UPDATED (below) with GE spokesman’s comments.
It’s a very dangerous situation when any huge multinational corporation wages war against media companies. Especially when that huge multinational corporation is General Electric, which itself owns a media company, NBC Universal, and it’s using all its power and influence and money to try to harm another media company, Nielsen, and Nielsen Business Media, and its trade publication The Hollywood Reporter. This certainly sounds like a situation which the FCC, and the FTC, and the U.S. Justice Department should be investigating. Just one problem: the controversy stems from GE/NBCU’s coverage of President Obama. Here’s what happened:
According to my sources inside and outside Nielsen Business Media, The Hollywood Reporter trade publication ran a story dated April 22nd and updated on April 24th covering the “drama” at the most recent GE shareholders meeting in Orlando. THR‘s West Coast Business Editor Paul Bond wasn’t sent to the meeting, but he interviewed about half a dozen people who’d been inside the shareholders meeting and told him what transpired (see below). Bond’s THR story focused on the attempts by stockholders and Fox News Channel and other media to find out whether or not GE Chairman/CEO Jeffrey Immelt ordered his news operations to be less critical of President Obama and his policies.
Bond’s story was immediately picked up by The Drudge Report under the headline “GE shareholders outraged over MSNBC bias; Microphone cut off.” It became a widely posted news story on conservative and liberal and media websites everywhere. That’s when, sources inside and outside Nielsen Business Media tell me, GE Chairman Jeff Immelt ordered a GE company-wide ban on all of The Hollywood Reporter‘s parent company Nielsen: advertising, editorial, the works. After a few days, the ban was reduced to GE’s NBC Universal which chief Jeff Zucker carried out against Nielsen Business Media’s The Hollywood Reporter and lasted six weeks. My NBC Universal sources believe the ban was lifted yesterday.
My reporting is the first about the ban or what led to it. “People need to know that GE is using its media arm to stifle coverage about its company, and this is coming from Immelt and Zucker,” a Nielsen Business Media insider said. I’d attempted multiple times over several weeks to speak with NBCU about this story but the company won’t discuss it.
*UPDATE: Gary Sheffer, GE’s Executive Director of Corporate Communications, emailed me: “I just read your post on GE and NBCU. Jeff Immelt had no involvement in this matter whatsover. He did not call NBC Universal or anyone else about it. In fact, he had no knowledge of The Hollywood Reporter story in question.” I stand behind my sources on this story. But I fing Sheffer’s remarks incredulous considering that the THR account of the GE shareholders’ meeting, once the story was carried by Drudge, became a major media topic. The GE spokesman didn’t deny the reprisals against Nielsen or THR, just Immelt’s direct involvement in them. Yet Sheffer admits that he himself spoke directly to The Hollywood Reporter several times about the story. The spokesman refused to talk about NBCU vs Nielsen. He also refused to reply to my question why, since GE rides herd so closely on all its personnel and especially its division managers, Immelt would let Zucker run amok and take reprisals against a media company trying to cover GE?*
Here’s what’s also interesting: the current Chairman/CEO of Nielsen is David Calhoun, who prior to joining in 2006 served as Vice Chairman of GE. After rising through GE since 1979, Calhoun had been in contention to run the conglomerate after Jack Welch retired. But Immelt got the top spot instead. As President/CEO of GE Infrastructure, the largest of six GE business units and responsible for 25% of the company’s sales, Calhoun surprised Wall Street when he became the first top exec to quit after Immelt took over in 2001.
In that THR article, Bond’s reporting revealed:
“…Attendees who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter said shareholders asked about 10 politically charged questions concerning MSNBC as well as one about CNBC.
First up was a woman asking about a reported meeting in which CEO Jeff Immelt and NBC Uni CEO Jeff Zucker supposedly told top CNBC executives and talent to be less critical of President Obama and his policies.
Immelt acknowledged a meeting took place but said no one at CNBC was told what to say or not to say about politics.
During the woman’s follow-up question, her microphone was apparently cut off. A short time later, Watters asked a question and his mic was cut, too.
“The crowd was very upset with MSNBC because of its leftward tilt,” one attendee said. “Some former employees said they were embarrassed by it.”
…But one of those questions came from Jesse Watters, a producer on [Fox News Channel's] “The O’Reilly Factor” whose criticisms were cut short when his microphone was cut off, according to several attendees. Watters apparently did not publicly identify himself as a Fox employee… Watters has built a reputation as an ambush interviewer, specializing in on-the-street confrontations. But this is arguably the boldest move by a Fox newsie to utilize the tactic inside their chief rival’s tent, as it were… When he got the floor, Watters [a producer on Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor"] focused his question about MSNBC on Olbermann’s interview of actress Janeane Garofalo, who likened conservatives to racists and spoke of “the limbic brain inside a right-winger.
“He (Watters) was complaining that Olbermann didn’t bother to challenge her,” another GE shareholder said.
Immelt told the assembled he takes a hands-off approach to what is reported on the company’s news networks, which prompted a shareholder to criticize him for not managing NBC Uni more effectively….”
In the update to the story, THR pointed out that a GE corporate spokesman later pointed out that “there was no attempt to cut anyone off who had questions or comments to make. In fact, corporate spokesman Gary Sheffer said, the meeting did not conclude until everyone who wanted to speak had a chance — and some shareholders returned to the standing microphone multiple times.”
Because of that story, sources inside and outside Nielsen Business Media tell me, GE Chairman Jeff Immelt personally issued a GE ban on all of the Nielsen company. “Jeff Immelt severed relations between all of GE with all of Nielsen over that story. Immelt called Zucker, and Zucker took it from there. Then, after a few days, GE backtracked, and then it became NBC Universal severing relations with The Hollywood Reporter.”
According to my sources, Zucker ordered NBC Universal employees “not to talk” to THR. “They took away passes and tickets,” says one insider. Another told me advertising was affected: it appears all or almost all advertising was stopped by NBC Universal at what was and continues to be a very important revenue time for the trade — just before the Emmy nominations. Still another told me that NBC Universal employees stopped returning THR reporters’ calls. One NBC Universal employee actually said to a THR reporter: “I’m not allowed to talk to The Hollywood Reporter.”
Only a handful of people within the publication knew about the GE/NBC Universal ban. “It was all very mysterious,” one reporter whose calls stopped being returned by NBC Universal told me. “No one told me specifically why. But I think some story really pissed them off.”.
NBC Universal also attempted to have Paul Bond fired. The company went to Nielsen/THR and complained not just about his shareholders meeting coverage, but also about the tone of that story and others he’d written about NBCU. But Bond’s bosses refused to buckle under the pressure.
“They defended him, showing a lot of courage especially in this environment where ad money is hard to come by,” a Nielsen Business Media insider told me. “It’s fairly remarkable because Jeff Immelt is a very powerful man. If that doesn’t prove THR is a real newspaper, I don’t know what does.” (Well, you still have to prove that to me. But this is a start.)