Something about Bill O’Reilly has always bugged me, but until recently I haven’t paid enough attention to him to figure out what it was.
The Fox News host of “The O’Reilly Factor” is the author of the book of the same name, as well as “The No Spin Zone,” and a column that appears in this newspaper. He is famous for claiming to not tolerate ‘spin,’ famous for asserting that he tells it like it is.
So when I saw that he was airing a special version of The O’Reilly Factor, “O’Reilly vs. Hollywood,” I decided to take a look-see to try to figure out exactly what about the guy was getting under my skin.
The show examined the issue of celebrity activism, starting with a long look at O’Reilly’s own campaign after the “Tribute to Heroes” telethon. In his own words, O’Reilly was requesting “telethon celebrities to follow through on their attempts to help the families” affected by the Sept. 11 attacks.
What exactly does “follow through” mean – could that be more vague?
I also don’t like the implication – that it was somehow irresponsible for celebrities to raise funds in the wake of a national tragedy for a respected charity like the United Way.
During the hour-long program, O’Reilly claims to be a journalist, but constantly veers away from neutral reporting into editorial and commentary.
However, O’Reilly – the self-described journalist – use phrases including “I don’t like phonies,” “I’m anti-phony,” “I think …,” “My contention …,” “My opinion is that …” and “That’s my opinion.”
If O’Reilly is acting as a journalist, then his opinions, contentions, likes and dislikes are irrelevant. If he’s a commentator, fine, but he needs to drop the journalism cloak.
If he would just flash “I’m a journalist now” and “Now I’m a commentator” during the appropriate segments of the show, it would be a big improvement.
In a news story (as opposed to an editorial or column – like this), a good journalist will never use the first person. You should only see or hear the first person (I, we) in a news story if a journalist quotes someone who uses it.
An ethical reporter will take great pains to make sure his or her opinion is not discernible from a news story, and takes even greater pains to present all sides of an issue fairly.
Which leads me to another problem – O’Reilly’s contention that “I don’t spin.”
Comedian and actress Janeane Garofalo appeared on the show and took issue with his claim. She put it more eloquently than I could, so I’ll just quote her.
“You do spin,” Garofalo told O’Reilly. “I believe spin is in how you posture, the voice inflections that you use, the words you choose and the way you speak with someone.”
While interviewing Ben Stiller on “O’Reilly vs. Hollywood,” O’Reilly twice used the phrase “shoot off their mouths” to describe celebrities who raise money or awareness for causes. He also referred to “a bunch of other Hollywood celebrities.”
How fair is that? It certainly qualifies as spinning in my book.
I also thought it was telling that O’Reilly’s immediate response to Garofalo’s “You do spin” assertion was not shown; the show cut to a voice-over of O’Reilly saying he wasn’t going to convince her on the no-spin issue.
O’Reilly took actors George Clooney and Alec Baldwin to task because they were unwilling to appear on his program and answer his questions. In his final moments on the program, O’Reilly said, “If a famous person is unwilling to answer questions about a controversial opinion they state publicly, beware. That’s an abuse of power.”
What O’Reilly conveniently forgets to mention is that both Clooney and Baldwin have answered questions about their opinions in other forums, just not on his show.
As Garofalo put it, “They’re not obligated to you, Bill O’Reilly.”
So, as I would with an irritating insect buzzing about on an otherwise pleasant summer evening, I think I’ll go back to swatting at O’Reilly’s image with my remote control whenever it flickers across my television screen.
But that’s just my opinion.