to survive the media assault it will have to have its own truth squad, prepared to issue statements and make campaign commercials much faster than usual to go after the activist media. 

It takes CBS, NBC or ABC — and, of course, MSNBC — only hours to prepare an attack ad to be passed off as news that night.  If McCain’s crew cannot respond just as quickly, the war Charlie Black declared will be lost, and millions of votes with it.

Republican candidates need to do the same.  There will be many close Senate races this year, and few Republicans will follow the model of John Thune’s campaign, taking on a big newspaper that was allied with his opponents.  Americans know the media is riddled with bias, and they don’t respect candidates who don’t fight back.

And there’s one way for the journalists who remain at NBC:  get yourselves together.  Form a small committee and demand a meeting with Immelt.  Make him listen and promise to restore NBC’s journalistic standards to what they should be.  If he refuses, start circulating your resumes.  There will be no future for you with the Olbermann Network.