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Fox, MSNBC told to dial rivalry back a notch

News Corp's Rupert Murdoch and GE's Jeffrey Immelt, whose corporations cooperate on other ventures, want an end to the sniping between rival anchors Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann.

August 01, 2009|Joe Flint

The on-screen and behind-scenes feuding between rivals Fox News and MSNBC, which has erupted in recent months like two kids squabbling, has gotten so loud that their parents are trying to tell them to knock it off.

Rupert Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of News Corp., which owns Fox News, and Jeffrey Immelt, chief executive of General Electric Co., which owns MSNBC, met up at the Microsoft CEO summit in Redmond, Wash., to figure out how to defuse tensions between the two channels, according to people familiar with the situation.

The focus of the beer-in-the-Rose Garden-style meeting was the ongoing sniping between each cable channel's resident agent provocateur: MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, an outspoken liberal, and Fox's Bill O'Reilly, a conservative. The two talking heads often sling insults -- Olbermann by name, O'Reilly by insinuation -- aimed at discrediting the other's journalism and politics.

But like many media giants, NBC and News Corp. often find themselves in the corporate existential position of competing in one arena while cooperating in another. Fox News and MSNBC may be vicious competitors in the cable news market, but their parent companies are partners in Hulu, the online video site offering TV shows and films that has become popular over the last year. Both companies also produce TV shows that they try to sell to each other's networks, meaning a hit for one will generate revenue for the other.

Immelt and Murdoch are said to have carried their message of detente back to their respective news channels in early June, but it doesn't seem to have quite gotten through. Olbermann continues to criticize Fox News and O'Reilly still takes shots at MSNBC, NBC and GE.

O'Reilly, for example, accused NBC News on June 18 of being in President Obama's pocket and said last month that "there is compelling evidence that NBC is giving President Obama favorable treatment so that GE will be awarded billions, billions, in government contracts."

Olbermann, meanwhile, commenting July 9 on reports that Murdoch's London tabloids had to settle lawsuits for illegal wiretaps, said, "Why did News Corp. go to all that trouble, rather than just get the secret personal information from the Bush administration?"

The battle now appears to have escalated with MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow criticizing Fox News host Glenn Beck after he called Obama "racist" in the wake of the Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest incident.

A Fox News spokeswoman said, "We can't comment on any meeting that may or may not have taken place between Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Immelt." A News Corp. spokeswoman and an MSNBC spokesman both declined to comment. A spokesperson for General Electric did not respond to requests to discuss the situation.

Whether the feuding fuels ratings or might turn viewers off is hard to tell. Both shows preach to the choir and attract loyal audiences, although "The O'Reilly Factor" dominates its 8 p.m.-9 p.m. time period, averaging more than 3 million viewers in July. That's almost three times as many viewers than for "Countdown with Keith Olbermann."

Neither O'Reilly or Olbermann were available for comment, spokespersons for their respective networks said.

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joe.flint@latimes.com

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