Drama at GE shareholders meeting

Fox News producer infiltrates event; 'hostility' over MSNBC

The Live Feed: Why would GE shareholders complain about successful MSNBC?

The hostility between Fox News Channel and MSNBC reached a fever pitch Wednesday when a Fox producer infiltrated the GE 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 MSNBC.

But one of those questions came from Jesse Watters, a producer on "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. But this is arguably the boldest move by a Fox newsie to utilize the tactic inside their chief rival's tent, as it were.

O'Reilly and MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann have been involved in a running feud for several years, but the pissing match between the two has of late started to envelop other parts of the News Corp. and GE empires.

GE pointed out that Watters had Fox News cameras waiting outside the Orlando meeting.

Attendees who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter said shareholders asked about 10 politically charged questions concerning MSNBC as well as one about CNBC.

First up was 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.

Immelt acknowledged 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 was apparently cut off. A short time later, Watters 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, Watters 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 (Watters) was complaining that Olbermann didn't bother to challenge her," another GE shareholder said.

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.

"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.

A GE corporate spokesman on Thursday morning pointed out that 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.

As for Fox News producer Watters, he had his say and left the gathering to do stand-up interviews with other attendees outside the proceeding. He was, Sheffer said, asked not to videotape during the meeting, which is not, per stated corporate policy, allowed by any shareholders during the event. (Watters, who is a shareholder, had attended last year as well and had tried then too to record the proceedings.)

As for Borelli, a Google search showed that he has appeared on both Fox News and CNBC. Further, the previously unidentified woman who asked a question about CNBC is Borelli's wife, and did indeed identify herself as such. She apparently thought she was being cut off after her first question and Immelt's response (saying, per Sheffer, "you are not going to cut me off"), but was allowed to continue.

The meeting, which lasted more than two hours, was described by all four of the attendees THR talked to subsequently as variously rancorous or critical. Other than questions about MSNBC, shareholders brought up questions about 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 Watters, a shareholder, to ask questions of GE brass.

But while Watters clearly had an ulterior motive and the case can be made that Borelli did as well (he supplied an audio tape of part of the GE shareholder meeting to Fox News), others were longtime shareholders unaffiliated with Fox, Watters or Borelli.

Larry Czajkowski, who has owned 600 shares for six years, asked one question and got in line for another but says his microphone was shut off after less than three minutes into his second question.

"My questions were well organized and brief," he said.

(Common practice at such events is to alternate questioners lined up at different mics; GE had at least two standing mics in the audience and hence was switching between them.)

Czajkowski is a retired major with the U.S. Army and was asking Immelt to explain why GE was doing business with Iran while that country was supplying weapons to Iraqis who were killing American soldiers.

"Immelt never answered my question, A, and B, shut my microphone off," he said.

Czajkowski said about 15 shareholders voiced criticism of NBC, MSNBC or CNBC, and they usually received applause. When Immelt defended the networks, he was booed.

"He didn't have good answers," Czajkowski said.

Paul Roeser, a shareholder since 1962 who had never been to a GE shareholder meeting until now, estimated that more than two dozen people expressed concern about GE's television news division.

"The biggest thing there was the put-down of NBC and MSNBC as slanted news media," he said. "Of the people that got to make a remark, almost all of them mentioned it."

Roeser, a retired New York state trooper, also said that Immelt's defense of MSNBC was met with "lots of boos," some of which can be heard on the Borelli tape.

Roeser said he was unaware that Fox News or producer Watters was at the meeting until he saw "The O'Reilly Factor" on Thursday, which led with a segment about the GE shareholder meeting as well as accusations that GE is using its media organization to prop up governmental policies it will profit from.

A theme from some of the questioners, Roeser said, was that "GE should not be in the business of broadcasting."

"It gives them a bad image," he said.

MSNBC's Keith Olbermman also addressed the GE shareholders meeting on his Thursday show, making Watters his "worser" person on his regular "Worst Person" segment for infiltrating the event and O'Reilly a "worst person" for unrelated reasons.

He dismissed "some kind of uprising against GE" at its meeting as insignificant due to the presence of Watters and his failure to identify himself as an "O'Reilly Factor" producer.

But shareholders like Andy Showen, an Orlando attorney who attended the meeting with his 11-year-old son, told THR Friday that any claims that the discussion of GE's news broadcast unit was somehow orchestrated are false.

He said as many as 20 shareholders were critical and zero were complimentary when they came to the microphones, and that applause for the criticism came from all corners of the arena, as did boos during Immelt's defense.

"I thought we were gonna be talking about earnings-per-share and market growth, but it was hugely a political event," Showen said.

"A couple of people made the comment that MSNBC is tarnishing the brand. I've heard that from Bill O'Reilly, and I kinda thought, 'OK, that's interesting,' but I can tell you, a lot of people who spoke at the shareholder meeting appeared to share that sentiment," he said.

"It's a very interesting story," he said. "Rather stunning."

Showen added some kind words for Immelt: "He stood there. He took some really brutal, harsh, personal criticism, and he took it like a man."

Showen attempted to ask a question but the meeting ended before his turn at the microphone, but he wasn't bothered by it.

"As critical as I am of these guys, I gotta say, all the points and all the criticism got very thoroughly aired out. Everybody may not have gotten to speak, but I think all the points they would have made were made."

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% 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.