O'Reilly, Beck, Olbermann and Maddow: Venomous Snakes?

09/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Charles Warner Blogger at Media; Teacher at The New School, NYU

In a blog last week titled "Murdoch and Immelt: Business Is Business," I wrote:

Thus, Fox News and MSNBC have huge investments in their stars O'Reilly, Beck, Olbermann, and Maddow. They created these venomous snakes, they have long-term contracts with them, and most importantly, they depend on them for ratings, which have gone up, in part, because of the feuding.

In response to the blog, which was distributed via Jack Myers' Media Biz Bloggers, I received an e-mail that read in part: "I watch Bill O'Reilly frequently, and I dispute your characterization of his [sic] as nasty. It is an opinion program, and in my judgment O'Reilly tries to be fair, frequently giving air time to people who oppose his views. I don't see any attempt at balance at MSNBC, which in my opinion is in the pockets of liberal Democrats."

In response to the same blog posted on the liberal Huffington Post, I received several comments:

"Among sensible viewers the views of Olbermann and Maddow are not sniping. They are digging up real news all the time. Maddow's expose of a rightwing website encouraging protests against healthcare reform, which she gave last night, should be THE featured article on the Huffpost this morning."

"Keith and Rachel behaving as they do is absolutely vital. For far too long the misrepresentations, poisonous invective, and outright lies of the Faux News crew went unchallenged. Someone with a big public signature MUST debunk these creeps."

" wrong it is to include Maddow in the 'venomous snakes' category. It's very rare that Maddow calls out another cable news person, and she never attacks the way Olbermann does. It's only been within the past week or so that she called out CNN and their coverage of the birther stories -- which she started out as a response to Campbell Brown's absurd statement that only CNN does real journalism."

"Say what you want about Maddow. She approaches her job with integrity -- yes -- with a liberal viewpoint, but she doesn't spew outright lies to try and bolster her argument. (She doesn't have to.) She may use sarcasm and humor to maker her point, but I don't see what's wrong with that. Give[n] the state of the nation, sometime I think we can either laugh or cry. And I'd rather laugh."

For conservatives who watch Fox News, it's perfectly OK to call Olbermann and Maddow venomous snakes, but for liberals who watch MSNBC, it's OK to call O'Reilly and Beck venomous snakes, but a gross injustice to call Olbermann and, especially, Maddow venomous snakes.

It's called confirmation bias when conservatives watch Fox News and liberals watch MSNBC. Both cable networks confirm the biases of their viewers. This situation is no surprise, of course, and we would expect each group to defend their star personalities/opinionators, even though it is inconceivable to me that there are not only viewers who actually believe that Fox News is "fair and balanced" but also that there more than twice as many of them than viewers who believe that Olbermann and Maddow are similarly inclined.

I probably used the term "venomous snakes" as much to pick a fight as believing that it was a completely accurate description of all the commentators I mentioned. However, I do believe that O'Reilly, Beck, and Olbermann are venomous or poisonous. And ever since the poets who wrote the Book of Genesis used the image of a snake as the embodiment of evil and temptation, the slithery reptiles have been associated with both sins in my mind.

Thus, because I believe the manner in which O'Reilly, Beck, Olberman, and, yes, sometimes Maddow, conduct themselves poisons the debate and dialogue about important issues. These commentators make ad hominem attacks their stock and trade. They don't explain or try to shed light on complex issues such as health care reform or education or the government's stimulus efforts to resuscitate the economy, too often they limit themselves to attacking or making fun of individuals.

Rachel Maddow makes her attacks more satirical and a little less nasty than O'Reilly, Beck, and Olbermann (Hannity, Limbaugh, and Lou Dobbs could be added of course) but Maddow is the cleverer, lighter transition to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Colbert wouldn't exist if it weren't for the all-too-easy-to-ridicule Bill O'Reilly, thank goodness. And politicians and other self-righteous, pompous public figures set themselves up for ridicule by the clever, sarcastic Jon Stewart. But as much as we love these two comedians, they, too, do not dignify the debate on issues of public importance. And that's a problem.

Most comedy is based on two underlying elements: surprise and anger. To know what the public face of anger is, just watch O'Reilly, Beck, Olbermann, Maddow, Hannity, Ann Coulter, Lou Dobbs, Stewart, and Colbert (or listen to the angriest of them all, Rush Limbaugh). They are all very, very angry at liberals, conservatives, politicians, Obama, government, taxes, or the world.

No one wants to watch normal, well-adjusted, happy, rational, reasonable people on TV; they're boring -- like C-SPAN or the News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. Watching David Brooks and Mark Shields discuss the issues on the News Hour doesn't confirm any biases; they are too reasonable and boring. And America needs much more of this type of dignified, respectful, tolerant dialogue and debate.

O'Reilly, Beck, Olbermann, and CNN's Lou Dobbs are not not dignified or tolerant. They do not respect opposing points of view. They tend to attack people, not ideas. Maddow is the most dignified and the most respectful. Her discussions with conservative Pat Buchanan are typically a model of polite conversation.

Stewart and Colbert can also do a reasonably polite interview, but usually with a touch of sarcasm, that always lets us know where they stand. And, so, they too become personalities/opinionators. More polite, a lot funnier, but, essentially in the same league with O'Reilly, Beck, and Olbermann in poisoning and skewing the debate about issues of public importance.

President Obama is taking his message about health care reform to the people in public forums where he will likely have a polite, dignified debate on the issue because he knows there will not be a polite, dignified debate on the cable news or comedy channels or in Congress -- and shame on them.