Fox-NBC Battle Gets Personal, Uglier

NPR's Media Correspondent David Folkenflik says tension between Bill O'Reilly at Fox News and Keith Olbermann at MSNBC is intensifying.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MIKE PESCA, host:

Cable news blowhards going after each other and their political enemies in the news? Well, that's nothing new. O'Reilly dings Olbermann, Olbermann dings O'Reilly. God's in His heaven, or the Godless secularists are in the children's public schools. And all is right with the world. But lately, something anew is bloviating in the wind. The on-air underlings are going after the bosses. Here is Bill O'Reilly from Fox criticizing not NBC talent, but NBC brass, Jeffrey Immelt, the chairman of parent company, GE.

(Soundbite of TV show "The O'Reilly Factor")

Mr. BILL O'REILLY (Host, "The O'Reilly Factor"): CEO Jeffrey Immelt does not seem to care about the damage Iran is doing to America and the world. As we reported, Immelt has allowed GE to do business with Iran for years. So how many dead before Immelt gets out of there? If my child were killed in Iraq, I would blame the likes of Jeffrey Immelt. Paying a guy 20 million bucks to run a company into the ground is simply breathtaking. There are more than a few villain CEOs in this country, but Jeffrey Immelt could very well be the worst.

PESCA: Joining us with his insight and analysis is David Folkenflik, who knows all the personalities involved. Hello, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Hey there, Mike.

PESCA: So what occasioned these two guys getting personal with the other one's bosses?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's - you know, they're sort of these super surrogates for the personalities themselves. Bill O'Reilly is Bill O'Reilly and has been, you know, for over a decade on the Fox News Channel. Keith Olbermann was a much smaller presence on the much more dimly-rated MSNBC, but as he found his voice as a critic of the Iraq War, and as he found himself as a critic of Bill O'Reilly, he started to gain in the ratings and he really incorporated a lot of sort of anti-O'Reilly vitriol as part of his regular diet.

(Soundbite of TV show "Countdown with Keith Olbermann")

Mr. KEITH OLBERMANN (Host, "Countdown with Keith Olbermann"): Bill, you're out on the end of a limb and your own company is sawing it off behind you. You want to take me on, do so. Be a grownup. Fight your own battles for a change. Because for among other reasons, apparently your uncle Rupert is no longer fighting for you. Bill, here kitty, kitty, kitty! O'Reilly, today's worst person in the world!

FOLKENFLIK: If he could make O'Reilly the worst, worser and worstest every night, he'd do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: O'Reilly would dominate the medal stand.

FOLKENFLIK: Pretty much.

PESCA: If Olbermann had a choice.

FOLKENFLIK: I think he'd take the Triple Crown.

PESCA: Well, you know, O'Reilly goes after the common folk all the time, and on MSNBC, they mix it up. Sometimes they criticize low-level public officials. Sometimes the worst person in the world isn't O'Reilly, but it's just a regular guy. So my question is, is it a bigger deal if O'Reilly and Olbermann are going after high-paid media moguls? I mean, you could argue that they could take it more than some of the other people that the talk-show hosts go after.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, the high-profile media moguls really love it when the people that they pay millions of dollars a year to be their sort of signature personalities go after pretty much anyone in the world. They don't love it so much when they become the targets.

PESCA: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: They do not like that at all. The other thing to remember is O'Reilly, who has, like, two and a half times the ratings of Olbermann, you know, each are the top-rated figures on their cable networks - O'Reilly has made it a point not to dignify Olbermann by really of referring to him on the air.

So what do you do? Well, you go after NBC's coverage of the war. You go after MSNBC as a network. You go after other figures, but he doesn't want to get to the point where he has to acknowledge Olbermann's existence. At the same time, O'Reilly has notoriously thin skin, and he has gotten under it, Olbermann has, pretty much on a minute-by-minute basis on his show. So what do you do? You turn your target to people up the food chain, and this is how he's gone up to Immelt.

PESCA: Well, why - what is O'Reilly's criticism of Immelt? And do you think that there's actually - putting aside the tone and the rhetoric, do you think there's actually anything there?

FOLKENFLIK: The criticism of Immelt has to do with the fact that GE, you know, one of the largest - most galactically large conglomerates on the planet, you know, GE has a lot of contracts in Iran. You know, the U.S. has policies about Iran which it's sort of labeled as a state that sponsors terrorism, so there is some, you know, ban on doing business there, but there is essentially a grandfathering of certain kinds of humanitarian contracts.

My understanding is GE does certain kinds of contracts and servicing involving healthcare and hospitals there that they're allowed to do. Nothing they're doing there, as far as I know, is illegal, but O'Reilly has been able to build up an incredible head of steam on a number of occasions and he really singles out Immelt very personally. He's done a number of other things, too. At one point he went after Engel, Richard Engel, the NBC foreign correspondent, as being somehow anti-U.S. in his reporting on the situation in Iraq and the question of the surge.

PESCA: And that really got to NBC brass, much more than when he goes after - when O'Reilly and Olbermann are spitting at each other.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, a difference between sort of pure journalists and personalities.

PESCA: But do you know - does it get rating? Does the cat-calling tick up for them whenever they do it on their shows? Does it help them get viewers?

FOLKENFLIK: I think Olbermann - if you think of Olbermann's base, he, you know, he does these special commentaries that can last anywhere between four and like 12 minutes long, diatribes against - particularly against President Bush, you know, would have been against people who set the policy in Iraq, like former Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld. You know, it works well with people, you know, who read the Daily Kos, or other particularly liberal or antiwar sites. Sometimes you think it's "Punch and Judy," everybody benefits. O'Reilly's ratings are great. Olbermann's ratings are very good for MSNBC.

PESCA: Right, yeah, you could - yeah. And it is possible to say they all know the game and they're all enjoying it.

FOLKENFLIK: But you know what? Everybody is really annoyed. They're very upset by this and it's - it's become personal way up the latter that you didn't expect. You know, Ailes, in particular, is the master of making a conflict personal.

PESCA: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: He swings back. MSNBC knows how to deal with it when Olbermann's on the air, but I don't think they feel as comfortable about it as a corporate issue. You know, I don't think Jeff Immelt wants to get into this. It does make you sort of sit back and wonder at a certain point, this is what's being purveyed by some of America's leading news channels, and it's essentially, you know, like high school.

PESCA: Yeah, like a high school that I would have transferred out of, which brings me to CNN. Do they win, by not getting in the mud at all?

FOLKENFLIK: I think they get to sort of assign themselves, by default, a role of some dignity, you know, and I think that doesn't hurt. They've been pushing this brand about, CNN is politics. They're less personality-driven than Fox News and even to some degree than MSNBC, other than Larry King. And their brand, being the idea of coverage of politics as opposed to the personalities covering them, seems to be serving them well in this.

They've quietly done very well during this political season. You know, they're still the number-two-rated news channel, although Olbermann has made some real strides for MSNBC. They hope they can sustain it. The question is how they do after the election, but during this long campaign season, they've done fairly well.

PESCA: You know, one question, a lot - O'Reilly is well-known, he's, you know, highly watched and people have strong opinions about him. People probably think of him as harsh, and he - they know he can be harsh and that's some of his appeal. Olbermann, too, can really go at O'Reilly.

But when you look at how - and, you know, other oxes (ph) that he wants gored - when you look at how the different networks use each individual, O'Reilly really is just a talk-show host on Fox. Whereas NBC uses Olbermann to host their football coverage first of all, but also he's one of the main anchors for their overall election coverage. Does that pose a problem for NBC's credibility, given that one of their major political commentators and hosts is engaged in a food fight?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think it's a very legitimate question. One of the things Fox News does is it draws - whenever people criticize them as being some sort of conservative news network, they draw a distinction between the commentariat, the Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, in particular, and their anchors, you know, you might have Shep Smith or Brit Hume. I think Hume has become much more outspoken about his beliefs as the years have gone on, and...

PESCA: But I've never heard him do anything like this.

FOLKENFLIK: He said some fairly strong things. He hasn't gotten in food fights. He's a much more dignified guy.

PESCA: Yeah, yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: He hasn't gotten in the food fights in the way that Olbermann has, and Olbermann does anchor election night things with Chris Matthews, who's also sort of in this blurry area between personality, opinion driven, and journalistic - journalistic-ish? - programming. So...

PESCA: Journalistic-y-ness.

FOLKENFLIK: So I think that is a real issue for MSNBC. It's one that they're kind of happy to allow to exist and continue on, because Olbermann is basically joining and eclipsing Chris Matthews as the defining figure and voice for MSNBC. So if they have to ride that - or straddle that ambiguity, they're willing to do it for now.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: David Folkenflik, NPR's media correspondent. Thanks very much, Dave.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

(Soundbite of music)

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Coming up, New Music Tuesday with Andy Langer from Esquire Magazine. The big Scarlett Johansson album is out today, but is it good? Can she sing? Does she sound like Tom Waits?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Andy will tell us. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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