Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


August 13, 2009

Exposing the Cable-News Ceasefire

Brian Stelter exposed a deal between GE and News Corp, and was subsequently excoriated in a Keith Olbermann segment on the World's Worst Person.

Max Lakin

Earlier this month, Brian Stelter, who covers television and media for the New York Times, broke word of a surreptitious accord between two of the biggest guns in American cable news. Stelter's piece illuminated not only a ceasefire between MSNBC and Fox News and their lead crusaders, Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly, but also the closed-door corporate concerns of the networks' motherships, Jeffrey Immelt's General Electric and the Rupert Murdoch monolith, News Corp.

Yet the shaky détente between the station's more inflated personalities was not meant to be. Olbermann huffily eviscerated the report on his own show the very next business day, taking shots at O'Reilly, Murdoch, and Stelter himself. Within a week, O'Reilly had made a point of completely nullifying any DMZ by questioning GE's business practices, as is his wont. The Hatfields and McCoys of basic cable were back to lobbing powder kegs at each other's Midtown offices.

New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter.
"Cable news has absolutely reshaped what many Americans expect from TV. The difference between network and cable news has never been more stark."

New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter.

Gelf spoke with Stelter via email to get his take on the broke-down treaty, whether he felt Olbermann was within bounds to go after him on air, and why the whole episode is what makes cable news tick.

Gelf Magazine: First off, how did you feel getting railed by Keith Olbermann in prime time?

Brian Stelter: I wasn't surprised by the criticism, but I was surprised that he then used the story he tried to discredit to name Rupert Murdoch the Worst Person.

Gelf Magazine: Did he contact you beforehand or afterwards?

Brian Stelter: He did not contact me about the Worst Person honor.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think he was off base? He said within the ranting that he spoke to you twice, on and off the record, and denied that he was party to any deal—which you did say in the piece. His acceptance or rejection of any accord doesn't mean it didn't happen, so do you think he was right to take issue?

Brian Stelter: I think careful viewers are aware that saying "I am party to no deal" is not a denial of any deal. I was heartened to read many emails from viewers who found Olbermann's comments to be confusing, raising more questions than they answered. He declined to answer my follow-up questions last week. Among them: "What is your definition of a 'deal'?"

Gelf Magazine: That night's "Worse, Worser" segment was particularly bizarre to me because, after rehashing the non-sequitur Sylvia's episode and calling O'Reilly a "racist clown," he immediately began to defend O'Reilly's journalistic integrity, screaming "solidarity brother!" as if the Dutch were climbing the Fox News battlements and threatening the very sanctity of reportage. While I suppose he was warring against perceived censorship, Olbermann obviously did not appreciate being painted as a controllable property, probably the actual root of the outlash. Do you think the implications of the brokered détente are as dire as he was painting it?

Brian Stelter: It's not my place to speculate about the implications of a brokered détente. But as I reported last week, some media watchdogs were quite troubled by the prospect of one.

Gelf Magazine: Salon's Glenn Greenwald wrote just that, saying that you neglected to comment on the more nefarious implications of the networks' parent interests, saying that the agreement was struck to protest "unrelated corporate interests," which undercut the integrity of the actual content being churned out. Did you get that impression in assembling your first piece, and if not, do you even agree?

Brian Stelter: Again, that's not my job. The first story sought to illustrate what happened, not express a point of view about it. But as a former blogger, that's why I admire the blogosphere: Writers with varying points of view quickly amplified the first story.

Gelf Magazine: The brouhaha illuminates one of cable news' most glaring criticisms, that its most -respected programs are commentary-based, not straight reportage, but are still analyzed as the latter. Do you think cable news has blurred the lines of what is and isn't acceptable—or for that matter, important—in news?

Brian Stelter: Cable news has absolutely reshaped what many Americans expect from TV. The difference between network and cable news has never been more stark. I hope that both remain healthy.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think the role of cable-news nameplates like Olbermann and O'Reilly should be? In the end, they're really only entertainers, and their Bugs Bunny feuding only serves to drum up ratings. Should they be muzzled, or given even more liberal reign?

Brian Stelter: I disagree that they are "only entertainers." And even if one accepted that premise, they are treated by millions of people as legitimate sources of information. Should they be muzzled? Ask Jeffrey Immelt or Rupert Murdoch. I've been trying to ask, too.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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