Here’s the no-spin truth: Bill O’Reilly offers a fairer, more balanced version of the latest political headlines than MSNBC’s nighttime ideologues.
Don’t get me wrong. The Fox News commentator remains the most combustible on-air personality since Morton Downey Jr. and his ideological tilt on some topics, like limited government and coerced interrogation, would still raise eyebrows from an in-his-prime Walter Cronkite. But quietly, and with little fanfare, O’Reilly has been doing his best to not only offer both sides of key partisan debates, but also treat President Barack Obama with respect. He recently told a reporter that second-guessing the new president’s stimulus package amounted to “cheap shotting” him. And he spent copious amounts of time on his syndicated radio show saying the media shouldn’t print unconfirmed gossip about New York Senate hopeful Caroline Kennedy, and that reporters should treat her with respect.
Just don’t expect many media critics to give the talk show titan credit for his efforts. They’ve already pigeonholed him as a right-wing hack, a blowhard who doesn’t let his guests get in a word edgewise and is hopelessly biased — like the network he calls home. Arguments can be made for some of the above, but media critics rarely hold MSNBC up to the same standards. And once the critics carve a narrative in stone, they rarely reverse themselves to reflect the new reality.
Journalists have no problem attaching the term “conservative” to O’Reilly’s name in news articles, but reporters usually characterize MSNBC’s hosts by calling them “left-leaning.” Or, as the New York Times recently put it, the hosts have a “sharp, often sarcastic and pointedly liberal take on politics.” Hardly matches the fire and brimstone approach Keith Olbermann brings to his MSNBC segments, does it?
Even Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post‘s media critic and a commentator not quick to throw the media bias flag, dubbed MSNBC “The Obama Network.” But how long did it take for Kurtz to cry foul? Shouldn’t he have done so months ago, maybe even years ago? Imagine the heat O’Reilly would take if he had embraced the campaign buzz words used by President John McCain? Yet that’s precisely what MSNBC did recently during its inaugural gushfest for the new commander in chief.
While MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Olbermann, and Rachel Maddow rah-rah rooted for Obama in the run-up to the election, O’Reilly strained to give equal coverage to both parties’ candidates. Critics may point to him harping on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright scandal as proof of his hopeless bias, but that’s more a sign of the mainstream media’s incompetence than a poor reflection on The No Spin Zone.
That scandal was big news — something O’Reilly understood better than the mainstream media outlets who dragged their feet on the story. When they finally started reporting it, they either left out some of the reverend’s most inflammatory rhetoric or apologized for him mid-reportage. They’re still apologizing for him.
When Wright spouted off anew a few weeks ago, O’Reilly wondered aloud on his radio show whether he was still worthy of coverage now that the election was over and the new president had thrown him under the spiritual bus. It’s the kind of dialogue that could be seen as extending a ratings-grabbing angle, but it’s also a way for the audience to hear a news analyst judging the merits of an ongoing story. It’s a valuable part of the learning process and one reason why O’Reilly’s radio program will be missed when it leaves the airwaves shortly.
O’Reilly proved respectful — and no pushover — when he interviewed then-Senator Obama on The O’Reilly Factor during the campaign. He’s still giving the man his due today.
On January 28, O’Reilly talked politics with his Fox News colleague, Greta Van Susteren. The spirited give and take yielded some criticism of President Obama, but O’Reilly ended things on this note: “I think he’s trying to be honest,” he said diplomatically. Imagine Maddow saying the same thing about a newly installed President John McCain.
O’Reilly doesn’t call himself a conservative, but he does cop to the traditionalist label. But Olbermann, O’Reilly’s fiercest critic, still claims he’s an impartial observer. If Jon Stewart and company were looking for things to mock in the Age of Obama, that should top the list.
Ultimately, O’Reilly’s cautious approach to President Obama and his new policies serves his viewers — even if critics already know how they feel about him and don’t want to hear anything that might change their minds. The audience understands O’Reilly won’t offer knee-jerk critiques of the new administration, so when he does find fault it might actually mean something.
Can people tuning in to MSNBC’s nightly lineup say the same?