Why Comcast Can't Escape Olbermann Blame

Analysis: A plethora of hard evidence exonerates Comcast of complicity in the Keith Olbermann affair, but the continuing skepticism is prudent

“You’ll never be a serious (media) company until you’re in the news business,” CNN founder Ted Turner advised a younger Brian Roberts, now Comcast’s CEO, many years ago.

The past week, even before it becomes majority owner of NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC on Friday, the cable giant has experienced a serious peril common among mammoth corporations with news enterprises part of their asset mix.

Like Time Warner (CNN), News Corp. (Fox News, Wall Street Journal, New York Post) and current NBC owner General Electric, Comcast finds itself suspected of manipulating the news.

In nearly real-time with the breaking Keith Olbermann news, a tweeting chorus quickly insinuated that political conservatives in the cable company’s executive suite motivated the liberal Olbermann’s fleeing the coop. Even CNN's Anderson Cooper, in a Twitter-promo of his show, “AC360,” chirped, “Comcast deal is approved. Jeff Zucker leaves. #keitholbermann gets fired. Coincidence?”

So far, the hard evidence exonerates Comcast. Bitter tension between the “Countdown” host and his MSNBC bosses predated Comcast; Olbermann’s negotiated exit was weeks in the making and mutually desirable.  And Comcast, as noted in its swift formal reaction to the suspicion, has no legal say at NBC until its $30 billion proposal with GE closes — and has pledged hands-off the news rooms once its in control.

Still, many bloggers, blog readers and commentators are wary. For good reason.

Skepticism generally is prudent where powerful economic, technological and market forces suddenly are under the same corporate roof with the journalism that can shape them. Comcast, for example, is the largest cable-TV provider, number one in home internet connections and a top supplier of home-phone service. And the stakes are high – the media giant reported 2009 operating income of $7.2 billion on revenues of almost $36 billion.

Ironicially, if Comcast orchestrated L'affair Olbermann, as his partisans insist, it would have been motivated, they believe, by politics, not corporate economic self-interest. Liberal commentators cite Steve Burke, who formally becomes NBCU’s CEO by week’s end.

On the face of it, Comcast’s No. 2 — a skilled and thoughtful executive whose father is a legend in broadcast management — doesn’t sound like a person who’d manipulate news. Burke has “everything you want in an executive. He’s high-grade. He’s smart. His judgment is good,” says Warren Buffett, a longtime Burke friend whom the billionaire tapped as a director of his Berkshire Hathaway last year.

And he's also, to quote the blog Political Carnival, “a BIG Conservative Republican Financier.”

He has helped finance in the millions of dollars the campaigns of, among others, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and the White House races of George W. Bush, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and George Romney.

In fact, however, Burke also contributes to Democrats, including Senate majority leader Harry Reid, according OpenSecrets.com. Burke voted for President O’Bama, reports the New York Times.  

So Burke hardly is Rupert Murdoch, unabashed global power player, media mogul and political conservative with a reputation for advancing self-interest through his news properties. His News Corp. — whose defining brand is conservative-GOP-and-Tea Party-friendly Fox News — recently donated $1 million to the Republican governors.   

When News Corp. purchased the Wall Street Journal several years ago, worry in media circles and among staffers was that the newspaper might promote News Corp.’s business interests.

It might have happened recently, the blog TechCrunch suggests — and not out of any directive, but out of second guessing.

The website reported how the Journal quietly spiked a negative story about a corporate sibling, News Corp.’s beleaguered high-profile MySpace. “If the WSJ killed the MySpace article because of pressure from their sister company,” TechCrunch speculated, “then they have shown that their editorial agenda is under the control of their parent company, News Corp.”  

Call it a twist on the Stockholm Syndrome, in which a corporate parent’s captive newsroom begins to empathize with the owner’s business interest and produces news accordingly.

Critics of corporate ownership long have worried this. Some Olbermann fans reason that NBC news executives suffered the syndrome, fearing the host's up-yours expression of liberalism wouldn’t cut it with incoming owner Comcast and decided to pre-empt trouble.

Then there will be the matter of news outlets’ coverage of their corporate parents. At best, experience indicates, it will be perfunctory — dutiful reports on quarterly earnings, for example, that stick closely to the press release.

Anecdotally, captive news outlets tend to go easy on corporate parents. 

MSNBC, for instance, has shied from training its guns on its sprawling corporate parent’s extensive Washington lobbying and growing ties with the Obama Administration — even when that culminated last week in owner General Electric's CEO Jeff Immelt’s appointment as chairman of the President’s outside board of economic advisers.

At least once, even CNN visionary Turner appeared to abuse corporate power involving, ironically, news assets. After mega-media conglomerate Time Warner acquired his cable-programming empire in the mid-1990s, he reportedly pressured  Time Warner Cable to balk at carrying upstart rival Fox News in New York City.

Criticized as an "abusive gatekeeper" and pressured by then-Mayor Rudy Guiliani, Time Warner eventually caved.

Surely, that's not the kind of news that Comcast, a serious company now, wants to make.