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Media Hate-Spew Smackdown: Bill O'Reilly vs. Father Coughlin

06/27/2007 08:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sometimes it's nice to be surprised -- as, for example, when you just know that a certain medical procedure will be painful, frightening, and prolonged, and it turns out to be not so bad after all.

But sometimes it's nice not to be surprised, to have your assumption confirmed -- as, for example, when you just know that Fox News blowhard Bill O'Reilly is every bit as bad a hate-spewing propagandist as legendary "radio priest" and Hitler-Mussolini fan Father Charles Coughlin, and it turns out that we have scientific proof that he is.

Actually, it turns out that he's worse. Surprise!

Sez who? Sez Mike Conway, assistant professor in the Indiana University School of Journalism, Maria Elizabeth Grabe, associate professor of telecommunications, and Kevin Grieves, a doctoral student in journalism. This magnificent trio of intrepid researchers took it upon themselves, of their own free will and (apparently) without any attendant forms of physical coercion, to study six months worth, or 115 episodes, of O'Reilly's "Talking Points Memo" editorials using propaganda analysis techniques made popular after World War I. Can you imagine?

Neither can I. But that's why they're professors. They send their minds into harm's way, while the rest of us just sit around and feel smart when we talk about the Sopranos.

Read the press release here, which includes a link to the pdf of the study itself, graphs and all:

The three published their results in an article in the spring issue of Journalism Studies entitled "Villains, Victims and Virtuous in Bill O'Reilly's 'No Spin Zone': Revisiting World War Propaganda Techniques." In it they reveal the surprising, and indeed perversely impressive, fact that, as the release puts it, "O'Reilly called a person or a group a derogatory name once every 6.8 seconds, on average, or nearly nine times every minute during the editorials that open his program each night."

Think it's easy? You try calling a person or a group a derogatory name once every 6.8 seconds. It takes a certain something to be able to do that, and that something is called "talent." It's also called "a fundamentally corrupted soul," "a sick and repellent combination of egotism and viciousness," and "the heart of a demagogue and the ethical standards of a sociopath."

The preceding quotes are mine, not the professors' or their grad student. Unlike me, they don't need to resort to hurling Jovian thunderbolts of condemnation just because someone mentions the name Bill O'Reilly. Instead, they merely watched the man in action, and parsed his performance according to how it made use of seven propaganda devices formerly applied in a study of Father Coughlin.

The authors note that, "Today, the seven devices are mentioned as part of the lineage of propaganda study, but viewed as not rigorous enough for quantitative research and devoid of grand theory for qualitative work (Jowett, 1987; Severin and Tankard, 1997; Sproule, 1989, 1997)." But they then add, with regard to a classic study of Father Coughlin's speeches, "Because Lee and Lee's The Fine Art of Propaganda includes both analysis of Coughlin's speeches and also extensive definitions and examples of the seven devices, they could be used as a method for comparing two powerful opinion leaders, separated by more than sixty years."

The seven devices are:

• Name calling -- giving something a bad label to make the audience reject it without examining the evidence
• Glittering generalities -- the opposite of name calling
• Card stacking -- the selective use of facts and half-truths
• Bandwagon -- appeals to the desire, common to most of us, to follow the crowd
• Plain folks -- an attempt to convince an audience that they, and their ideas, are "of the people"
• Transfer -- carries over the authority, sanction and prestige of something we respect to something the speaker would want us to accept or dispute (there's a typo in this definition on the IU Media Relations page)
• Testimonials -- involving a respected (or disrespected) person endorsing or rejecting an idea or person.

Let us not pretend to be shocked that Bill O'Reilly uses any or all of these time-tested techniques, usually with gay abandon. Because he has to, you see. How else to present and maintain the cartoon world which he bestrides like a Colossus, The Last Man With Standards...or, rather, The Last Man With The Guts To Tell The Tr...no, wait, it's The Last Honest Working-Class Guy With The Standard Guts to Punch Nancy Pelosi in the F- ...anyway, he's some kind of Last Man, and he wants you to know, damn it, that (when he's not cutting off your mike, telling you to "shut up," or calling you a "pinhead") he's "looking out for you."

"If one digs further into O'Reilly's rhetoric," Grabe notes, "it becomes clear that he sets up a pretty simplistic battle between good and evil. Our analysis points to very specific groups and people presented as good and evil."

There is, of course, more. "What the IU researchers found in their study," says the press release,"...was that he was prone to inject fear into his commentaries and quick to resort to name-calling."

Yes, like the Spanish Inquisition, his chief weapon is fear. The study itself notes, "While death, destruction, and other survival threats are popular news topics, heroism, bravery, and social cohesion are often the main themes embedded in coverage of crime, riots, war, and natural disasters. Even the agitators of the first half of the 20th century who promoted a 'charade of doom' to their listeners almost always followed up with solutions to the world's problems (Lowenthal and Guterman, 1970, p. 33)."

Therefore, the authors posed what they called Research Question 3: "In cases where the fear frame is invoked, how often is the restoration of order principle present?"

The conclusion? "O'Reilly's rhetoric differs markedly from the restoration of order principle that Gans (1979) identified as an enduring news value in American journalism. In this sense, his rhetoric has potential to instill concern--perhaps even panic and fear--in the audience."

O'Reilly, the press release summarizes, "also frequently assigned roles or attributes--such as 'villians' (sic) or downright 'evil'--to people and groups."

Who are the bad guys? Oh, you know: "...politicians and media, particularly of the left-leaning persuasion, are in the company of illegal aliens, criminals, terrorists-- never vulnerable to villainous forces and undeserving of empathy." None of these, the study notes, are ever acknowledged as victims in Bill's world.

And that's interesting, because terrorism, no matter what Bill O'Reilly says, is a problem we must solve. In order to solve it, we must know its origins. And if its origins reside in feelings of victimhood and resentment among the terrorists (no matter how indefensible, despicable, and loathsome their response to those feelings), we have to confirm that--not necessarily to placate those feelings, but to anticipate and deal with them. So long as terrorists are viewed the way Bill O'Reilly views everyone--as one-dimensional actors in a bonehead melodrama of Pure Good vs. Pure Evil--then every idea he and his acolytes (and his President) advance for dealing with terrorism will only make it worse.

Meanwhile, who are the "real" victims?

The press release reports, "According to O'Reilly, victims are those who were unfairly judged (40.5 percent), hurt physically (25.3 percent), undermined when they should be supported (20.3 percent) and hurt by moral violations of others (10.1 percent). Americans, the U.S. military and the Bush administration were the top victims in the data set, accounting for 68.3 percent of all victims."

That's right: the Bush administration is a victim.

Again, we are unsurprised by scientific confirmation of what we always knew: "The Factor" is a 19th-century Satanic mill of intellectual and moral pollution, while the name "The No-Spin Zone" is either a meaningless bit of gibberish, or refers to an area of Fantasy Island legally designated to exclude washing machines and stationary bikes.

We save the best for last. How does Bill O'Reilly's brand of propaganda stack up against the kind used by Father Coughlin?

Notes the press release, with a straight face, "In this study, O'Reilly is a heavier and less-nuanced user of the propaganda devices than Coughlin." How much heavier? From the study itself: "There were 12.91 incidents of propaganda use per minute in O'Reilly's monologue, whereas Coughlin used 8.00 per minute."

Less nuanced! And now over 50% more nakedly manipulative than Nazi-sympathizer/nutbar Father Charles Coughlin!

That's who's looking out for you. Surprised?

Cross-posted at What HE said