Political drama at GE shareholders meeting
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The hostility between Fox News Channel and MSNBC reached a fever pitch Wednesday when a Fox producer infiltrated the General Electric shareholders meeting.
Just before GE re-elected board members, company brass were hit with questions from shareholders critical of an alleged leftward political slant at the MSNBC cable network, part of the industrial giant's media division, NBC Universal.
But one of those questions came from Jesse Waters, a producer on "The O'Reilly Factor" whose criticisms were cut short when his microphone was cut off, according to several attendees. Waters apparently did not publicly identify himself as a Fox employee.
Waters has built a reputation as an ambush interviewer, specializing in on-the-street confrontations. But this is arguably the boldest move by a Fox newsperson to use the tactic inside their chief rival's tent, as it were.
Television host and commentator Bill O'Reilly, of News Corp.'s Fox News, and MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann have been involved in a running feud for several years, but the animosity has of late started to envelop other parts of the News Corp. and GE empires.
GE pointed out that Waters had Fox News cameras waiting outside the Orlando, Florida, meeting.
Attendees who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter said shareholders asked about 10 politically charged questions concerning MSNBC as well as one about sister cable network
First up was a woman asking about a reported meeting in which General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt and NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker supposedly told top CNBC executives and talent to be less critical of President Obama and his policies.
Immelt acknowledged that a meeting took place but said no one at CNBC was told what to say or not to say about politics.
During the woman's follow-up question, her microphone apparently was cut off. A short time later, Waters asked a question and his mic was cut, too.
"The crowd was very upset with MSNBC because of its leftward tilt," one attendee said. "Some former employees said they were embarrassed by it."
When he got the floor, Waters focused his question about MSNBC on Olbermann's interview of actress Janeane Garofalo, who likened conservatives to racists and spoke of "the limbic brain inside a right-winger."
"He (Waters) was complaining that Olbermann didn't bother to challenge her," another GE shareholder said.
Immelt told the assembled that 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 Universal more effectively.
'RUMBLING IN THE CROWD'
"My biggest surprise was the open hostility to MSNBC," said Tom Borelli of the Free Enterprise Action Fund and a four-year critic of Immelt. "It was noticeable and loud. I don't remember any of this going on last year."
"Any time MSNBC was mentioned, there was a rumbling in the crowd of 400 people," he added. Borelli also asked a question pertaining to GE's stock performance since Immelt took the helm.
The meeting, which lasted more than two hours, was described by all four of the attendees The Hollywood Reporter talked to subsequently as variously rancorous or critical. In addition to questions about MSNBC, shareholders brought up matters of executive pay and cuts to the company's dividend.
The company made available a webcast of the event, which contains prepared remarks from Immelt and CFO Keith Sherin, but not their interaction with shareholders.
A GE spokesman said the company traditionally doesn't broadcast the entire meeting. He also defended the right of Waters, a shareholder, to ask questions of GE brass.
In other comments about the economy, Immelt said this is the worst it's been since the Great Depression and that it would ultimately lead to changes such as greater government involvement in business and a restructuring of the financial services sector that was a root of the crisis.
"We are living through history, and I don't mean that in a positive sense," Immelt said.
The CEO tried to assure shareholders that GE has positioned itself for an economic recovery, with a new focus on products that could capture some of what GE estimates is $2 trillion worth of government stimulus spending worldwide. That includes windmills and other clean energy equipment and new health care technology.
Sherin was conciliatory when discussing GE's decision to cut its dividend by 67 percent in March, the first reduction in the quarterly payment since 1938. GE has said the move was needed to save $9 billion per year in cash.
"We feel terrible about it, but it was the right thing to do," Sherin said.
Shares of GE rose 10 cents Wednesday to close at $11.80.
(Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters)
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