One more reason to fear for democracy
I watched "The O'Reilly Factor," and its eponymous host, Bill O'Reilly.
I hadn’t watched Bill O for two or three years, for one simple reason: He’s an insufferable horse’s ass. Putting his politics aside, which is a good place for them, he violates every principle of fairness, to say nothing of the most basic precept of journalism: Ask the question, then shut up and listen to the answer.
A bible for reporters is The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. One of the rules they lay down for writers is “Do not air your opinions gratuitously. To do so is to imply that the demand for them is brisk.”
Now, critics will point out that I built a moderately successful career by violating that principle every chance I got. But there’s a difference, and here it is: I never claimed to be objective. For 27 years, my column said OPINION at the top. I like to think I was fair, but the column often wasn’t balanced: It was a column of opinion, and the opinion was mine.
O’Reilly has the same right, of course. It’s society’s misfortune that he has such an encompassing venue in which to present his twisted and unAmerican views, but nobody can question his right to hold them.
When you claim to be fair and balanced, though, when you’re broadcasting from the no-spin zone, you accept certain responsibilities: A) you have to actually take a shot at being fair and balanced, and B), you have to turn down the spin bolt a little.
O’Reilly can believe whatever he wants. I don’t care for his politics, but I’m not sure I care for anyone’s, and it’s a free country. What’s depressing about him, and his show, is that he presents it as spin-free, and millions of people apparently don’t question that description.
Last night was a good example. I subjected myself to 45 minutes of Bill O because his guest was Hillary Clinton. I ‘m not particularly a Clinton fan, but she’s a historic figure in an important election. I wanted to see how she handled herself with a hostile interviewer, and a little bit of me wanted to see them beat up on each other. I didn’t much care who won—I was interested in the spectacle.
Three minutes into the show, I was doing the wave on my couch and holding a big foam finger in the air every time Hillary opened her mouth. About five minutes in I started recording, and I watched it again this morning, but it didn’t help: I can see how people might watch O’Reilly for the comic value of seeing a man imitate a pompous and oblivious ass, or actually BE a pompous and oblivious ass. But that millions of people take him seriously and believe this is how journalism should be practiced is profoundly depressing.
If I were reading a transcript of the interview and scoring it like a debate, I’d have to give it to O’Reilly. He challenged Clinton, and on some points she didn’t respond strongly.
If you SAW the interview, though, you heard the reason: O’Reilly is a boor. Clinton is nobody’s novice, and she was both knowledgeable and well prepared for the interview. She addressed every issue O’Reilly raised—but when she tried to explain her position, he simply shouted her down. It made no difference what she said, because he rode over her, making irrelevant claims or simply making more noise, so her responses couldn’t be heard.
When O’Reilly was wrong—as he was, for instance, in a comparison of tax rates today with those of the ‘40s, 50s and 60s—he ignored her corrections and plowed ahead with his erroneous point. His acolytes eat it up, and more’s their shame.
Two things make this especially unbearable for me. First, I care about journalism. For many reporters and editors, even in this profit-oriented era, it’s a calling. They put up with the low pay, low public opinion and lousy hours because they believe the job is important. O’Reilly dishonors those people and disgraces their profession, not by what he says, but by claiming that he’s objective when he says it.
Second, the success of our democracy and the welfare of our nation depend on a free and fair press providing the public with accurate reports on the issues of our time. Opinions, everybody’s opinions, have a place in those reports. But opinions disguised as fact, opinions that ignore reality and that play on people’s fears and prejudices, don’t belong in the no spin zone.