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October 21, 2003

Bill O'Reilly and the Paranoid Style in News

The Fox News host is a new type in the press, but an old type in politics. And O'Reilly's style--resentment news--is gaining.

“We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.” — Historian Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (1964).

Score another one for Fox and Bill O’Reilly in the grim war of attrition going on over terms of legitimacy in broadcast news. Fox is trying to de-legitimate others. Others are trying to de-legitimate Fox. No one quite says so publicly but you know it’s going on, which makes things grimmer.

Some striking results in the latest de-certification battle: NPR’s ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, has pronounced NPR’s Terry Gross guilty of unfairness and a disservice to listeners during her confrontational interview with O’Reilly on Oct. 8, which ended when he walked out on her. (I wrote about how it happened here.) Dvorkin comes down hard on his network, but he is genuinely puzzled about what went down in the studio that day between Terry Gross and Bill O’Reilly:

I believe the listeners were not well served by this interview. It may have illustrated the “cultural wars” that seem to be flaring in the country. Unfortunately, the interview only served to confirm the belief, held by some, in NPR’s liberal media bias. It left the impression that there was something not quite right about the reasons behind this program: Bill O’Reilly often loves to use NPR as his own personal political piñata; and NPR keeps helping him by inviting him to appear.

I’d start with a weird fact: an interview that winds up “illustrating the cultural wars” through struggle, tension and walk-out (which you can hear in the tape) is thought by NPR to be a bad thing, worthy of self-censure. The same result is thought by Bill O’Reilly to be a good thing, worthy of self-celebration.

O’Reilly and his public profile do not fit any known category in network journalism— the journalism of the Dupont Awards, let us say. He’s a confusing figure to confront in an interview setting like Fresh Air, but not because his methods are obscure. It’s the opposite. He brings forcefully to the surface and makes explicit what had been buried for so long in the journalist’s presentation of self: a political identity in the one who brings us the news— proudly so.

Proudly political, you say? Yeah, and it’s no insult. Whatever else may be said about him, O’Reilly is someone who speaks his mind, and takes positions. A guy who, as a commentator himself and questioner of others, stands up for certain values in American life that (he thinks) don’t get defended enough. O’Reilly is the anti-anchorman because he dispenses with the broadcast professional’s cool demeaner, something Jennings, Brokaw, Rather, Bernard Shaw, Jim Lehrer, Judy Woodruff and countless others have never done.

On the whole, we don’t have political anchormen and women, if we mean by “political” the understanding of yourself as an actor engaged in the general struggle for what’s just, what’s fair, and in “our” interests as a society. Take four figures for comparison. Dan Rather (CBS), Peter Jennings (ABC), Tom Brokaw (NBC) and Jim Lehrer (PBS) have all been on the best seller list, and they have a kind of cultural weight extending beyond their broadcasts— like O’Reilly does. Let’s call it power. But what have the anchorman with their cultural power tried to say? Can anyone paraphrase the arguments in their books?

Each one is a consummate and intelligent broadcast pro, with that elusive television thing, a gravitas that filters through the dots, combined with a lighter and more fluid on-air command, which becomes grace under pressure in emergencies. But which one of them ever employed these gifts upon a career in social commentary? Which of our anchorman even tried to cut a political figure? They simply couldn’t within the press think of the era when they were crowned. O’Reilly has done that, cut a political figure, and he’s the public face of Fox News Channel, just as Jennings is the face of ABC News and Lehrer the embodiment of PBS.

Network journalism had long ago decided it didn’t need that kind of tension—anchormen who join the national argument—and so it promoted to the top spot only masters of the “cooler” style, which became the standard. O’Reilly (who can do cool when called for) does not anchor the evening newscast on Fox, but he is its leading figure. The face of the brand is a talker with a booming public voice, a thinking person who has convictions, and whose convictions are part of his news persona. O’Reilly is both a news person doing a commentary program on Fox, and an protagonist in the public arena in constant struggle with Fox’s political enemies.

There’s never been a face-of-the-brand in network news who is deliberately styled hot (in McLuhan’s terms.) O’Reilly blows up a lot. He is wired for argument and controversy because he is willing to fight the spin of others with righteous spin of his own. And he has another advantage, for which he does not get enough notice. He’s willing to make fans by having active enemies. Indeed, making enemies is basic to his appeal, and that’s where Terry Gross and the rest of the establishment press factor themselves in. They supply what O’Reilly’s genre—resentment news—demands.

In 1989, Bill O’Reilly quit ABC and became host of Inside Edition, a syndicated news-derived program sold to local stations. In the Establishment’s view, this is like moving to the trailer park. Thus, it took an outsider—in fact, an outcast— to make the imaginative leap from cool to hot in evening news. Not that there weren’t models. One obvious reference point for O’Reilly’s success is Sidney Lumet’s Network, the movie classic, (1976) that projected so brilliantly what angry populism would look like if it one day seized hold of TV news.

O’Reilly feeds off his own resentments—the establishment sneering at Inside Edition—and like Howard Beale, the “mad prophet of the airwaves,” his resentments are enlarged by the medium into public grievances among a mass of Americans unfairly denied voice by the elite. These are boiling points. But O’Reilly is himself a consummate pro in the forms and rhythms of broadcast news. He cools the mix down just enough for living rooms, and winds up way hotter than everyone else.

So you can watch his show, buy his books, root for him against his oppressors in the rest of the press— and get some news in the bargain. Can we imagine Larry King writing op-eds and giving interviews about his political “enemies?” On the other hand, can we imagine Peter Jennings reading letters from viewers disagreeing with his stance, as O’Reilly does most nights?

Here’s Bill O’Reilly’s latest statement on those who are out to get him, an anxious elite whose authority over the news is eroding. They want to put down the Rebellion For Fairness initiated by Fox: “I’ve learned the hard way that liberal bias is a way of life at many media organizations,” he wrote in the NY Daily News. “They” are now hitting back at him:

Over the past few months I’ve been smeared and pilloried, primarily by leftists who do not approve of my commentary. I’m not whining, I’m reporting. To put things into perspective, what actors Mel Gibson and Arnold Schwarzenegger recently have suffered at the hands of the left-wing press makes my situation look like an episode of “Happy Days.” These guys have been viciously attacked; even their fathers have been used against them. In my case, the attacks are personal but designed to advance the far-left agenda.

Dvorkin of NPR was right when he said there was “something not quite right” about inviting O’Reilly to come on NPR and speak his mind, only to hear him say he’s being squelched by NPR, due to the liberal bias he both expects and provokes by being himself. What have we gained from all this? Dvorkin asks. But what if NPR decided never to have O’Reilly on, despite his best selling books? He would have them on liberal bias for that.

Suppose—to move to another front—the New York Times reviewed his latest, chart-topping book, Who’s Looking Out for You? If the Times is true to itself, the review would almost certainly be negative, and O’Reilly could scream liberal bias. “But somehow the Times has not gotten around to reviewing any of my books, while tomes by the liberal ‘satirists’ are given major exposure,” he writes. Which is another example of liberal bias. Either way he gets the W.

Those in big league journalism trying to get “tough” with O’Reilly are going to lose the encounter until they realize that his press think outdoes theirs. His has a political imaginary built into it and theirs is: we don’t do politics. So he has many more ways to win. O’Reilly blew up Fresh Air, got an exciting show out of it that night, and then he won the ombudsman’s verdict at his rival’s shop. Game, set, match (culture, politics, ratings) to the Factor.

Terry Gross went into battle with some outdated press thinking. She assumed that the interview, for all its obvious tensions, took place in the general domain of information gathering, and that good information flows to us from holding a public figure’s feet to the fire, asking the tough questions. You can almost hear the Fresh Air producers discussing it, “Yeah, but no one’s ever pinned him down on….” Or something like that. It probably never crossed Terry Gross’s mind that the interview would be about making enemies more obvious— and the enemies are the information. O’Reilly thought so going in. This is from the O’Reilly Factor, Oct. 8, 2003:

BILL O‘REILLY, HOST: In the Impact segment tonight, I’ve been telling you for months that there are powerful people and institutions behind these smear merchants currently running around the USA. The culture war’s very, very intense.

Now I’ve got mail saying “O’Reilly, you’re paranoid,” things like that. But here is the absolute truth. Broadway books, which is published my new effort, Who’s Looking Out for You? wanted me to go on National Public Radio to talk about the book.

I told them that NPR would try to smash me because along with some other major newspapers in this country, it has championed the defamation books [by Al Franken and others]. But I agreed to do the program called Fresh Air, hosted by a woman named Terry Gross.

I would guess that Terry Gross and her team prepared hard for this interview by absorbing the relevant journalism— all of O’Reilly’s press clippings, news and commentary about his public battles, profiles of him, interviews, his books, plus watching his show. But they should have been reading historian Richard Hofstadter on the paranoid style in American politics, for that is where O’Reilly comes from, by way of Network, by way of Fox, by way of talk radio, by way of syndication, by way of political re-alignment and culture war, by way of the trailer park, by way of the absolute truth.

Wanna understand the Bill O’Reilly factor? Go read this, followed by that and it will be easier.

Here’s a taste of Hofstadter’s classic depiction of a political style:

But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.

And prime time makes it even more so.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

Pssssst… this post wants you to read The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hoftstadter, from Harper’s Magazine, Nov. 1964. It will make you smarter.

O’Reilly and Gross both comment on the ombudsman report here.

Jeff Jarvis comments on this post and adds to the discussion. Doc Searles is convinced. “She fit his frame perfectly, and he punched her — and the rest of public broadcasting — right through the canvas.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 21, 2003 6:10 PM