UPDATED: We have been notified that Comcast has not yet officially taken over MSNBC/NBC Universal. Although Comcast has tentatively finalized a deal to purchase a majority stake in NBC, Comcast awaits final approval of the takeover from the Justice Department and from the Federal Communications Commission. A statement from Comcast reads: “The joint venture between Comcast and GE has not yet received regulatory approval. Comcast is not in any way involved with decisions made currently by NBC News.” However, once Comcast gains final approval from federal regulators to move forward, Comcast COO Steve Burke, a Bush fundraiser, will be placed at the helm of MSNBC and other NBC companies. Our original post inaccurately asserted that Comcast’s Burke was involved in the decision to fire Olbermann. We apologize for the error.
Earlier today, MSNBC declared that it would be suspending progressive host Keith Olbermann because he violated NBC’s ethics rules by donating to three Democratic candidates for Congress. As many bloggers have noted, conservative MSNBC host Joe Scarborough has donated to Republican candidates for Congress while promoting the same candidate on air, but has never been disciplined. Moreover, Gawker notes that MSNBC has been exempt from the formal NBC ethics rules for years. It is still a mystery why MSNBC selectively applied NBC’s ethics rules to Olbermann. However, it important to realize that MSNBC has undergone a fundamental change in leadership in the last two months.
Late last year, Comcast — the nation’s largest cable provider and second largest Internet service provider — inked a deal taking over NBC Universal, the parent company of MSNBC. Comcast moved swiftly to reshuffle MSNBC’s top staff. On September 26th of this year, Comcast announced perhaps the most dramatic shift, replacing longtime MSNBC chief Jeff Zucker with Comcast executive Steve Burke [Updated: The shift from Zucker to Burke has not taken place yet — Burke will preside over MSNBC once the Comcast merger is complete. We have been informed that no Comcast officials are currently involved in the decisions of NBC or MSNBC.]. Burke has given generous amounts to both parties — providing cash to outgoing Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) as well as to Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) and other top Republicans. But as Public Citizen has noted, Burke has deep ties to the Republican Party. Public Citizen’s report reveals that Burke served as a key fundraiser to President George Bush, and even served on Bush’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology:
Comcast — the country’s largest provider of cable TV and broadband Internet services — has increased its political giving along with its mergers and acquisitions. CEO Brian Roberts was a co-chairman of the host committee at the 2000 Republican Convention. Comcast Cable President Stephen Burke has raised at least $200,000 for Bush’s re-election campaign. […] Comcast’s political giving has increased along with its mergers and acquisitions. The company was a “platinum sponsor” at the 2000 GOP convention, and Roberts was a co-chairman of the host committee at the Philadelphia event. Burke was appointed to the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology in 2002.
Why would Comcast be interested in silencing progressive voices? Historically, Comcast has boosted its profits by buying up various telecommunication and media content companies — instead of providing faster Internet or better services (overall, American broadband services are far slower than in many industrialized nations). Many of these mergers, as Public Citizen and Free Press have reported, have been allowed by regulators because of Comcast’s considerable political muscle. Comcast’s latest regulatory battle has been to oppose Net Neutrality — a rule allowing a free and open Internet — because the company would prefer to have customers pay for preferred online content.
Olbermann has been a strong voice in favor of a free and open Internet. Republicans, on the other hand, have supported the telecommunication industry’s push to radically change the Internet so corporate content producers have the upper hand over start-ups like blogs, independent media, small businesses, etc. As Reuters has reported, the incoming Republican Congress has signaled that it will vigorously side with companies like Comcast against an open Internet.
It is not clear why MSNBC has selectively suspended Olbermann indefinitely without pay — but the move showcases the limits of the corporate media. While modern technology has created a seeming multitude of entertainment and television choices, the reality of corporate media consolidation has resulted in fewer investigative news options and less voices in the media with a critical perspective on powerful business interests. Olbermann has stood out as a voice for working people in a media universe dominated by “reality television” and business lobbyists posing as political pundits. It is unfortunate that Comcast and MSNBC have chosen to suspend him. [Update: Comcast has no formal control over MSNBC yet, but will once the merger is complete in the coming months.]
Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that Comcast CEO Brian Roberts tacitly acknowledged that he would be open to interfering with the editorial content of MSNBC shows and with hosts like Keith Olbermann:
Comcast is in line to acquire control of NBC Universal, once regulators sign off on the $30 billion deal. Mr. Chernin asked Mr. Roberts how he planned to handle daily editorial control of such an immense news operation. “Are you saying that you’ll never interfere?” he asked. Mr. Roberts blanched slightly at the question, which included a hypothetical situation that had Keith Olbermann, an MSNBC host, attacking a couple of Republican congressmen just as the approvals were being finished. “Let’s have that conversation in six months or 12 months,” Mr. Roberts said.
,Media Matter’s Eric Hananoki notes that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough gave a local Alabama Republican candidate $5,000 as recently as this year, and CNBC host Larry Kudlow donated $1,000 to Republican Chris Shays in May of 2009. Indeed, Kudlow also serves on the Leadership Council to the Club for Growth, a group that has donated over $2 million to Republican candidates this year. Do NBC ethics rules apply to Scarborough, Pat Buchanan, Kudlow, or other conservatives working for the media company? As Greg Sargent reported, a close reading of the NBC ethics rules suggest that the political donation standards do not even apply to opinionated hosts like Olbermann.