CNBC Under Corporate Pressure To Stop Bashing Obama?

April 16, 2009 4:48 p.m.

Earlier this month Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein gave a speech condemning Wall Street’s systemic greed and sloppiness, prompting pundits to wonder if Wall Street was finally starting to “get it.” Could Wall Street’s preeminent mouthpiece CNBC be starting to “get it” as well?

A unnamed source at the network told this morning’s New York Post that NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker and Jeff Immelt, CEO of parent company GE, had recently convened a dinner with the network’s top brass and some of its high-profile reporters to discuss whether the network that launched a thousand search engine queries into the meaning of teabag should start distancing itself from the “grassroots” war it started with the Obama administration two months ago. Indeed, yesterday the network mentioned the T-word by far the fewest times of any of the major cable news networks. The Post source, an anonymous “insider,” said dispatches from the dinner had been filtering down to reporters, who were concerned about being “muzzled by GE.”

Quoting the Post

“It was an intensive, three-hour dinner at 30 Rock which Zucker himself was behind,” a source familiar with the powwow told us. “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.”

Media bias at CNBC has been a hot topic since CNBC anchor Rick Santelli, a former options trader who reports on the arcana driving interest rates and futures from the pit of the Chicago Board of Trade, touched off the tea party madness when he used one of his live spots in February to deliver an impassioned and incoherent speech predicting the “collectivist” path pursued by the Obama mortgage modification bill would impoverish the country such that Americans, like Cubans, would soon be driving “54 Chevys” (which he added was “maybe the last great car to come out of Detroit.”)

Santelli’s rant, in turn, fueled a campaign led by The Daily Show host Jon Stewart to hold the network “accountable,” a sentiment echoed in an online petition signed by dozens of prominent economists exhorting network execs to Fix CNBC:

Americans need CNBC to do strong, watchdog journalism – asking tough questions to Wall Street, debunking lies, and reporting the truth. Instead, CNBC has done PR for Wall Street. You’ve been so obsessed with getting “access” to failed CEOs that you willfully passed on misinformation to the public for years, helping to get us into the economic crisis we face today.

So are Zucker and Immelt really coming down on CNBC to lighten up on Obama? Not so, says a CNBC staffer who attended the dinner…Our source confirmed that the dinner did last some three hours and it took place in late March with “about twelve” reporters and anchors at the network. But the actual objective of the dinner — and the general theme of the first two of those hours — was to give CNBC reporters the opportunity to pick Immelt’s brain, less in his capacity as their boss than as a corporate and economic leader. (Immelt sits on the President’s economic advisory council and on the board of the New York Fed.)

The conversation took a turn toward the political and philosophical around hour two, said our source, who took offense with the term “creepy” and characterized the conversation as part of a broader period of soul-searching at the network. Until the crisis, says our source, it was “philosophically hard to separate” the network’s institutional bias in favor of free markets from a more ideological conservatism.

Where does Immelt come down on the in-house political spectrum? If the annual letter to shareholders he wrote in March is any indication, he’s closer to Maddow than Kudlow:

For 2009, we have sharpened our strategic processes and scenario planning. Each of our businesses has set up a process to identify the “naysayers” in each of our industries to make sure their voices are heard inside GE.

I have also learned something about my country. I run a global company, but I am a citizen of the U.S. I believe that a popular, thirty-year notion that the U.S. can evolve from being a technology and manufacturing leader to a service leader is just wrong. In the end, this philosophy transformed the financial services industry from one that supported commerce to a complex trading market that operated outside the economy. Real engineering was traded for financial engineering.

Our source said some CNBC employees and executives now accept that the network was too willing to play cheerleader to the financial engineering-based economy, but expressed surprise that anyone felt political “pressure” after the dinner.

Just to be sure, though, we checked with the uberconservative CNBC Power Lunch anchor Dennis Kneale on the prolific twitter feed he maintains during the show.

@PowerLunch DK: what’s this new york post report about you being “muzzled” by NBC honchos at a dinner party the other night?

@moetkacik from dk: that would be, um, bunk! bs! poppycock. i’m way conservative, keep gettg more time not less.

@PowerLunch haha, okay well, do you think it was just intended to put some distance between CNBC and this teabagging stuff?

@moetkacik from dk: you are an intrepid observer. that’s all i’m sayin

Perhaps at this point, in other words, an association with the new “grassroots” conservative movement is simply a bad PR move for CNBC and its corporate parents at GE.

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