Thursday, November 11, 2010

Who Will Head MSNBC if Comcast Takes Over?

And Why That Poses an Even Bigger Threat to Keith Olbermann

Keith Olbermann is back, and for his many fans, including the 300,000 who petitioned MSNBC to reinstate him, it would seem a return to form.

But Olbermann's dispute with the brass at MSNBC may only serve as a prelude to more troubled times.

MSNBC's parent company, NBC Universal, is likely to be taken over by cable giant Comcast, should regulators sign off on the $30 billion deal. If history is any guide, this merger poses an even bigger threat to the future of MSNBC personalities like Olbermann and Rachel Maddow than the recent dustup that temporarily sidelined the host.

That's why tens of thousands have already urged the Federal Communications Commission and Department of Justice to stop the merger. They cite a multitude of reasons the takeover would bring them harm, including higher prices and fewer choices in programming and services. Indeed, such concentration of media power leads to a less vigilant news media, a muted marketplace of ideas and fewer consumer options at a time when are demanding more.

Add to this the dim but real prospect that MSNBC's new boss will be even less welcoming than the current one to commentators that rock the boat. Just consider the candidates in line to take over MSNBC:

Steve Burke, Comcast's Chief Operating Officer

According to The Street, Steve Burke will take NBC's CEO spot from Jeff Zucker should the merger be approved. In an e-mail to colleagues, Zucker said: "Comcast will be a great new steward, just as GE has been, and they deserve the chance to implement their own vision."

That vision - in the hands of Burke - might not be to the liking of MSNBC's stable of talent. Burke has deep ties to the Republican Party. According to Public Citizen, Burke raised at least $200,000 for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. Prior to that, he served on the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology under Bush, at a time when the administration was undermining scientific consensus on topics including climate change, stem-cell research, and even the relationship between corn syrup and rates of diabetes in children.

As a top science adviser to President Bush, did Burke condone administration efforts to bury scientific findings that challenged official policy? What would he do when comments or reporting by Olbermann or Maddow challenge Comcast's corporate dogma?

Peter A. Chernin, Former Second in Command at News Corp.

Peter Chernin was a major fundraiser for Sen. Hillary Clinton, according to the New York Times, which also reports that he may be on the short list to take over NBC operations should Comcast get the nod.

For years, Chernin has co-owned a restaurant on Martha's Vinyard with Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts. More recently, he was tapped by Roberts to become a "special adviser" to Comcast on the potential merger.

Chernin's close ties to Clinton, Roberts and Rupert Murdoch indicate his biases may be more corporate than political. But it was during his tenure at Fox that the network looked the other way as many of its personalities actively -- and financially -- supported Republican candidates and Tea Party causes.

Chernin once asked Roberts whether he planned to interfere in editorial content at MSNBC -- a question that Roberts refused to answer.

Eileen Dolente, Senior Director, Comcast Multimedia Content Development

Odds are slim that Eileen Dolente would be picked to head MSNBC programming. But her record at Comcast offers a disturbing glimpse into the cable company's mindset regarding speech that interferes with business as usual.

As director of programming for Comcast's news division, CN8, Dolente fired host Barry Nolan. His crime? Nolan had protested a major award being given to Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly.

Nolan was "appalled" that an award would be given to O'Reilly. He dashed off e-mails stating that O'Reilly's "indiscretions, inaccuracies, and prejudices disqualify him for such a lofty honor."

Dolente was appalled that one of her hosts would share such an opinion, and within a week of the award ceremony, she showed Nolan the door. Documents filed in a subsequent lawsuit revealed that the mutual business interests of Comcast and News Corp., which employs O'Reilly, were a major factor in Nolan's firing.

What position would Comcast take should MSNBC personalities launch a similar attack on a valued business partner? If Dolente takes the helm, past may become prologue for MSNBC.

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