Tiresome as the Bill O’Reilly-Keith Olbermann feud has become, the two are within their rights to criticize each other and each other’s employers. Now, however, their respective bosses at Fox and MSNBC have forced them to silence their mutual criticisms so as not to rock the boat for either corporate parent. This New York Times story lays out how, despite the fact that the feud was ratings manna for both channels, their CEOs decided that it had become an embarrassment to both corporate parents, so each side agreed to muzzle its own attack dog.
There are often complaints that the mainstream media are too biased toward the left or the right, but they’re really biased toward the corporate interests of the companies that own them. Usually, journalists working for big media outlets don’t have to be told by their bosses what news to downplay or ignore so as not to embarrass the parent company; they simply do so automatically. It’s rare for the bosses to have to admonish the reporters directly; rarer still for them to acknowledge such self-censorship in the pages of, say, the New York Times. Remarkably, the Times story presents its account of the gag order as if it were a sports or gossip story, about the feud between two colorful personalities, rather than as a cautionary tale of how two big rival corporations, out of mutual self-interest, shut down the free expression of each other’s employees and silenced possibly newsworthy criticism of each other. Well, maybe it’s not that remarkable; the Times, too, is pro-corporate, so it’s not going to present the story in a way that recognizes that the free expression rights of reporters at all major media outlets, including the Times, are at risk.
It’s troubling to think where this precedent might lead. If Viacom suddenly decides to join General Electric (MSNBC’s parent) and News Corporation (Fox’s parent) in not creating an atmosphere of embarrassing news for big corporations, will Viacom’s Comedy Central make Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert stop making fun of other media outlets? Will TV news outlets ignore stories (even Pulitzer Prize-winning ones) that present their corporate parents in a bad light? (Oh, wait a minute, that’s already happened.) Will news channels fire popular personalities who continue to voice positions their bosses oppose? (Oops, that’s already happened, too.) One thing is for sure. You’re not going to see this story about the forced silencing of the O’Reilly-Olbermann dispute reported on Fox or MSNBC.