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Olbermann, O'Reilly: Cable TV and town hall rancor

Since the day I launched this blog last September, I have been writing repeatedly about the way in which I believe the harsh, reckless, irresponsible and dangerous rhetoric of cable TV talk show host like MNBC's Keith Olbermann and Fox' Bill O'Reilly is hurting America.

Click here to read one of the very first posts last September headlined: "MSNBC paying for its Olbermann sins."

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Now comes much discussion the last two weeks about the so-called deal brokered between General Electric, the parent company of NBC News that runs MSNBC, and News Corporation, the firm that owns the Fox News Channel. The purpose of the deal: to keep Olbermann and O'Reilly from attacking executives and on-air personnel of their corporate opponents.

The deal has reportedly been in the works since last spring, and is now either or or off, depending on who you read and the mood on any particular night of either mercurial host. But there is one slice of this story that has been ignored, and I think it speaks legions about what is so very wrong with media today.

According to Howard Kurtz, one of the core reasons that senior excutives from Fox and GE met to try and broker a truce in namecalling was that relatives of Jeffrey R. Immelt, CEO of GE, were reportedly upset by the things O'Reilly said on-air about Immelt, while O'Reilly's family members were hurt by things Olbermann said about O'Reilly. Others have reported similar accounts involving discussions at a meeting between Immelt and Roger Ailes, who runs Fox News, to broker the deal.

Here is what is what I find so troubling about all of it. Executives at NBC News and Fox News didn't care about O'Reilly and Olbermann recklessly attacking others sometimes with flatout lies and, in the case of Olbermann, slander -- that was okay. It was only when the family members of a CEO at GE and an on-air performer for Fox were reportedly unhappy that it was time to cool things down and rein in the out-of-control cable TV hosts.

Where are the basic broadcast and journalistic standards of responsible speech applied uniformy to all persons on whom these two so-called all-news cable channels report or comment? There are none, that's where they are -- until one of their own people in power is made to feel some discomfort. And then, the zone of protection applies only to friends and family of the two corporate entities.

Does not the very fact that Immelt and Ailes wanted this rancorous on-air back-and-forth to stop once it was directed against their own camps acknowledge that such rhetoric and name calling are unacceptable? So why is Olbermann especially allowed to continute to behave this way toward others?

The good news about the reporting that has been done on this story by Brian Stelter at the New York Times and others is that it is contributing to a consensus as to what a unreliable, dangerous and out of control force Olbermann has become.

I made the mistake of calling characters like Olbermann cable clowns last year, but I was wrong. There is absolutely nothing funny about them any more.

We look back in horror today at the political discourse of the 1950s when careers were ruined, lives were shattered and suicides committed because of the reckless words and groundless accusations hurled by the likes of Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy and some of his acolytes both in politics and the Hearst-owned press.

I immersed myself in 1950's TV and media as part of my Ph.D. dissertation, and I can tell you that prime-time cable TV hosts like Olbermann are playing the very same dark and dangerous chords as McCarthy's lot. Only today, thanks to cable TV and the Web, they have bigger amplifiers and the ability to spread their poisonous messages instantly with virtually no gatekeepers to get in the way -- particularly when entities like NBC News, which knows better, look the other way.

And the poison of attack and hateful speech spreads through the body politic until we can no longer have civil town hall discussions in this country between elected officials and their consituents. Yeah, yeah, I know about the charges of Astoturfing and the "punching back" by the White House. But you couldn't get people to act with the anger and belligerence seen at these town hall meetings last week if those people thought it would bring them shame to behave that way in public.

But the lesson of of cable news is that such ugly and nasty behavior won't bring you shame, it will bring you favor. You're acting just like Olbermann, O'Reilly, Hannity, Beck and Dobbs. You're acting just the way cable TV teaches you to act in the political arena.

And now we reap the whirlwind of an angry, polarized, confused and frightened populace.

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