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The trouble with Bill O'Reilly

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To his detractors, Bill O'Reilly, the tough-talking host of the phenomenally popular Fox News show The O'Reilly Factor, exemplifies the meanness and vulgarity of public discourse. The leftist media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting calls his show "The Oh Really? Factor" and takes him to task on a regular basis for mistreating guests and clutching "at any straw to avoid admitting he's wrong."

To his admirers, O'Reilly is a scourge of liberal pieties, a commentator who cuts through elitist nonsense and upholds common sense. As Stanley Kurtz put it in National Review Online, "O'Reilly's plenty smart alright, but his tough-talking, working-class hero persona drives our cultural aristocracy nuts."

Love him or hate him—or love to hate him—O'Reilly certainly pulls in the audience. By the most recent figures, his show averages nearly 2 million viewers a night, handily beating CNN's Larry King Live even though the latter is far more widely available.

O'Reilly and his Factor have much to recommend them. (For what it's worth, my sole appearance on the show, in January 2001, was a very positive experience.) He makes an effort to present both sides of an issue and to invite guests with whom he disagrees, even if he does tend to harangue them. He is upfront about his biases. His bluntness can be refreshing—for instance, when he told cartoonist Ted Rall, who decided it would be provocative to mock the pregnant widow of the slain journalist Daniel Pearl as an attention seeker, that he was making himself look like a jerk.

A wealthy graduate of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, O'Reilly positions himself as a champion of the common man against both economic and cultural elites, and as a champion of common sense against intellectual sophistry. Given the propensity of modern intellectuals to believe in preposterous things, this means that O'Reilly turns out to be right a lot of the time. He also has the guts to take stances likely to alienate a good portion of his socially conservative core audience—he's against the death penalty, for example, and condemns virulent anti-gay rhetoric.

But O'Reilly's populist conventional wisdom has its limitations. As a result, his "no-spin zone," as he calls his show, sometimes offers a rather bizarre spin on the issues.

Consider a February discussion of the Supreme Court's refusal to review a ban on the display of the Ten Commandments at the Indiana statehouse. O'Reilly asserted that the Ten Commandments do not imply the endorsement of a particular religion but merely support general spirituality and "moral behavior."

His guest, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, pointed out that the Ten Commandments—which include "Thou shalt have no other God before me"—belong to Judaism and Christianity. O'Reilly retorted that nothing in them could be seen as contrary to Buddhism: "Buddhism is based upon pretty much the same tenets here, monotheism, one God."

Apart from this peculiar interpretation of Buddhism, which in its various forms either recognizes no personal god or worships many god-like, enlightened beings, O'Reilly seemed to ignore completely the existence of Americans who are not monotheists but polytheists (such as Hindus), agnostics, or atheists.

Just how blinkered and dogmatic O'Reilly's "common sense" can be is most evident in his relentless cheerleading for the War on Drugs. His rhetoric on the subject rarely goes beyond some variation on "drugs are evil" and on occasion descends into outright demagoguery. Earlier this year, Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance appeared on the Factor to discuss the Office of National Drug Control Policy ad that premiered during the Superbowl. The ad, which showed teenagers alternately saying things like "My life, my body" and "I helped blow up buildings," asserted—much to O'Reilly's approval—that casual drug users are helping underwrite terrorism.

Nadelmann noted that American teenagers' primary drugs of choice are marijuana and Ecstasy, which are not linked to the funding of terrorism. O'Reilly countered that the Ecstasy trade is "run by Middle Eastern guys." When Nadelmann expressed skepticism, O'Reilly proposed a $100 bet.

The next day, in his "most ridiculous item of the day" segment, O'Reilly cited a government report which mentioned "the involvement of Israeli criminal organizations in Ecstasy smuggling. Some of these individuals are of Russian and Georgian descent and have Middle Eastern ties." He gleefully invited Nadelmann to "send a 100 bucks to Habitat for Humanity in New York City….It would be ridiculous not to do that."

According to Nadelmann, he never did send a check and never heard from O'Reilly again; but of course, he wasn't the one being ridiculous. It's fairly obvious that when people speak of Middle Eastern ties in the context of terrorism, they are not thinking about Russian- and Georgian-born Israeli mobsters.

Confronted with pro-legalization arguments, including the question of what makes illegal substances so different from legal ones such as alcohol and tobacco, O'Reilly tends to bluster his way out. A typical display occurred in his interview with Keith Stroup of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in May.

When Stroup pointed out that Holland, where marijuana is legally sold in coffee shops, has lower rates of marijuana use than the United States, O'Reilly testily replied that this was due to Holland's smaller population. Stroup countered that he was referring to percentages, not numbers.

"That statistic's skewed," O'Reilly shot back. "If you…ask the government of the Netherlands to tell us about how many kids get caught, they won't tell you. I don't believe them for a second."

When all else fails, there's the tried-and-true tactic of invoking the children: "In America, where we have…such a substance abuse problem, if you legalize another intoxicant, that intoxicant inevitably is going to find its way down to the kids of America," O'Reilly told Stroup. Based on this logic, one would presumably see no problem with banning alcohol to protect the kiddies, either.

The tendency to invoke "the children" as the ultimate rationale for any dubious social policy is a trait O'Reilly shares with one of the public figures he most despises: Bill Clinton. The focus on children has led O'Reilly to do excellent hard-hitting programs on issues ranging from abuses in the child welfare system to child molestation by clergy. But it has also led him to chide politicians for not pressing for the resignation of Catholic cardinals who have covered up claims of sexual abuse, brushing aside constitutional issues of church and state by saying, "I want to see the big boys out of there for the sake of the kids and for the sake of justice."

At its worst, O'Reilly's black-and-white approach to complex issues translates into a tendency to demonize the opposition. After his appearance on The Factor, Nadelmann received an obscenity-laden e-mail accusing him of promoting drug use and threatening to "break every bone in your worthless useless body." While O'Reilly is hardly responsible for the ravings of his less stable fans, Nadelmann believes that "he does play to such sentiments."

The Factor will undoubtedly continue to draw plenty of thoughtful and intelligent viewers—as well it should. But I would worry about any member of the audience who doesn't want to yell at O'Reilly at least as often as she wants to cheer him on.

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