reporting from new york
Two weeks of vitriolic exchanges between cable news hosts Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann have amped up viewership for Fox News as efforts by corporate executives to strike a detente fell apart.
Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, who face off in the 5 p.m. PDT time slot, have been attacking each other’s networks ever since news broke earlier this month that executives had sought to tamp down the personal attacks by the two men, whose sparring has long been a staple of the cable news wars.
The renewed feud appears to have benefited O’Reilly, whose show “The O’Reilly Factor” averaged nearly 3.5 million viewers between Aug. 3 and 13, the nine days following the news of the supposed truce. That’s 7% higher than his average viewership so far this year and 12% more than his average this quarter, which began June 29. He also recorded more than a million viewers in the key 25- to 54-year-old demographic twice last week, his largest showings among that age group this year.
“Countdown With Keith Olbermann” pulled in an average of 1.17 million viewers between Aug. 3 and 13, down 4% from his year-to-date average but up 13% for the quarter.
Their inflamed rhetoric comes at a time when cable news has been dominated by particularly strident exchanges. The televised coverage of the brawling town hall meetings over healthcare reform has helped fuel angry debates on the topic.
Even in that context, the verbal war between O’Reilly and Olbermann has been notably fierce. The MSNBC host has repeatedly attacked O’Reilly, whom he called “a racist clown,” while O’Reilly has been aiming most of his ammunition at MSNBC’s parent company, General Electric, which he suggested was manufacturing parts used in roadside bombs in Iraq.
That prompted a furious response from GE, which called the report “irresponsible and maliciously false.”
This was not the aim when Fox News Chief Executive Roger Ailes and General Electric Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt held a lunch meeting at Rockefeller Plaza in April and agreed to try to cool the tone of the rhetoric. Immelt and Rupert Murdoch, chief executive of Fox News’ parent company, News Corp., reaffirmed that commitment in May at a private Microsoft conference held in Redmond, Wash. Executives at both networks carried that message back to the two hosts, urging them to refrain from personal attacks on the air.
“We were hopeful at both companies to put a more civil tone in these discussions,” Gary Sheffer, a spokesman for GE, said Friday. “No one at GE ever told anyone at NBC how to cover the news or what to cover.”
But when the Los Angeles Times and New York Times reported on the agreement between the two companies, any tentative accord collapsed.
Olbermann struck first, declaring on the air he had not agreed to a truce. He went on to mock O’Reilly and lambaste Murdoch for trying to “muzzle Bill-O.”
To Fox News, it appeared clear that Olbermann was not going to comply with what his bosses wanted.
“This is now more about the extensive issues between GE and NBC than it is about Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann,” said a network spokeswoman.
With Olbermann back in the fray, O’Reilly renewed his attacks on GE, accusing Immelt of using NBC News to curry favor with the Obama administration.
On Tuesday, he went even further, saying he was told that the FBI suspects GE of providing a company in Singapore with radio frequency modules that were found in improvised explosive devices used to kill U.S. troops.
O’Reilly noted that he could not confirm that GE was under investigation.
“We are just reporting what we believe to be true,” he said.
GE lashed back with a statement accusing Fox News of a “smear campaign.” It said that it does not make the radio frequency modules used in the devices or do business with the company under scrutiny.
Olbermann piled on the next night.
“You can talk all you want about feuds and cease-fires and childishness, but if I or any actual reporter like me had gotten as much wrong in any story as Bill O’Reilly got wrong in this one, I’d be fired in 15 minutes, as he should be now,” he said.
Fox News declined to comment. The network has maintained that it will cover GE as the news warrants.
On Thursday, O’Reilly noted GE’s response and directed viewers to the company’s website, where his supporters posted hundreds of comments praising Fox News.
For now, it appears unlikely another armistice is in the works. As of Friday, there had not been any further talks between the executives at the two companies about reining in the two hosts.