Thursday, April 23, 2009

Jeff Immelt, Villain

General Electric Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt parroted the White House line at the company's annual shareholder meeting in Orlando Wednesday, saying the economic downturn has "fundamentally reset" the way companies do business and capitalism itself.

The Associated Press reported that Immelt predicted the current recession "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."

What's this?

He's awfully quick to accept the kind of government strangulation that businesses pay lobbyists tens of millions of dollars to avoid.

Why is the CEO of one of the world's largest companies talking like a vagrant pickpocket pleading for a lighter sentence?

Funny you should ask.

Just a couple of paragraphs later the AP tells us, "Profits at the company's GE Capital lending arm have fallen sharply as losses on loans like credit cards, commercial real estate and overseas mortgages have grown. GE lost its rare 'AAA' credit rating earlier this year due to GE Capital's woes."

That's plenty of reason for a CEO to be currying favor with President Obama. Every company in the financial industry is either pleading for bailout money or lobbying for mercy from regulators.

Yet there's more.

"GE has positioned itself for an economic recovery," the AP says Immelt told shareholders, "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 to better diagnose illnesses like Alzheimer's disease."

No wonder Jeff Immelt, capitalist, publicly agrees with the president that capitalism as we know it is dead.

Jeff Immelt is on his knees to President Obama because he wants GE to get bailout help, regulatory breaks, and some of that $2 trillion of your tax money that the government is about to start throwing around.

He really ought to move his headquarters to Pahrump, Nevada. It's legal there.

Obviously Jeff Immelt has made a judgment that his company's fortunes are best served by flattering government officials and becoming a docile, compliant, and wildly prosperous government contractor.

There's just one problem.

General Electric owns NBC. And CNBC. And MSNBC.

That's a problem.

MSNBC is regularly accused of political bias, most recently at today's GE shareholders meeting. "The crowd was very upset with MSNBC because of its leftward tilt," one attendee told the Hollywood Reporter. The trade paper reported that the shareholders' microphone was cut off during the "umpteenth" question about MSNBC's political bias.

Then there's CNBC.

CNBC is a business news channel watched by traders and investors around the globe. If you watch it regularly you may have noticed, as we did, that the on-air talent at the network has been shilling like a late-night pitchman since last September.

They shilled for the bailout, they shilled for green energy, they shilled for the stimulus package. Every day, it seemed, the once-reliable news anchors on that network sounded more and more like Paul Begala or Mary Matalin, glib advocates paid to get their talking points in before the commercial break.

But the anchors on CNBC have a lot of time to fill, and they can't fill all of it just by talking to each other.

That's where the trouble started.

Rick Santelli, reporting from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, couldn't take it anymore when President Obama announced his plan to help "struggling homeowners." He yelled out to the traders around him and asked if they wanted to pay their neighbor's mortgage on the house with the new bathroom addition. As the traders roared and applauded behind him, Santelli said he was organizing a tea party at Lake Michigan to protest the tax-and-spend-and-bailout policies of the government.

Maybe you saw the news on April 15, or maybe you were watching NBC, but there were an estimated 750 "tea party" protests across the country, all organized after Rick Santelli's rant was downloaded millions of times from the CNBC website and YouTube.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dismissed the protests contemptuously as "Astroturf," meaning a phony grass-roots protest that actually was organized by a lot of paid lobbyists.

We'll see.

In the meantime, CNBC's anchors began to have more and more trouble saying something nice about the new administration's handling of the economy. Apparently on orders to sound more optimistic, Sue Herera spoke nervously of trying to find "silver linings" and Erin Burnett tried gamely to locate "crocuses" and "green shoots."

Sometimes it was pretty funny.

After Tim Geithner horrified the markets with his big unveiling of no specific plan to deal with toxic assets on bank balance sheets, CNBC's air was filled with interview after interview of business executives and financial professionals slamming Geithner as an amateur and an incompetent.

"That poor kid," one commentator said, speaking of the Treasury Secretary of the United States.

File that under "Don't help me."

A business news channel can't get around the fact that it has to report business news, and business is bad. The people interviewed on CNBC increasingly blamed the gloomy economic outlook on President Obama's real or potential plans for taxes, deficits, bank nationalization, health care reform, labor union muscle, and a cap-and-trade system to penalize energy use, not to mention his unilateral decision to fire the CEO of General Motors.

And then, it happened.

General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt called CNBC on the carpet.

On April 16 the New York Post reported, "The top suits and some of the on-air talent at CNBC were recently ordered to a top-secret meeting with General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt and NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker to discuss whether they've turned into the President Obama-bashing network."

According to the Post's source, "It was an intensive, three-hour dinner" at NBC's New York headquarters. "There was a long discussion about whether CNBC has become too conservative and is beating up on Obama too much. There's great concern that CNBC is now the anti-Obama network. The whole meeting was really kind of creepy."

One topic discussed, the Post reported, was Rick Santelli's rant against the president's bailout program for overextended homeowners.

The Post's source told the paper that NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker was personally behind the meeting.

In the entertainment industry, where people get fired all the time for things that are totally out of their control--because this teen idol's sitcom was more successful than that teen idol's sitcom, or because more males age 18-34 watched the grotesque reality show than the grotesque autopsy show--the executives who make it to the top have one thing in common.

They know how not to get fired.

So NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker claimed to be the one who called the meeting to crack down on CNBC.

And GE Chairman Jeff Immelt, while confirming to angry shareholders that the reported meeting with CNBC did take place, piously said he "takes a hands-off approach to what is reported on the company's news networks."

They're not fooling anybody.

What they're doing is destroying the credibility of some very fine reporters and news professionals.

Capitalism will survive. But thanks to Jeffrey Immelt, NBC News has joined Tim Russert.

Copyright 2009