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NBC Universal: Big Media's Big Stick 

Hollywood Reporter and its journalist, Bond, frozen out over Obama coverage

Tuesday, Jun 16 2009
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It’s a very dangerous situation when any multinational corporation wages war against media companies. Especially when that huge multinational is General Electric, which itself owns a media company, NBC Universal, and is using all its power and influence and money to try to harm another media company, Nielsen, Nielsen Business Media, and its trade publication The Hollywood Reporter.

This certainly sounds like a situation the Federal Communications Commission, Federal Trade Commission, and U.S. Department of Justice should be investigating. Just one problem: The controversy stems from G.E./NBCU’s coverage of President Obama.

According to my sources inside and outside Nielsen Business Media, The Hollywood Reporter trade publication ran a story April 22, and an updated version April 24, covering the “drama” at the recent G.E. shareholders’ meeting in Orlando. THR’s West Coast Business Editor, Paul Bond, wasn’t sent to the meeting but interviewed about a half-dozen people who’d been present.

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Bond’s story in the Reporter focused on the attempts by stockholders, Fox News Channel and other media to learn whether G.E. Chairman/CEO Jeffrey Immelt ordered his news operations to be less critical of Obama and his policies. Bond’s story was immediately picked up by The Drudge Report under the headline “G.E. shareholders outraged over MSNBC bias; Microphone cut off.”

It became a hot news story on conservative, liberal and media-oriented Web sites. That’s when, sources inside and outside Nielsen Business Media tell me, G.E.’s Immelt ordered a G.E. companywide ban on all editorial, advertising and business dealings with The Hollywood Reporter’s parent company, Nielsen. After a few days, the ban was reduced to involve only G.E.’s NBC Universal, and was carried out by chief Jeff Zucker against Nielsen Business Media’s The Hollywood Reporter. The ban — including efforts to have editor Bond fired — lasted six weeks, and my NBC Universal sources now confirm that it has been lifted.

My reporting was the first about the ban or what led to it. “People need to know that G.E. 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. Only after I posted the news on my Web site did Gary Sheffer, G.E.’s executive director of corporate communications, e-mail me: “I just read your post on G.E. and NBCU. Jeff Immelt had no involvement in this matter whatsoever. 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 find Sheffer’s remarks dubious, considering that the THR account of the G.E. shareholders’ meeting, once it hit Drudge, was a major media topic. The G.E. spokesman didn’t deny the reprisals against Nielsen or THR, just Immelt’s direct involvement in them. Yet Sheffer admits that he spoke directly to The Hollywood Reporter several times about the story, as did Zucker’s chief flack, Cory Shields.

The G.E. spokesman refused to talk about NBCU versus Nielsen. He also refused to reply to my question that why, since G.E. rides herd so closely on its personnel and especially its division managers, Immelt would let Zucker run amok against a media company trying to cover news about G.E.

This is also interesting: The chairman/CEO of Nielsen is David Calhoun, who, prior to joining in 2006, served as vice chairman of G.E. Rising at G.E. 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 G.E. Infrastructure, the largest of six G.E. business units, responsible for 25 percent of the company’s sales, Calhoun surprised Wall Street by being the first top exec to quit after Immelt took over in 2001.

In the THR article, Bond’s reporting revealed that the shareholders’ meeting included “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.” The story said: “During the woman’s follow-up question, her microphone was apparently cut off.” Bond also reported that “Immelt acknowledged that a meeting took place but said no one at CNBC was told what to say or not to say about politics.”

Interestingly, as THR also reported, one of the questions asked at the meeting “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.” One attendee told Bond, “The crowd was very upset with MSNBC because of its leftward tilt.... Some former employees said they were embarrassed by it.”

Bond’s piece explained that “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 story update, THR pointed out that a G.E. corporate spokesman later said “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 Bond’s story, sources inside and outside Nielsen Business Media tell me, G.E. Chairman Immelt personally issued a G.E. ban on dealings with the Nielsen company. “Jeff Immelt severed relations between all of G.E. with all of Nielsen over that story. Immelt called Zucker, and Zucker took it from there. Then, after a few days, G.E. 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 that all or almost all advertising in the Reporter 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 at the publication knew about the ban. “It was all very mysterious,” one reporter — whose calls were not 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.)

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