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Mean and Proud


The issue, really, for the NewsHour producers was, I’d wager, not balance, but earnestness. I could surely have disparaged Michael Eisner and Gerald Levin and Rupert Murdoch (who, after all, have been widely disparaged) as much as I might have liked, if I had only done it without enjoying myself. If I had outlined the gravity of the situation rather than finding the humor in it, I would have been on sturdy and acceptable ground. Gravity implies valid criticism—even of people who underwrite you and who, hence, you would rather not criticize. Humor implies meanness—and while you can criticize the people who underwrite you, it is altogether another issue to be mean to them.

In this, the PBS news liberals, as well as the network and CNN liberals, are deeply conservative. They clench at the outré, the show-offy, the subversive, the comic. They insist on the high-sounding, the excessively dignified, the overly formal (that is, when they are not self-consciously going tabloid). Indeed, their response to charges of becoming too liberal is to become not more conservative, but more pompous in their self-regard (the Reagan biopic, which we now know was ordinary and inoffensive, was yanked from CBS also because of sudden concerns about “balance”).

Outside of designated comedy shows (which is where more and more people actually get their news), there’s no room in the media to be funny, cutting, ironic—no context for it. There are no zingers in news. Forget balance, there is no impertinence in news. And there is certainly no room for being only half-serious.

I have a Bill O’Reilly story that I may have dreamed (except that my wife shares the story). I do not know when this occurred. I do not quite even remember where I saw this. Or who else was in the interview. But it’s O’Reilly and somebody. O’Reilly is out of character. Relaxed. Riffing. He’s going on about George Bush and Texas and capital punishment. And how he had asked Bush what Jesus Christ would have thought about capital punishment and how Bush had responded with the biblical eye-for-an-eye bromide. And as how O’Reilly had then asked Bush if he didn’t think Jesus might have had a different attitude considering how he had been a victim of capital punishment.

This is, of course, not the Bill O’Reilly on Fox every weekday night. That O’Reilly is stubborn and tendentious and unfunny. And yet—I believe it is important to defend anybody who makes a Jesus joke—the O’Reilly of my dream show certainly has an admirable sort of vituperation in his heart, and he has brought a form of it to mainstream television.

Now, vituperation—abuse, invective, scorn—has, I would argue, in its ideal state, no necessary political ax to grind. The desire to verbally rough somebody up is not a partisan impulse.

Of course, that’s far from where we are. We’re in a left/right world rather than a funny/not-funny world. A savvy producer wouldn’t position Bill O’Reilly with half a gimlet eye, or Ann Coulter as a girl with a shtick—half a comedienne.

Indeed, polarization, or the pretense of polarization, is the only thing that seems to provide a socially acceptable excuse for vituperation. It just may be that as a function of American uptightness and verbal correctness, we’re forced to invent a political excuse to say something unkind. The end of civility, this corrosive discourse, the taking up of opposite sides is perhaps just a smoke screen under which we can express the natural desire to be impolite.

We may not be so left and right. But rather, more generally, and diffusely, we’re dissatisfied, ambivalent, annoyed, bored. Instead of left and right, we just don’t like the bland, blah-blah, pointless, and point-of-view-less media we’re getting. Hence, the restless quest for newer, more interesting, more radical forms.

Now, Fox and the prospective new liberal media (in addition to liberal radio, Al Gore is trying to raise money for a liberal television network) are being positioned against each other. But it may be that the extremes of the broadcast spectrum have a lot more in common with each other than they do with the middle.

Or that the real target for both ought to be the middle.

Fox, of course, gives one example of how to upset the middle. Under the guise of political virtue, it scolds, berates, rebukes, criticizes, and has a high old time doing it. One of its central critiques is about the boringness and self-satisfied air of modern news. The bias stripe it so paints the mainstream broadcast media with—so annoyingly and so frustratingly for the ever-so-cautious mainstream—is not so much liberalism but a bias toward the conventional wisdom. Now, brilliantly, or duplicitously, or frighteningly, Fox has given its critique of boringness and complacency and sameness a right-wing argot. But what they mean when they say liberal at Fox has less to do with the distribution of wealth and, even, abortion rights than it does with a certain Establishment dislike. When they say liberal, people hear “dull and self-satisfied.”

For the liberal-network people, on the other hand, having been born less from a dissatisfaction with the middle than from a certain offense by Fox against the middle, the sweet-spot target may be less clear. Al Franken has created a rich genre of vituperation against the likes of Coulter and O’Reilly, but may be in danger of seeing them as the point rather than vituperation itself.

The sport of it. The joie de vivre of ridicule and verbal abuse.

It is hard to admit that what some of us like most to do is make fun of people. We just have a certain misanthropy and bile and cruelty in our hearts—which is one antidote to the sanctimony and complacency and humorlessness of acceptable discourse.

Anyway, it seems to me that the apparent anomaly of my friendship with Fox and, as well, with the liberal network may be explained—beyond the elemental fact that I’ve never met an opportunity for a sound bite, or a broadcast minute, I didn’t like—by the fact that, as a successful and eager practitioner of the vituperative arts, I am useful to either side. A battle for my vituperative soul may just have begun (will I be, a year from now, a liberal or a conservative vituperator?). Or, it could be, on perhaps a positive note, that there’s really not so much conflict here, and that it’s just show business as usual.


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