Speaking at GE's annual shareholder meeting in Orlando, Fla., following what has been a punishing year for the conglomerate, CEO Jeff Immelt said the downturn was the worst 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," said Immelt, who heads one of the world's largest companies that makes products like jet engines and refrigerators but also has a big financial unit.
Immelt told investors "2008 was tough and 2009 is also going to be tough." He added that it was hard to predict "how bad this will be and how long" the recession will last.
Drama at GE shareholders meeting
'Open hostility' toward execs over MSNBC's 'leftward tilt'
April 22, 2009, 06:38 PM ET
Updated: April 22, 2009, 07:28 PM ET
Just don't expect to see the fireworks at the company's webcast of the event, which contains prepared remarks from CEO Jeff Immelt and CFO Keith Sherin but leaves out their interaction with shareholders.
A GE spokesman clarified that the corporation doesn't typically broadcast the shareholders meeting in its entirety.
Just before GE board members were re-elected, shareholders asked about 10 questions of a mostly political nature concerning the viewpoints of MSNBC and CNBC, according to attendees.
First up was a woman asking about a reported meeting in which 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 say about politics.
During the woman's follow-up question, her microphone was cut off. Later, during the umpteenth question about MSNBC, another shareholder's microphone was cut, according to multiple attendees.
"The crowd was very upset with MSNBC because of its leftward tilt," one attendee said. "Some former employees said they were embarrassed by it."
One specific complaint about MSNBC concerned Keith Olbermann's interview of actress Janeane Garofalo, who likened conservatives to racists and spoke of "the limbic brain inside a right-winger."
"They were upset that Olbermann didn't bother to challenge her," one GE shareholder said.
Immelt said 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 effectively.
"My biggest surprise was the open hostility to MSNBC," another shareholder said. "It was noticeable and loud. I don't remember any of this going on last year."
One shareholder at the Orlando, Fla., meeting was Jesse Waters, a producer of "The O'Reilly Factor." Waters asked a question at the meeting, then turned on the Fox News Channel cameras outside the venue and interviewed other shareholders who attended the meeting.