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Mean and Proud

Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter fight dirty. Al Franken fights dirty. So which side to join? Both are more interesting than the self-regard of the PBS center.

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In this culture of name-calling, in the deeply poisoned air of present political discourse, in the world of bias and counter-bias, I am in friendly discussions with the two opposite poles of the ideological broadcast spectrum: the Fox News Channel and the new, anti-Fox, liberal radio network. I may contribute to one or the other—conceivably even to both. This, of course, should not be possible.

As puzzling—considering I’ve always regarded myself as an impatient-with-politics centrist and dedicated no-winger—I’ve just been cast out of the broadcast middle. The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer on PBS threw me off the air a few weeks ago (the show taped an interview with me and then killed it) because I made acerbic comments about media moguls (various of whom underwrite PBS shows). My remarks, according to the show’s producer, were “unbalanced”—though how you can balance yourself is quite unclear ideologically as well as physically.

This causes me to naturally wonder, just who am I in broadcast political terms? How have I found myself acceptable to the hostile extremes and shunned by the well-mannered Establishment? And what might this mean for programmers everywhere?

But before going there, I have a story about Ann Coulter. Ann seems to me to be the real icon of our television (not to mention ideological) age. Young people today may think of her, years from now, as I think of Phyllis Diller (or the slightly less exalted Orson Bean, the ubiquitous sixties talk-show guest in the Reichian orgone box . . . how I remember). Indeed, I know Ann and like her. She actually seems eager to be liked (in person). To me, she’s something of a performance artist. Extremism is her art. Exaggeration her medium. She’s Jerry Rubin (if you remember Jerry Rubin). People watch her with their mouths open—is she for real or not?

Anyway, a few weeks ago, one of the cable shows she is often on called me up to be her liberal opposite. I don’t remember the topic (they are, after all, mostly interchangeable), but I clobbered her. A liberal (just not being an announced conservative gets you cast as a liberal) is supposed to be earnest and steadfast and foolishly reasonable, but instead I was mean, low, aggressive, obnoxious—a bully; nothing to be personally proud of, but, television-debate-wise, all good skills. In fact, I made Ann look earnest and steadfast—without bravado. She was, I think, quite stunned. I had stolen, if only for a moment, her persona. She emerged from the booth at Media 3, the midtown studio of choice for remote cable appearances, clearly shaken—looking fragile and even thinner than usual. I was, however, under no illusion that my victory was one for the liberals or the righteous. It was, more purely, a victory of vituperation—which was a good enough victory for me.

While almost everyone, conservative as well as liberal, seems—in direct disproportion to the chance of achieving such an outcome—to be advocating that we should all be nicer to each other, what I want to do is celebrate for a minute what the British call “the vituperative arts.” (This art is subtly but elementally different from what Time magazine, singling out, among others, Coulter, Al Franken, and Bill O’Reilly, recently called the “burgeoning American anger industry.”)

Recently, the Times ran an account of the wars, or antics, among English food critics in which each critic tries to outdo the other in the savagery of his attack on whatever restaurant or food genre or chef is of the moment. Almost everybody I know who expresses opinions for a living in New York (that would be, if you’re counting, mostly liberal people) seemed quite appalled—by the trivialization of the opinion professions, by the excesses of the language of the English critics, by the casualness of the abuse, and by the difficulty of knowing whether they were serious or not. With the last point being perhaps the most troubling to my straightforward colleagues.

This reaction, this American prosaicness or squeamishness, has something to do, I think, with why I got thrown off PBS—and, perhaps, why the great, bland broadcast middle gave rise to Fox.

I was, in my NewsHour interview, casual, offhanded, and cheerful in my disparagements of the various executives who run the media empires. Terry Smith, the NewsHour interviewer, and I had a good time. We were engaged in the kind of eye-rolling and insults that all media professionals engage in when we talk about our bosses and the sorry state of our business.


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