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Heads Will Grow
by A.M. Siriano
08 April 2004

I’m starting to see a pattern with Bill O’Reilly: If you trash him, he’ll trash your entire industry.

I’m starting to see a pattern with Bill O’Reilly: If you trash him, he’ll trash your entire industry.

For years O’Reilly has perceived he is in a battle for media supremacy, believing himself destined for the same level of notoriety as his old boss, Peter Jennings, or as conservative bulwark Rush Limbaugh. There is no doubt that liberals, who are in the majority in the mainstream, think little of O’Reilly’s home base, Fox, and even less of him and his harsh, sometimes insolent, style. O’Reilly has struck back in his own way, touting his brand of journalism over the old model, where news is delivered within boundaries of decorum and detachment. While he is quick to make the distinction between news and commentary, he believes media outlets like CBS and ABC do a disservice to the American people by keeping their anchormen and -women under the thumb of impartiality.  Respected journalists, who endeavor to give us straight news without commentary, such as Ted Koppel or Dan Rather, should let us know what they think, says O’Reilly (he’s not likely to mention Fox’s own Brit Hume and Greta Van Susteren, but they fall into that category, too, and admirably so).

Considering the cutthroat nature of big media, this all has appeared fairly tame.  But when smaller dogs come biting, look out.  Enter Matt Drudge, who rose to prominence by outing Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky (and by keeping his website, the Drudge Report, balanced, simple, and navigable).  When Drudge questioned O’Reilly’s claims of an imagined competition between himself and Hillary Clinton to see who could sell the most books, O’Reilly not only condemned Drudge, but let the world know that the internet was an untrustworthy news source, filled with a bunch of poorly informed, bloggin’ “pinheads.”   Besides the obvious—that such a generalization is unfair—the problem was this: Drudge was right.  O’Reilly’s sales were growing, but not quite as much as his head, because Hillary by the end of 2003 was beating him 2-to-1, ranking #7 to his #63, according to USA Today, and without even having her own show to peddle her wares.   Yes, it may be that the Democratic party helped her in this game, but it is a game, after all.

O’Reilly’s latest battleground is talk radio, where he hopes to unseat Limbaugh.  When O’Reilly started his radio show, the buzz was that it was bound to fail.  This time the naysayers were wrong, with the show running on more than 400 stations nationwide.   When Crossfire’s Paul Begala recently asked talk powerhouse G. Gordon Liddy why O’Reilly “hasn’t done very well on radio,” Liddy, whose market is comprised of 170 stations, said O’Reilly’s ratings were “in the toilet.”   O’Reilly correctly rebutted Liddy and Crossfire, but then went too far by trashing all of talk radio in an article called “Radio Daze,”  throwing darts at his new competitor, Al Franken, at his old nemesis, NPR, and at the kingpin himself, Rush Limbaugh.  Apparently O’Reilly’s Radio Factor is the only show on the air with 1. an intelligent host and 2. an intelligent audience.

O’Reilly’s article is very witty and makes valid points while slamming various types of radio formats, but it unjustly lumps them all together, the liberal with the conservative, along with rap stations and shock jocks.  Does he mention Limbaugh?  No, but the “ditto” allusion is crystal clear.  The implication is also clear:  one cannot hope to get anything but propaganda out of talk radio, his spin-less show being the exception.

Here’s the rub:  His portrayal, sardonic as it may be, is just not true.  I have not yet heard the new openly liberal forum, so I can’t yet make a judgment on it.  I catch NPR about once a day, and Limbaugh about three times a week, but never for more than an hour, and I love it when Walter Williams sits in on Fridays, giving me a bit of libertarianism.  I also listen to Matt Drudge, Laura Ingraham, and even that crazy Liddy, whenever I can.   My honest opinion of all of them is this:  They are there to serve me, so that I can form my own opinion.  I don’t believe everything I hear, and I don’t always agree.  Yes, NPR tends to be liberal (and delusively so, which I don’t like), but I usually get both sides of an issue there, and a certain type of insight that I can’t seem to find anywhere else.

O’Reilly’s parody of Limbaugh and his listeners is offensive:

“Lorraine in Orlando, what’s on your mind?”
“Ditto what, Lorraine?”
“Kerry is a communist.  He has botox.”
“And the government probably paid for it, right Lorraine?”
“No doubt.  And Hillary dated bin-Laden at Yale …”

Parody is funny when it is based on truth.  This is not.  I have my own troubles with Limbaugh, mostly because I can’t stand self-aggrandizement.  I turn him off when I hear him blasphemously (albeit humorously) spout that he is “on loan from God.”  But Limbaugh, who is disarmingly logical most of the time, never entertains fanatics for long, be they conservative or liberal, and he often challenges his callers when they make outrageous comments. The same is true for most talk radio hosts, including the more strident ones, such as Michael Savage.  But according to O’Reilly, “The ghost of Joseph Goebbels is haunting most radio talk stations ...”  Such a statement is nearly as irresponsible as those who have compared President Bush to Hitler.  Furthermore, to import conspiracy theorism—the special darling of liberalism—as a common conservative tactic is reprehensible.

O’Reilly is at the top of his game, there is no doubting that.   But he is in danger of imploding if he doesn’t cool the arrogance.   Besides his lashing out at anyone who criticizes him, his recent verbiage is a fair indication that his head may soon float away.   His idiotic branding of the term “the folks” is meant to imply that he is the spokesman of middle America.  His guests must now “answer to the Factor,” and those who refuse to appear are cowards.  If someone tries to point out a fact that may or may not be common knowledge, he rebukes them for patronizing his audience, who are already “well informed.”   People who have an opposing viewpoint can barely get a word in edgewise.  And I know of one guest who was set up, made to think O’Reilly was on his side when, in fact, he was not.

There is much that is admirable in Bill O’Reilly, but he is just one man with opinions, just as Rush Limbaugh is, just as Al Franken is, just as I am.  When O’Reilly gets his head out of the clouds, he just might realize that “the folks” are more than capable of cutting through the propaganda, even his own, mainly because they watch different news shows, draw from a myriad of web sources (including pinheaded bloggers), and listen to a diversity of bloviating talk radio hosts.

A. M. Siriano is a DBA/web developer by day and writes for his own website, amsiriano.com, by night

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