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Inside Outsiders

Three media mavericks come to terms with success

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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.

Though it has pretensions of scholarly rigor, with 18 pages of charts and 20 pages of notes, Ten Things is written in a popular style. Elder repeats favorite on-air phrases such as "toe-tag liberals" and "the fit hit the shan." He makes plenty of good points (about, for example, decreasing white racism and minimum wage laws), but still skips around a lot and sometimes doesn't take the final step in his arguments.

For example, his first chapter argues that "blacks are more racist than whites." Assume that Elder is right that blacks are more likely than other groups to see life in America through the prism of race. Is this surprising? For one thing, race is not an issue blacks can easily ignore. Also, any marginalized group is likely to be more radical than the average—if you looked at the most marginalized whites in America they'd probably be saying and doing more outrageous things, too. For Elder's claim to mean anything, he has to do more than cite examples and polls that demonstrate the phenomenon. He has to argue convincingly that not only are blacks more "racist" by conventional standards, but that it's inappropriate to their situation because it ends up hurting both them and others. Elder starts down this path at the end of the chapter but never carries it through.

Elder may be correct that he's saying things that are seldom voiced. While both major political parties sometimes use portions of the libertarian argument (adorned by the usual caveats and qualifications), Elder's full-throttle version (e.g., get rid of the War on Drugs) is rare. But just because you may not hear something doesn't mean you can't say it. Maybe it's hard to get these arguments out there, and maybe the opposition is well-organized, but all these views can be found if you look for them, and the people who make them aren't generally punished beyond verbal disagreement. Then again, perhaps Elder, who's been the target of boycotts, is more sensitive on this point than most.

Along with O'Reilly's viewers and Elder's listeners is another huge audience: Internet users. The Internet does, in fact, have the potential to revolutionize how we receive information. It may even change things more than radio or television did, by breaking the mainstream into thousands of rivulets. Once you get on the Internet, the hundreds of choices cable and radio offer immediately increase into millions. What's more, they can be both personalized and made interactive.

In his Manifesto, Internet pioneer Matt Drudge makes huge claims for his medium. (And he does see it as his—I don't think I caught a mention of any other Web site in his book.) He seems to think the revolution is already over and the Internet won. Drudge, of course, created The Drudge Report (www.drudgereport.com). It started with his emailing show biz tidbits to a select few from his PC in a tiny Hollywood apartment. His audience grew exponentially and the gossip got to be more about politics. In 1998, when he broke the stalled Monica Lewinsky story, he made his name. His Web site presently gets over half a billion visits a year.

Drudge doesn't need to worry about the time constraints of TV or radio. He can put up whatever he wants, whenever he wants. At times, it seems his book tries to emulate this new world, going off in all directions at once. Drudge wants to be an updated Walter Winchell. As a result, he's created a book that's a weird mixture of film noir from the '40s, hipster language from the '50s, and Pop Art from the '60s. The book's layout includes different fonts, poetry, lists of diets, and pages with only the number zero. (Drudge keeps reminding us "it's the Zeroes"—most likely he's referring to the 2000s, but perhaps it's also an allusion to the 0s and 1s of computer language.)

He narrates his story as if he's the hero in a bad Raymond Chandler novel: "… hop into my red Metro Geo, whose balding tires squeal all the way home. Past Melrose. Santa Monica. Sunset. I twitch at the Bank of America on the southwest corner where I deposit my nickels and dimes. In the ten years I've lived here, I've related to these streets so many different ways. I've walked 'em. I've skate-boarded 'em. Bussed [sic] 'em. Limousined 'em. I've been chased, but most of the time I'm chasing around and down the boulevards I call home."

The eccentricities of this eclectic style aren't too bothersome when he tells us the origin of The Drudge Report or the backstage story of L'Affaire Lewinsky. But as the book devolves into a screed against our mergered mass media, it doesn't wear well.

Moreover, his attack is overstated. The Internet hasn't taken over yet—people still get their news from television, radio, and papers, and the Internet is still mostly a supplement. In fact, a number of high-flying Internet content providers have crashed since Drudge's book came out. His mockery of the media and their many failings, his pronouncements that print and TV are dead, come across as braggadocio. (He believes his airing of Monicagate was one of the top 10 media events of the 20th century, along with the invention of television, Edward R. Murrow's See It Now, and Ted Turner's launch of CNN.)

Drudge may use slightly different tools, but he's in the same game as everyone else. He's broken stories that others wouldn't touch, and that's worth something, but his greatest claim to fame—Monica Lewinsky—wasn't original research, it was him releasing a piece that Newsweek, that most mainstream of weeklies, was dithering over publishing. The Internet may afford chances for more and more information to be released (let the reader beware), but one source running a story that another sat on was common long before Matt Drudge bought his first calculator.

Perhaps the most salient difference between the likes of O'Reilly, Elder, and Drudge and the "mainstream" they vocally deride is one in prestige—or class, as O'Reilly would have it. But even that line is getting increasingly murky. Political leaders, authors, and others seem more than happy to appear on their shows. A few months ago, O'Reilly interviewed Elder. They bemoaned the fact the networks and other large outlets were ignoring them. But Elder had already been profiled some time before on 60 Minutes, and would soon be on Crossfire, while O'Reilly would be interviewed on Good Morning America and Charlie Rose and profiled in Newsweek. Matt Drudge himself has been hired (and fired) by Fox and ABC.

So why do people enjoying such—dare I say it—mainstream success feel a need to portray themselves as outsiders? Part of the answer surely lies in the enduring appeal of such classic American figures as the Rebel and the Self-Made Man. America was born out of rebellion, and many of our popular public figures since—from Emerson to Twain to Mencken to James Dean—gained fame as individuals who were somehow outside the mainstream in one way or another. The idea of rebelling is safe enough today that Burger King had an ad campaign based on breaking the rules. Being called "mainstream" can be almost as bad as being called "politically correct"—it's more an accusation than a meaningful description.

In an American context, the Rebel and the Self-Made Man are particularly successful ways of presenting one's self. Work hard and please the customer, of course, but also create an image that you did it your way (another Burger King slogan). Sure, you could have taken the easy path, but you didn't just want to go along. This frame not only compliments the subject, but the audience, as well. They too are smart enough to see through conventional thought of the day.

O'Reilly, Elder, and Drudge did do it their way, at least to a certain extent. They kept at it and created niches for themselves. But here's the funny thing about rebels: Win enough battles and you become the establishment. Once that happens, it doesn't take long before some young Turks decide it's time to take you on.