Mean and Proud

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.

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.

Mean and Proud