Matt Drudge, Larry Elder, and Bill O’Reilly are all media figures who sell their politics through a mix of news and entertainment. While they may have different beliefs, one thing unites them: They define themselves defiantly as outsiders. Thumbing their noses at the "mainstream media," they claim to give you the truth you can’t get elsewhere.
These "outsiders" have now published books at about the same time; all of their titles have spent weeks on The New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list. In fact, The O’Reilly Factor even reached the very top of that list. If the Establishment is trying to stifle their voices, it’s doing a pretty bad job.
Which raises the question: Just what is this mainstream anyway? Who defines it? O’Reilly has his own nightly TV program, Elder has a drive-time talk radio show in a big market, and Drudge has his news Web site, all easily accessible and all with big audiences. With more and more choices out there, and a greater variety of viewpoints represented, it’s tough to de-cide what’s in the mainstream and what’s at the fringe.
Years ago, the story goes, there were fewer media options. You had only three TV networks and they told you what the news was. If The New York Times and The Washington Post worked at it, they could bring down a president. This version of things is obviously too simple: There have always been numerous alternative sources of information, and numerous media cultures and subcultures. Still, it’s clearly the case that media barons have less power to monopolize information and analysis than they used to. (Critics of media mergers claim just the opposite, of course, even in the face of vastly expanding choice.)
ABC, CBS, and NBC used to command 90 percent of the prime-time TV audience; that number has been cut almost in half. Upstart networks like Fox, UPN, and WB have nibbled away at the broadcast audience, but it’s cable that has smashed whatever hegemony the networks thought they had. Viewers are likely to find programming to match their tastes -- including their taste for news -- almost any time.
First came CNN, with around-the-clock coverage, international viewership, and such celebrities as Larry King and Bernard Shaw. MSNBC and Fox News now beckon viewers as well. (Indeed, CNN has recently laid off hundreds of employees, in part due to increased competition.) It was once said when Lyndon Johnson "lost" Walter Cronkite regarding the Vietnam War, he knew he’d lost the country too. It’s questionable if Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and Dan Rather combined could match that impact today.
Fox News has grown to rival CNN. Its biggest star is Bill O’Reilly. He brags on his show whenever he beats Larry King’s ratings. If CNN is establishment, isn’t Bill O’Reilly?
O’Reilly is openly opinionated on the air. His book, The O’Reilly Factor, is a chance to explain his worldview at greater length. On the plus side, the book is like his show -- fun, lively, and, as he loves to say, "pithy." He writes like the journalist he is, keeping the story moving, sticking to the point. On the negative side, a book is not a TV show. On TV there’s never enough time, and O’Reilly sometimes writes like he’s got somewhere else to go. The chapters are all short, and the paragraphs are broken up by headings like "Talking Point" or "Bulletin" or "This Just In." His overall approach is often scattershot, lighting on one subject, then the next, without going deeply into any.
O’Reilly says he’s a political independent, though he tends to skew conservative. Yet he starts off the book talking about class in America, and readers could be excused for thinking they’ve stumbled upon a socialist memoir from the 1920s. He goes into great detail describing the privileged people he met while he was doing post-graduate work at Harvard (they sound unlike any Ivy Leaguers I’ve known), and he’s bubbling over with resentment. Here’s the message -- O’Reilly, a working class guy, understands the problems of regular Americans, while the upper class is clueless. This populism leads him astray more than once. It makes O’Reilly think the "system is cleverly designed so that a lucky few will get rich and grab power."
While "the system" may indeed be far from perfect, it actually allows quite a few people to get rich, many more to live comfortably, and gives the average person a fair amount of autonomy as well. Class may be on O’Reilly’s mind, but America isn’t about the Social Register (if it ever was). O’Reilly notes both Bush and Gore are children of privilege. True, but what about Clinton, Reagan, and Nixon?
O’Reilly’s approach to class leads him to a common misconception about politics: that politicians could solve our problems if they simply understood us better. As if they could wake up and realize -- "Oh, you want higher pay, better health care, less crime?" -- then pass some laws to make it so. It also leads O’Reilly to believe not only that he’s an outsider, but also to cherish this status -- he won’t fall for the lies the mainstream accepts.
This Just In: Bill O’Reilly, you’re a rich celebrity with a Harvard degree -- you can stop complaining.
Larry Elder (whom I’ve interviewed previously for this magazine; see "Elder Statesman," April 1996) similarly wears his outsider status on his sleeve. The very title of his book, The Ten Things You Can’t Say in America, flings down a gauntlet.
Elder’s radio show is heard in Los Angeles during afternoon drive time. The rise of talk radio over the last two decades has presented another challenge to the idea of an agenda-setting "mainstream." Talk radio leans heavily in the conservative direction. It’s not entirely clear why, though the older, suburban, affluent, and white listener profile might be an explanation. Many figures in talk radio speak as if they’re balancing the mainstream media, but who’s balancing whom? Millions tune in talk radio every day. You can drive across the country and never be out of range of Rush Limbaugh or Dr. Laura.
Even though many of the issues Elder raises in his book are interesting -- among the 10 things are the problem of illegitimacy, the oversold health care "crisis," and the interchangeability of Democrats and Republicans -- his striking title is more than a little vainglorious. Elder’s perch is KABC, the local radio station of one of the big three networks -- the one owned by Disney. He also does a daily simulcast on KCAL-TV, and is the host of the Warner Bros. TV show, The Moral Court. He’s built a career on putting out his message. There’s apparently a sizable audience that either agrees with him or is at least willing to listen.