What is it about the Internet that drives Bill O’Reilly nuts? Last year he was ranting that “the reason these net people get away with all kinds of stuff is that they work for no one,” in the same aggrieved tone first heard from liberal media folk when they began complaining about Matt Drudge.
At the time, O’Reilly was sore that various websites had repeated a false San Francisco Chronicle report that a northern California radio station had dropped his radio show. Granted, anything picked up from the Chronicle really should be checked, but online media pride themselves on correcting mistakes quickly and ungrudgingly–unlike, for instance, Dan Rather.
Which brings us to O’Reilly’s syndicated newspaper column this week in defense of the disgraced (and now departing) CBS newsman. “Any accusation can be dumped on the Internet and within hours the mainstream media will pick it up,” writes the Fox News star. “A click of the Internet mouse can wipe out a lifetime of honor and hard work….”
“Dan Rather did not get what he deserved in this case,” O’Reilly’s column continues. “He made a mistake, as we all do, but he is not a dishonest man. Unfair freedom of speech did him in. This is not your grandfather’s country anymore.”
No it isn’t, and a good thing too when it comes to how we get the news. Because no longer do three networks and a limited number of other establishment media outlets have a monopoly on deciding which information the public will be allowed to see.
“Bill O’Reilly is defending the indefensible, and it looks an awful lot like the Old Boy network closing ranks, with more than a hint of fear,” comments Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs, who typed up those CBS “memos” in Microsoft Word and displayed the damning result at the top of his blog for weeks.
Bloggers began needling O’Reilly last year, after his original anti-Internet tirade. Instapundit’s Glenn Reynold’s responded that “the blogosphere is a no-weenie zone.” UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh sarcastically suggested that books are “a menace and a cesspool. They’re just an appalling, awful technology; and the worst of it is no one is controlling them.” Jim Treacher pointed out that O’Reilly’s tantrum may have at least contributed a new word to the online vocabulary: O’Reilled-up.
I suspect one reason O’Reilly dislikes the Internet is that it makes it too easy to call his bluff. He had a bee in his bonnet a few years ago about the Los Angeles Times’s supposed refusal to write about Clinton rape-accuser Juanita Broaddrick. He brought it up whenever I saw him speak and again when I interviewed him once over breakfast.
“The L.A. Times has never mentioned Juanita Broaddrick’s name, ever,” he told me. But after that quote appeared in my old Mediaweek column, a former Times editor did a quick search of the paper’s online archives and told me she’d found Broaddrick’s name mentioned 21 times there in two years.
I should have caught that myself, and might have, except that I was mesmerized by O’Reilly’s sheer O’Reillyness. Maybe it was the way he stared at the menu for a good five minutes in silence before grimly announcing to the waiter: “Irish oatmeal.” Maybe it was that at six-foot-four, he’s intimidatingly tall. Or maybe it’s just his haranguing style of rhetoric, even when you’re basically on his side.
“Today’s paper is probably the worst piece of junk I’ve ever seen!” he growled, when I ventured that the Times had improved markedly under Tribune Co. ownership. O’Reilly can sometimes relax into the genial persona of the most entertaining guy at the neighborhood Irish bar, the guy who tells it like it is, complete with funny voices and gestures. This wasn’t one of those times.
A quintessential O’Reilly moment can be glimpsed in his first best-seller, The O’Reilly Factor, when he describes an airplane encounter with a bratty six-year-old named Ethan, who wouldn’t stop kicking the back of O’Reilly’s seat.
“Swift as a cheetah,” he recounts, “I bounded to my full height and loomed large over Ethan. I stared down at him. I’m certain I made an impression, but he refused to look up, realizing that danger lurked close by. I shifted my gaze to his mother and said, ‘When I come back from the bathroom, the kicking will cease.’”
The kicking did cease, but only because Ethan’s mother had switched seats with her son. What’s pure O’Reilly about the story is that he can’t resist spoiling his basic, correct point (Ethan is a brat, and the mother’s inability to control her child is indeed, as O’Reilly puts it, “pathetic”) with self-aggrandizement: “Swift as a cheetah,” you bet!
People love to hate O’Reilly. But despite his bluster and occasional fudges, he used to have a taste for putting traditional media in their place instead of excusing their errors. “The Roone Arledges of the world and the Ben Bradlees of the world, their day is over,” he said a few years ago when he visited Hollywood to speak to the Wednesday Morning Club. “The audience is very old. Important newsmakers watch the Sunday morning shows and the cable shows, and the network guys know that.”
A couple of years ago I saw him face a room full of TV critics at a Fox News press conference. The antagonism in the room was palpable, but O’Reilly was on his disapproving questioners like a terrier shaking a sock toy.
“If conservative Americans like us, it’s because they don’t hear any conservative point of view on NPR, very little on PBS,” he snapped at someone complaining about Fox’s right-of-center viewpoint.
“And the other thing I want to yell at you guys about,” he added, warming up, “is every time you write about me, you put a little pejorative adjective in front of my name: the conservative Bill O’Reilly. Now I didn’t see the liberal Bill Moyers, did you? Did anybody see that? What’s that all about? If you want to think I’m conservative, that’s fine. But there’s no doubt that Bill Moyers is a liberal. Do a Nexis search on me and you’ll always have that adjective in front of me. Always. Knock it off!”
“The elite media seems to have to take a swipe at me no matter what,” he reminded me during our interview.
How disappointing now to see O’Reilly, who so constantly touts his maverick independence, assuming the same teacher’s pet, finger-wagging tone towards upstart media as Rather and his defenders.
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.