Smackdown with Bill O’Reilly



Reader Chas Edwards used the right word when he described your editor’s appearance on the Bill O’Reilly show as a “smackdown,” for television of this variety has far more in common with professional wrestling than with professional journalism. And like a professional wrestler I went on the show knowing full well that I was the designated loser. Bad Bubba O’Reilly was to show his infinite skills against Ultimo A-Train Sam with the latter left humiliated on the mat.

Some have inquired, and not too gently, why I would submit to such nonsense. Reader Weld in Brunswick Maine, for example, writes, “In exchange for a diatribe against the Clintons, O’Reilly agrees to let you air three common sense ideas. Take a shower and don’t forget to scrub. You could at least have asked about his fake Peabody Awards.”

Leading aside the shameful truth that I enjoy nonsense immensely, things like the O’Reilly show are merely the outward and most visible sign of an artificiality that pervades television. I learned this early when I was seriously considering television as a career. In January 1961, I made my only foray into the real world of network television. I was hired for Kennedy’s inauguration by CBS News as a news editor. Along with fellow WWDC newsman Ed Taishoff, I sat all day capped with a headset in a ballroom of the Washington Hotel, turning phone calls from CBS correspondents into stories placed on Walter Cronkite’s personal news ticker. If there was one thing Ed and I knew, it was how to take news from callers, turn it into copy and get it on the air fast.

But when the calls weren’t coming in, I looked around the room and tried to figure out what the scores of CBS minions and executives were doing. As far as I could tell, Ed and I and a few people in front of dials and screens were doing most of the work. Yet we were badly out-numbered and underpaid by men in suits who tore around yelling and looking concerned or angry or wanting to know where something was. It all didn’t look like much fun and I think it was when I decided I didn’t want to be a network anchorman after all.

I would also cover events with my little battery operated tape recorder and felt blessed with the speed I could set up and depart compared to those in television. It seemed like every time they wanted to do something, a giant Leggo set would appear between them and the something and nothing could happen until they had assembled it.

The result is that everything that television does becomes television rather than what it starts out to be. For example my few minutes on Fox required numerous phone calls, including a “pre-interview,” follow-ups and useful advice on how to facilitate the O’Reilly experience. Upon arrival I was layered with powder to make me look as much unlike myself as possible although, as I pointed out to the duster, making me up is a bit like George Bush trying to balance a budget. And then I sat for 45 minutes as people rushed back and forth on unknown but important missions including Britt Hume who sincerely wished me luck tackling O’Reilly and Bill Kristol who said hello and then quickly turned and left when he realized that his greeting hadn’t been necessary.

And to what end? To spend a few minutes talking to a wall that for the purposes of television I was to imagine as Bill O’Reilly. How an industry that spends so much money on everything else can only give you a wall to talk to is puzzling and I know of no one who has experienced one of these remote interviews who finds it comfortable.

I comforted myself by recalling the time I was interviewed in my office and placed in a chair in front of the camera. A bored young intern sat in a chair under the camera and I was told to direct my answers to him, answers to questions being provided over a speakerphone 160 degrees off my starboard bow by an interviewer in New York. Three minutes into the interview the intern fell asleep, a development unnoticed by the crew on the other side of the camera. So for the next ten or fifteen minutes I had to inform a dormant slacker on some matter of great concern without totally breaking up. On the whole, I prefer walls. Besides, on the other side of that wall was not just a TV host but his audience, real people, decent people, un-pre-interviewed, without mikes, cameras or makeup.

Educated by good Quakers, I learned early not to shun the present but to follow the instructions of George Fox and “walk cheerfully over the face of the earth answering that of God in every one,” in which he would presumably include Bill O’Reilly. The Brazilian Archbishop Helder Pessoa Camara once declared: “Let no one be scandalized if I frequent those who are considered unworthy or sinful. Who is not a sinner? Let no one be alarmed if I am seen with compromised and dangerous people, on the left or the right. Let no one bind me to a group. My door, my heart, must open to everyone, absolutely everyone.”

Unfortunately, the tradition of personal witness regardless of context is far stronger among the religious and the right than among liberals and progressives. Especially in recent years, liberals have taken to shunning, often proudly or pompously, those not of their ilk, which is, among other things, a hard way to win votes. One needn’t be a proselytizer, only a witness or, in the Hubert Humphrey tradition, a happy warrior moving through alien ground with a smile and a dream.

Besides, I got to talk with the Bosnian driver of the car Fox News had sent for me. And by the time we had reached the UAW headquarters where my next meeting was, he had indicated that he would switch from his current political apathy to voting Green in the next election. So you see, it was worth it, after all.

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