Panel Nerds: Corporations and Cable News

pnerdsWho: Brian Stelter and Steve Rendall

What: Gelf Magazine’s Media Circus “The Corporate Influence on Cable News”

Where: JLA Studios Art Gallery

When August 13, 2009

Thumbs: Up

When people talk about bias on cable news, they are usually referring to the political leanings of the networks’ hosts, pundits and reporters. But recently discussion has centered more on the bias imposed by corporate influence and interests.

Steve Rendall says that cable news is a tricky term since there’s very little news as part of it. He said that reporters have revealed to him that their networks won’t cover certain topics because they are of a sensitive nature to parent companies. Legally, networks must cater to their shareholders’ best interests, with public interest coming second.

In his recent New York Times story, Brian Stelter uncovered what happens at some of those closed-door meetings. He reported a truce that was struck between NewsCorp., which owns Fox News, and General Electric, NBC’s parent company. The story made Stelter some enemies at the networks (video below).

As Stelter began to investigate these claims in June, he said that sources at the networks repeatedly compared their corporate marching orders to the pressure other reporters felt in Iraq at the start of the war. This comparison didn’t sit well with him. Further complicating this matter, Stelter said, was a Fox source who indicated that the network strove to counter-balance the bias he and his colleagues saw taking place regularly on MSNBC. Stelter correctly pointed out that Fox’s mantra – to remain “fair and balanced” -had turned into something else altogether – a spirited need to provide “balance” between networks.

Both Stelter and Rendall pointed to ombudsmen as the solution. As of now, outside groups have stepped in to monitor the networks for accuracy in reporting. But Stelter urges the networks to appoint their own ombudsmen to chime in during broadcasts when they hear misleading remarks. While he thinks we’re a long way from seeing networks address their own issues on air, he says it’s good that someone, whether competitors or critics, is watching the networks closely.

What They Said

“The media could have done something about it. They could have put out that fire well before. It shows a real double-standard. If Michael Moore said that about people on the right, it would be a far different story.”

– Steve Rendall says that the birthers should have been handled better when they first emerged

“If I was CNN, I’d do Twitter on TV. I’d take the top story that hour and cover that.”

- Brian Stelter would change many things about cable news

“When people ask me how to save the future of journalism, I say ‘Let’s take a step back and figure out what’s worth saving.’”

- Steve Rendall doesn’t have the business model to procure a sounder foundation for news reporting.

What We Thought

  • We liked Stelter’s point that CNN has come out being perceived as the most reliable of the news channels. It’s also to some degree been labeled as the dysfunctional one.
  • Rendall said that its not accurate to judge based on ratings, where Fox News is #1. He said that Bill O’Reilly salaciously panders to porn stars and other attention-grabbing guests. Say what you want about MSNBC’s hosts or bias but at least the network sticks to the issues.
  • We liked the passion that these two panelists brought to the discussion. They provided both anecdotal and documented evidence to back up their claims. In discussions like this one, it’s important to hear both reflections on what they see happening on television each day and also what the research and statistics substantiate.


Some audience behavior seems to repeat itself panel after panel. We’ll be updating a running list of “PANEL RULES!” that will help ensure that you are not the dweeb of the Panel Nerds.

Panel Nerds don’t like…9/11 Sleuthers

9/11 was a terrible tragedy. But you don’t have to seek it out as the cause of every mysterious wrongdoing. Even if you think that we’re still dealing with a litany of new laws and repressive governmental acts from then (which you do; that was clear), that doesn’t mean it has anything to do with the delivery of cable news. 9/11 isn’t the cause of everything.

Panel Nerds Etan Bednarsh and Danny Groner are New York-based writers and avid panel-goers. Want them at your panel? Email them here:

The REAL Health Care Debate: The Obama Administration Vs Fox News

Picture 28Watching a few hours of Fox News these days amounts to a non-stop infomercial opposing  the Obama Administration’s effort to reform Health Care.  While there is always room for a healthy debate on the issues, please don’t look to Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck for a measured discourse - they  rarely, if ever, present a constructive solution to the current health care problems (though there is the occasional admission that there is need for reform.) No single entity seems more entrenched in the opposition to the health care reform than Fox News.

The political bias of cable news is a time-worn tale, particularly with Fox News. But  it seems like that narrative has made us so numb to blatant subjectivity that we can no longer see clear bias when its right in front of our faces. Does no one care anymore? Or maybe it’s just August and everyone’s on vacation?  Simply put — the amount of propaganda put forth from Fox News is far from fair and balanced — they are very near inciting riots.

Not so? If you watch Glenn Beck or listen to his radio show, you hear a lot of phrases like “waking the sleeping giant” and “we don’t want this country to become Russia.” Cut to the language of protesters confronting their elected officials in the town halls of the past week and one hears the same exact phrases spoken through held back tears and barely restrained emotion.

During Wednesday’s “Talking Points Memo,” O’Reilly made the rather bold claim that the Obama administration is specifically targeting Fox News. How did he make the deduction? Because White House spokesman Robert Gibbs recently said “Well, I think we all have something to lose, Matt, if we let cable television come to town hall meetings and kill health care reform for another year and put the special interests back in charge.

Fox News – particularly O’Reilly – have always been quite savvy at “punching up” – that is, targeting entities that are well above their accepted station (i.e. their current debate with GE). Does claiming to be engaged in a “fight” with the White House serve their purpose? In terms of pleasing their audience it does — just hear the rabble rousers yell to their democratically elected representatives that they want their country back. From a publicity standpoint it’s a genius move – evil genius maybe.

There is  legitimate criticism that the Obama White House has not been able to articulate their new health care agenda in a simple and understandable way. The truth is that it’s currently a very complicated issue. But isn’t that part of the problem — that unnecessarily complex solutions create a multitude of loopholes that allow big corporations to turn a healthy profit? Is that how a free market is supposed to work? Is that the American way, or is it the problem?

The problem is not just with Fox News, nor with cable news in general. We are truly in a nation divided by media consumption, exacerbated by the rise of opinion journalism (at the cost of capital J – journalism). As Kurt Andersen has said, American’s now only consume media the reaffirms their pre-existing opinions.  The vacuum of differing views has been profitable for a number of media outlets, but what cost victory?

Mediaite Mash-up of Glenn Beck’s take on the health care debate:

Stakes Get Higher: GE Takes the Bait Against “Maliciously False” O’Reilly Report

oreilly_8-13General Electric is no longer letting Keith Olbermann take the lead in responding to Bill O’Reilly. After O’Reilly’s segment Tuesday night attacking GE, the company is coming out and responding for the first time to the FNC host.

GE tells the Associated Press the thinly-sourced report was “irresponsible and maliciously false” – and last night, Olbermann took it even further.

O’Reilly’s report included the caveat that he “has been told, but cannot confirm, that the General Electric corporation is under suspicion in the case.” And this lack of sourcing meant, according to GE, an egregious error.

GE does not do business with Corezing, and does not produce the radio frequency modules that were described in the report, he said.

“We usually do not respond to the misleading and inaccurate claims made on this program because very few people take them seriously,” Sheffer said, “but tonight’s report took this smear campaign to a new low.”

GE better not be wrong about either of these facts, because O’Reilly will only use this as a reason to hammer the company that much harder and more often. But if it’s true GE has never done business with the company in question, and that they don’t even produce the modules, O’Reilly should (and has proven in the past he probably will) apologize to his viewers for getting the facts wrong.

Then there’s Olbermann. Naming O’Reilly the “Worst Person” again last night, he spun the GE errors into a much larger problem. “You can talk all you want about feuds and ceasefires and childishness, but if I, or any actual reporter like me, had gotten as much wrong in any story as Bill O’Reilly got wrong in this one, I’d be fired in 15 minutes, as he should be now,” said Olbermann. Wait, Keith thinks he’s an “actual reporter”?

(On a slightly different note: here’s more on Olbermann and ‘Truce’-gate, from a disenchanted fan.)

Here’s Olbermann’s segment last night:

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Big Bad Wolffe: Different Standards for Moonlighting Television Pundits

wolffeolberman-300x225Almost lost in the brouhaha over the reported truce between GE/Keith Olbermann and Fox News/Bill O’Reilly was the news that Olbermann had kicked replacement host Richard Wolffe off of Countdown. Olbermann cited the appearance of a conflict of interest between Wolffe’s consulting job and his duties as a political analyst for MSNBC. But given the landscape of cable news, in which many big name “politicos” consult on the side quietly or not-so-quietly, why was Wolffe singled out?

Wolffe consults for a firm called Public Strategies, Inc.: in his Salon column, Glenn Greenwald made the point that “Wolffe’s role in life is to advance the P.R. interests of the corporations that pay him, including corporations with substantial interests in virtually every political issue that MSNBC and Countdown cover.” Responding on Daily Kos, Olbermann wrote, “What appears to be the truth here is certainly not what Richard told us about his non-news job … until we can clarify what else he is doing, he will not be appearing with us.”

But nearly all of the established political analysts in cable news do exactly the same thing. In fact, many of them would consider themselves consultants first, who then appear on television as a means to a larger end. Should they disclose any conflicts of interest? Absolutely. But it makes little sense that Wolffe would be singled out for so commonplace a practice. Consider these pundits, all paid contributors to the networks:

  • CNN’s Donna Brazile is the founder and managing director of Brazile & Associates. From their website: “Brazile & Associates LLC assists corporate clients with diversity training, earned media strategies, crisis management and message development. Working with groups of all ages and orientations, Brazile & Associates seeks to provide its clients with the skills to develop a greater civic focus with a stronger advocate voice.” When we called the firm, a spokesman declined to name any clients.
  • Fox’s Newt Gingrich founded The Center for Health Transformation, a for-profit network of health care professionals and companies “striving towards system-wide transformation.” His client list includes AstraZeneca, Microsoft, UPS, NextGen, and the American Cancer Society.
  • MSNBC’s Mike Murphy has independently consulted for senators and governors including Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney (not presidential campaign), Christine Whitman, and McCain’s presidential campaign.
  • CNN’s James Carville has consulted for many foreign leaders.  To name a few: the former PM of Israel, the former PM of Greece, Bolivia’s former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and now, Ashraf Ghani, a challenger in Afghanistan’s presidential election.
  • MSNBC’s Harold Ford works as vice chairman and senior policy advisor for Merrill Lynch where he “advises senior management on domestic policy issues, and supports a variety of business development initiatives in the institutional and retail markets”.
  • Fox’s Frank Luntz’s Luntz, Maslansky Strategic Research has consulted for, among others, AOL, 20th Century Fox, Pfizer, NBC, Freddie Mac, and USA Today.
  • CNN’s J.C. Watts’s Watts Companies consults for, among others, ACLU, AT&T, NASCAR, West Point, Aetna.
  • Fox’s Al D’Amato’s Park Strategies has a $50,000 contract with World Trade Center Memorial Fund.
  • CNN’s Ed Rollins‘ New Strategies Group consults for; they would not disclose other clients when we called them.

If we were to hold these commentators as the same standard that took Wolffe off the air, cable news would be dangerously low on punditry. So, why did Richard Wolffe get singled out?

Kevin Gotkin contributed additional reporting.

Bill O’Reilly To Glenn Beck: “I’m Not A Fearmonger Like You”

beck_8-12We’ll have to stop this daily look at how failed the GE/FOX deal has been at some point. But here’s what happened last night, on both networks.

Bill O’Reilly did his teased “Factor Investigation” about GE, and later had Glenn Beck on to expand on the “evil” company. Meanwhile, Keith Olbermann knocked Fox in general, and Bill-o specifically. Yes, just another night in Cabler-land.

Here’s O’Reilly’s first segment about GE, in which he expands on the GE/Iran connections. But the Beck segment is particularly juicy. After an initial debate over whether GE is actually an “evil” company, they decide it may be evil and move on.

At one point, Beck says, “The last thing I want to do is be the fearmonger.”

This sets O’Reilly off down a path that, while laughing, leads to him saying, “I’m a pretty straight talker, but I’m not a fearmonger like you.” Important note: O’Reilly is absolutely right. More on Beck’s fearmongering later.

Here is the O’Reilly/Beck segment:

And then there’s Olbermann. He found a way to attack O’Reilly based on his “televised self-gratification” (isn’t that what this entire feud has been?). But it also led to FNC in general. “What they do at Fox News…is not news,” said Olbermann.

Here’s his segment:

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Campbell Brown Cheers On Fighting 8pm’ers From Sidelines

brown_8-12While her competitors at 8pmET are embattled in a continued feud in the face of a supposed ‘deal,’ CNN’s Campbell Brown has not weighed in – until last night.

Jumping snarkily into the debate, Brown knocked the “big swinging anchors,” and also the ‘breathless’ coverage.

Here’s how she describes the situation:

Big swinging anchor number one thinks that big swinging anchor number two is the worst person in the world. Big swinging anchor number two is so full of disdain of big swinging anchor number one he won’t even say his name, so he just goes after his boss the CEO of General Electric.

She continued to joke about the mock seriousness. “Don’t laugh people. This is a very important story,” she said. “The New York Times has been covering it breathlessly and those big swinging anchors have ratings a lot bigger than mine.”

Well that’s true – and that couldn’t possibly be a reason for jumping into the ring herself, right?

Here’s the clip:

Advertisers Wimp Out: ‘Boycott’ Glenn Beck, But Stay On Fox News


Glenn Beck is in even deeper trouble over his remarks that the president is “racist” now that GEICO has joined Progressive Insurance,, and Procter & Gamble in pulling advertisements from Beck’s Fox News show. Or is he?

Color of Change, a web-based grassroots group with more than 600,000 members that bills itself as “the largest African-American online political organization in the country,” has led a campaign to drive advertisers away from Beck’s show. They’ve been successful to a point, but the advertisers haven’t moved away from Fox:

From the GEICO press release: (emphasis added in bold)

“On Tuesday, August 4, GEICO instructed its ad buying service to redistribute its inventory of rotational spots on FOX-TV to their other network programs, exclusive of the Glenn Beck program,” said a spokesperson for GEICO Corporate Communications in an email to  “As of August 4, GEICO no longer runs any paid advertising spots during Mr. Beck’s program.”

From the P&G/Progressive/ press release:

“No P&G ads should have appeared on this program in the first place,” said Martha Depenbrock, Brand Building Stakeholder Relations for Procter & Gamble in an email. “To be clear, if any of our advertising appeared on the Glenn Beck show, it was in error and we appreciate you bringing this matter to our attention…”

“Our (advertising) order specifies no Glenn Beck,” said Linda J. Harris, Media Director at Progressive Insurance in an email to “We have confirmed with the network that our spots should not be running there.”

The reason these spokesmen were able to blame their ads appearing on Glenn Beck on technical problems with a straight face is because cable ad buys work differently from network purchases. Networks sell ads by time slot, but cable channels sell ads by number of eyeballs. If GEICO, Progressive, and the rest initially expressed preference for Beck’s slot, it’s relatively easy for them to heroically shift their ads to different slots while still getting their dollars’ worth. Fox holds onto the marquee advertisers. And as long as they can find replacements to air during Beck’s slot — and given his ratings, they likely will be able to — Fox and the advertisers are able to please everyone without addressing the gaping hole that is Glenn Beck’s initial remarks. Call it advertising shuffleboard.

Color of Change scored a legitimate political victory in keeping high-profile advertisers away from Beck’s program, but it’s unclear whether the move will have much financial impact, thanks to the tricks at Fox’s and advertisers’ disposal.