David Ridenour at 2010 GE shareholder meeting
General Electric's plan to shed a majority stake in NBC Universal may be an attempt to repair GE's tarnished image with conservatives and moderates.
At the General Electric shareholder meeting in Houston Wednesday, I asked GE CEO Jeff Immelt about the growing public perception that General Electric is committed to a particular ideology, which isn't in the long-term interest of shareholders.
As an example, I noted that MSNBC, part of GE's NBC Universal, runs programming that is offensive to a substantial portion of the population. Keith Olbermann has called the Tea Party movement the "Tea Klux Klan" and has said the Republican Party wants to re-impose Jim Crow Laws.
Whatever your political outlook, I said, this doesn't make sense for GE - offending a substantial number of GE customers or would-be customers. I noted also that a large number of GE shareholders, including those gathered, sympathize with what the Tea Parties are trying to do or are members of the Republican Party.
I then noted that the Gallup organization has consistently shown that the number of people who self-identify as conservative outnumber those who self-identify as liberal 2 to 1. This, I said, is further supported by the fact that Fox News Channel has been far more successful than MSNBC, consistently getting more than double the viewers.
I then asked him to explain GE's thinking in going after the 21% of the population that is liberal rather than 79% of the population that isn't, but Fox is, with NBC's programming. I also asked what he was doing to address the perception - especially among conservatives -- that GE stands against them.
Quite a bit of applause followed.
Immelt didn't answer but went to the next question.
Later, I asked the questions again, noting he hadn't even attempted to answer my questions.
He said that GE has never attempted to influence the programming for its news or public affairs programs.
I asked: What about CNBC?
That goes for CNBC, too, he said.
I then interjected that its been widely reported that GE did just that (see New York Post article here) to curb criticism of President Obama's agenda.
Again, he asserted GE never attempts to influence programming.
Then he suggested that it was a moot point anyway because GE had divested itself of NBC Universal.
I responded, GE will still have a 49% stake.
Immelt then thanked me and moved on to the next questioner.
More questions about NBC Universal - both on its politics and on the proposed sale --followed.
What was particularly interesting is that on at least three occasions, including once during my question, Immelt said GE was divesting itself of NBC Universal - a point that is factually incorrect.
When asked by one shareholder how much control GE will have over the NBC Universal joint venture with Comcast, he said "effectively none."
GE will have a 49% stake in the company, have representation on the board of directors and yet have zero influence over the decisions?
This has all the markings of a company that wants to continue to influence NBC Universal programming (by serving on the board) and yet avoid accountability.
When Rachel Maddow says Tea Party activists can't hear what they're cheering for because their white hoods muffle the sound (yes, she said that), and Immelt is called on it in the future, he simply will blame Comcast.
The company has burned a lot of bridges with conservatives, not only through NBC Universal, but its support for cap-and-trade legislation, participation in TARP, and lobbying for stimulus dollars.
That's likely one of the reasons GE is reducing its stake in NBC Universal - this also may be the reasoning behind its gift of $15 million to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and becoming a presenting sponsor of Reagan's centennial celebration.
The political winds are changing... and all the GE-built wind turbines in the world can't change that.
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