As my new year's resolution, I gave up objectivity for a week.
For seven days, I would get my news and opinion solely from Fox News, the Washington Times, the New York Post, Rush Limbaugh and other conservative sources.
I never felt that I'd had enough sustained, unfiltered exposure to the right-leaning media to truly give a knowledgeable critique. I wanted to experience how one might see the world if viewed solely through that prism.
This wouldn't be a binge in which I would force myself to ingest massive doses of Limbaugh, prying my eyelids open "Clockwork Orange"-style while subjecting myself to marathons of "Fox and Friends". (I'm sure the human body can only tolerate limited amounts of Steve Doocy.) Nor would I go into the world and try to "pass" at, say, a meeting of the local Republican party or an NRA convention. I'm not a good enough actor or liar to pull that off. I would simply watch or read as much news and commentary as during a typical week, but I'd exclude from my media diet any source which might conceivably be accused of harboring leftist tendencies or, god forbid, sincerely striving to be fair and balanced.
And so, I abandoned the "media elites" and ventured for seven days into "Hannity's America". Out with the Olbermann; in with the O'Reilly.
NEW YEAR'S EVE, DECEMBER 31, 2006
At 11pm Eastern Standard Time, Anderson Cooper was anchoring CNN's coverage from Times Square, cutting to remote segments including a performance by gay icons Scissor Sisters and a live feed from Key West's "Drag Queen Drop". Further branding CNN as despicably liberal and tolerant, Anderson even clammed up entirely so his viewers could listen as John Lennon's "Imagine" was loudspeakered to the New York revelers during the final moments of 2006.
SCTV once did a brilliant episode set on New Year's Eve 1983 in which, as soon as the countdown hit zero, all programming became Orwellian, straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four, with abundant newspeak and a still photo of Orson Welles as the face of Big Brother, glaring sternly from your "telescreen". I did harbor a hope that switching from CNN to Fox News at the stroke of midnight would provide a similarly stark contrast, but amazingly both networks were showing precisely the same image as the new year arrived: a couple kissing in Times Square, as captured by a pool camera.
Maybe things wouldn't be so different during my "walk on the right side" as I'd been anticipating.
Fox anchors Julie Banderas and CNN refugee Bill Hemmer hugged on camera to greet the new year, after which Hemmer, confetti in his hair and in his throat, raspily sang along to "New York, New York" and sagely declared that "There are so many important world events happening all over the globe." Fox had christened their coverage "All-American New Year 2007", the first instance of a pattern I would witness throughout the week. If, like me, your exposure to the conservative media has been spotty at best, you should be aware that Fox describes its newsroom as "America's Newsroom", Rush Limbaugh's website proclaims him "America's Anchorman", and the Washington Times boldly asserts that it is "America's Newspaper", which would itself be news to the bulk of Americans who've never heard of it. What better way to ensure loyalty among good, decent citizens than to imply that all other sources of information are un-American? I'd like to offer my own suggestion that Ann Coulter be henceforth referred to as "America's Shrew".
While CNN's cutaways veered conspicuously toward the queer, Fox skewed toward the odd, including the Blue Man Group's percussive version of "Auld Lang Syne" and an appearance by noted mentalist, the Amazing Kreskin, performing his most amazing feat yet: somehow finding a way to get onto television in the year 2007. Amongst a small group of Times Square partiers, Kreskin predicted the arrival of a UFO, then directed their attention toward a point in the sky. Gasping, the awestruck celebrants claimed to see floating lights heading toward them - although apparently the Fox cameraperson was incapable of pivoting in order to share this monumental news event with the rest of the world. The first woman to spot these mystery lights exclaimed "Shit!", prompting the nearby Fox News correspondent to hastily inform "America's Audience" that "We apologize for a little slip of the tongue here; they're stunned." Perhaps the woman was simply in shock upon discovering that Kreskin was still alive.
The most remarkable feature of Fox's post-midnight coverage may have been a performance of John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" outside Fox World Headquarters (or, as I call it, "America's Headquarters") on the Avenue of the Americas ("America's Avenue of the Americas"). When "teen heartthrob" Drake Bell and his band kicked off the number by harmonizing the words "Happy New Year" to the tune of the song's "War is over" chorus, I couldn't believe the audacity. Was Fox really forcing them to sanitize the lyrics of Lennon's anti-war anthem? Was this the modern political equivalent of showing Elvis only from the waist up? My outrage faded when the band sang "War is over, if you want it" intact and unedited at its proper place in the song. They weren't even required to change the words to "War is over, after a surge of approximately 20,000 more troops." (Nor did they sing the song's original lyrics: "Oh, Stewball was a racehorse/And I wish he were mine...")
I shut off the tube after a promo in which Fox's Shepard Smith wished us all "Happy Holidays". Oh my god! Ol' Shep has fallen victim to the liberals' nefarious "War on New Year's"!
MONDAY, JANUARY 1, 2007
As I awoke to the first full day of my experiment, I honestly felt jittery at the realization that I couldn't check my usual trusted sources to find out what was happening in the world. I felt physical withdrawal pangs as I resisted the urge to peek, even momentarily, at CNN or switch my radio, ever so briefly, to "Morning Edition". Nope, I had to stick to my plan. I was going cold turkey. (Uh oh, any more Lennon references and Yoko will be on my ass for royalties.)
The week from Christmas to New Year's Day is typically a news vacuum, when all the movers and shakers take a breather, leaving a void to be filled by mysteries involving child beauty queens and missing pregnant women. But the final seven days of 2006 had been jam-packed with a trifecta of high-profile deaths -- James Brown, Gerald Ford and Saddam Hussein -- so it was a bit surprising how dull January 1 turned out to be.
The day's highlight came early, on Fox News Live, when anchor Brigitte Quinn led into her interview with Neocon apologist Bill Kristol as follows: "The death of Saddam Hussein marking another milestone in the transformation of Iraq and closing another chapter in the media's FIXATION with the Iraq war." Yeah, what is with the mainstream media and their insistence on covering that minor kerfuffle? What possible news value could that have?
Ms. Quinn continued to fixate on this fixation. "I also in some publications noticed that they compared (the 3000 dead servicemen and women in Iraq) with the number of people killed in 9/11, which puzzled me a little bit because...pretty much...I don't think anybody would say that the Iraq War was retribution for 9/11." Well, maybe they wouldn't NOW - except for Cheney. But they sure left that impression four years ago. Or was that another of my distorted left-wing perceptions?
The big names had all taken the day off, so I encountered lots of reruns. On a previously-aired "Radio Factor", Bill O'Reilly ("America's Blowhard") queried of a guest: If it's such a bad company, "why do people continue to work for Wal-Mart? If you can count to twenty and speak English, you can work at Tiffany's!" Now there's a viable employment option, small-town Americans. First thing tomorrow, just mosey on over to yer friendly neighborhood Tiffany's and fill out an application. Tell 'em Bill sent ya!
TUESDAY, JANUARY 2
The Gerald Ford funeral tour continued, eating up much of Fox's daytime programming with long, static shots of Air Force One idling on a runway, peppered with occasional musings from Brit Hume and his panel about how the critics of Ford's pardon of Nixon were now praising the wisdom of his action. And, yes, for you nitpickers, they also pointed out that, technically, the plane wasn't really "Air Force One" because the current president wasn't onboard.
On the radio, Sean Hannity ("America's Insufferable Prick") kicked off his year with cheerful tirades against:
Six years out of office and impeached, but somehow Bubba remains red meat for the Red-Staters. Clinton's supposed relevance on this day? A tabloid report that he was being treated for sex addiction. Boy, if Clinton would only videotape himself having a three-way in a hot tub with Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, we wouldn't have to hear any real news for years!
A ten-year-old girl called to tell Hannity that she doesn't like when people call the President names and she doesn't like it being taught in schools. I may be taking a controversial position here, but if fourth-graders are indeed being taught to call the President names in school, I am definitely opposed to this practice. Children should be taught to call the President names in their own homes or, as was traditional during the Clinton years, at their places of worship. The little girl told Hannity that she was preparing for a trip to San Francisco, prompting Hannity to warn her, "Be careful in San Francisco. A lot of liberals out there." Yes, kids, next time you visit the City by the Bay, beware of strangers who may approach you and try to raise your taxes.
On "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox News Channel, Bill O'Reilly listed the five most important stories of 2006. To my surprise, O'Reilly conceded that things aren't going especially well in Iraq, saying the Iraqis need to do more to stop terrorism and graciously allowing that the Democrats deserve a chance to make things better. Later in the show, guest Ben Stein offered his own feeble defense of the President's handling of the war: "Bush is trying to do his best. God knows he's made terrible mistakes, but he's trying desperately to do his best." That's the sort of pathetic plea I'd expect from a father begging a Little League coach to let his dorky kid stay on the team. Wrapping up their segment, O'Reilly said, "Hopefully, the situation in Iraq will get better or we'll have to get out of there, that's for sure." Hey, what's with the lukewarm support, Bill? Why do you hate our troops?
Another of Bill-O's big stories for the year: "The folks also brought down O.J. Simpson and his media enablers in a stunning victory for decency in America." Without, of course, mentioning that those enablers were part of NewsCorp, the same conservative-leaning corporation which signs O'Reilly's massive paychecks. But that admission would muddy O'Reilly's operating thesis that it's all those bastards on the left who are hell-bent on destroying America.
Not surprisingly, Bill also self-aggrandizingly lauded "some important traditional wins" in the O'Reilly-fanned "culture war in America", with Wal-Mart and other retailers welcoming Christmas back into their advertising and marketing, "much to the dismay of many in the S-P media". I admit, I was thrown by this abbreviation, which I deduced stood for "secular-progressive". I presume he uses the term frequently enough that his loyal viewers won't become confused and angrily picket next year's ESPY awards.
Conservative mouthpiece Michelle Malkin arrived to join in the piling on, ranking as her number-one story for 2006 the mainstream media's war coverage. "I think the slow and steady erosion of mainstream media credibility has been going on for quite a while, but 2006 was really a milestone. A lot of people (are) questioning which side of the war these mainstream outlets have been on." And near the close of the show in the "Most Ridiculous Item Of The Day" segment, O'Reilly was furious that he could not find a single TV critic in America's major newspapers who was even moderately conservative. "Over the holidays, I read scores of articles from the nation's papers, all of them critical about Fox News, many of them propping up our left-wing competition." No wonder you'd start to believe that you can't trust information from any other source when it's drummed into your head this relentlessly. I swear, it's like these people have a FIXATION on the mainstream media.
The amusing capper to the day's "Factor" was this e-mail from a viewer:
"Mr. O, at the end of the interview with the counselor, you wished her 'happy holidays' instead of 'Merry Christmas'. Since you have made a big deal of Christmas, I found that surprising."
O'Reilly's response: "The doctor was Jewish, sir. Showing respect for her traditions."
Funny, but wasn't that precisely the reason the businesses which O'Reilly so publicly flogged had opted to use the expression "Happy Holidays" in the first place, to be inclusive of and respectful to the traditions of all their customers?
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 3
The day I finally cracked.
My day began with Rush Limbaugh, who started his show by mocking John Edwards' blatantly stage-managed announcement of his presidential candidacy against the backdrop of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans - an event with such "beat you over the head" symbolism that I had cringed as well at its lack of subtlety. Rush then proposed sites where other Democrats should announce their candidacies,. "Kerry should announce in front of the Eiffel Tower." Yeah, that "he looks French" bit never gets old. Wake me when you make a hi-LAR-ious "Jimmy Carter/killer rabbit" joke. Continuing in the vein of easy potshots, Rush suggested that "Joe Biden should announce in front of the Hair Club For Men." But then he threw me for a loop with a reference likely lost on the 99.9999% of his audience who aren't Dennis Miller, saying "Hillary should announce in front of a Potemkin village."
Then Rush discussed Gerald Ford. Apparently, Howard Baker had told Larry King that, after the 1992 Republican Convention featuring Pat Buchanan's notoriously divisive "culture war" keynote address, Ford had told Baker, "This is not my Republican party." To undermine Mr. Baker's claim, as well as Ford's criticism of the Iraq war which had been released posthumously by Bob Woodward, Rush insisted that Ford had told him what a great job he thought Bush was doing and that Ford had always been very gracious to Rush when they met on occasions such as golf tournaments. Well, of course he was gentlemanly toward Rush and said benign things about the president. Ford was a polite Midwesterner. Too polite, as is now clear. While it's nice to learn in retrospect that Ford opposed the administration's handling of the war, it would have been nicer had he spoken out, publicly or privately, thousands of Iraqi and American deaths ago. But hey, why risk voicing your concerns about a disastrous foreign policy if it might lead to some awkward moments on the golf course?
But Rush Limbaugh isn't who made me crack.
I also withstood Pat Robertson's dispatch from his most recent chat with his Bestest-Buddy-On-High:
Evangelical broadcaster Pat Robertson said Tuesday that God has told him that a terrorist attack on the United States would cause a "mass killing" late in 2007. "I'm not necessarily saying it's going to be nuclear," he said during his news-and-talk television show "The 700 Club" on the Christian Broadcasting Network. "The Lord didn't say nuclear. But I do believe it will be something like that."
Why do the media continue to report this man's periodic ravings without the onscreen crawl, "This man is bat-shit crazy"? Maybe this is the proof O'Reilly's been seeking of the secular-progressive media's anti-religious bias. By publicizing Pat Robertson's proclamations, they're trying to make all Christians look bad! But wait, I was exposed to this story while scrupulously avoiding the unscrupulous God-haters in mainstream journalism. Could conservatives be treating this as actual news that deserves to be taken seriously? I assume they'll give equally straight-faced coverage should Tom Cruise disclose that the reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard has notified him that Xenu's coming back. (Perhaps this aside will end what's left of my career in Hollywood, but I've never understood how anyone can believe in a religion which was founded by a man who wrote science fiction. Isn't that like discovering the Bible was written by the same guy who created "Spider-Man"?)
Robertson indicated his sensitivity to charges that his previous predictions haven't always been on the money:
In May, Robertson said God told him that storms and possibly a tsunami were to crash into America's coastline in 2006. Even though the U.S. was not hit with a tsunami, Robertson on Tuesday cited last spring's heavy rains and flooding in New England as partly fulfilling the prediction. "I have a relatively good track record," he said. "Sometimes I miss."
If your local TV weatherman had that kind of track record, he'd be fired. Hell, I'd trust Kreskin more than this crackpot.
But Pat Robertson was not who made me crack.
On Sean Hannity's radio show, he claimed that one of the aims of the Democrats in the incoming congress would be "to silence conservative talk radio". Again with the persecution complex! I always thought the Right ridiculed the supposed "victim mentality" fostered by the Left, but these folks are the whiniest bunch of victims I've ever encountered. Yup, everyone's out to keep the Hannity down. I guess it's not terribly surprising. After all, these same people were constantly bitching even when their party controlled the White House, both chambers of Congress and, depending on the issue, the Supreme Court. Hannity is now dismissing and belittling the measly 31-vote margin held by the Democrats in the House, but when a similarly slim advantage went in the Republicans' favor, it was a vindication of everything Hannity stood for. I've heard a few Democrats describing their victory in November as a mandate, and I find it just as annoying and inaccurate as when Bush claimed his squeaker in '04 represented a mandate. I guess it's inevitable that politicians and pundits will make the most expedient argument to further their cause, and that they'll ignore the obvious contradictions and hypocrisy caused when situations change. Do you think any of the Democrats who argued in the last election that it's healthy to have a divided government, with a president of one party and a congress of the other, will be making that same case in 2008?
But Sean Hannity didn't make me crack either.
My radio remained tuned to Hannity's station in L.A., KABC, on which I heard a promo claiming they were the station "where all the disillusioned Dittoheads went", presumably a reference to Limbaugh's post-election admission that he'd been "carrying water" for Republicans who didn't deserve his or his listeners' support. (So THAT'S what Rush has been carrying!) You may know this behavior by the more common term, "lying". Hearing this promo, I realized that I'd been thinking of the right-wing media as a monolith, yet here was evidence that, sensing weakness, the station of O'Reilly and Hannity was eager to pounce on the water-bloated carcass of Limbaugh in hopes of scavenging some of his listeners.
It was 6:05pm and the Al Rantel show was starting on KABC. I've listened to Rantel on occasion in the past and found his opinions to be refreshingly unpredictable. He's not a kneejerk reactionary and is even socially liberal on some issues. This may be the first time all week I was honestly looking forward to a program, expecting to hear arguments which were thoughtful and nuanced.
Then Al introduced his guest.
If I am ever hauled off to Guantanamo (like, say, for writing this diary), all the interrogators will have to do is play a tape of Ann Coulter's voice and I'll confess to masterminding 9/11.
Simply put, Ann Coulter is the world's single largest natural depository of disdain.
Now I'll admit that I'm being pretty snarky toward the conservative pundits in this account, so perhaps one could claim that I am just as lacking in civility toward Ann Coulter as I accuse her of being toward the rest of the human race. But, unlike her, I haven't built a career which consists entirely of ad-hominem attacks, outrageous accusations, factual distortions and outright lies. I'm tentatively dipping my toe into the cultural cesspool. She lives there.
On this particular evening, she was delighting in a report (apparently old news, from a previous book he'd written) that Barack Obama used to do cocaine. The viciousness already being aimed Obama's direction probably indicates how scared the Right are of him. "Uh oh, a charismatic new Democrat is on the scene. Quick, let's figure out how we can hate and destroy him." Personally, I like to find things to admire and respect in others, to find those common points which unify us. That's why I was eager to listen to Rantel. But it's impossible to relate to someone as cold and merciless as Coulter, beside whom the T-1000 from "Terminator 2" would seem cuddly.
To Coulter, another of the Right's perpetual victims, Obama's drug use was a shining example of a double standard in which Democrats are forgiven of sins for which Republicans are crucified. In this case, she pointed to Reagan's abortive nomination of Douglas Ginsburg to the Supreme Court which imploded once it became known that Ginsburg had smoked marijuana. Perfectly good analogy, until you recall that, as in the case of Harriet Miers, opposition to Ginsburg came primarily from Republicans. When the First Lady had a highly visible "Just Say No" to drugs campaign, it was deemed inappropriate to appoint to the bench someone who'd done the reefer.
Coulter specializes in these alternative-universe versions of history. On Rantel's show, she also claimed that "liberals invented Watergate", driving Nixon from office for "stories that wouldn't have merited three column-inches in the Clinton era". As I'm sure you'll recall, the eight years of the Clinton administration were a magical time, during which not a single negative word about the man was printed or said in the mainstream media.
But what put me over the brink was Coulter's claim (a variant of the argument made on Fox News earlier in the week) that the media were only now saying nice things about Gerald Ford. Coulter asserted that the only time the so-called mainstream media will ever say anything positive about a Republican is when they are dead. First of all, I can't think of a single negative thing that anyone has said about Ford since, oh, 1977. He was like everybody's kindly old uncle. But more importantly, name ONE Democrat about whom Ann Coulter would say a single nice thing after they died!
Coulter is so full of free-floating bile that she even found a way to slam a dead Republican - specifically, Gerald Ford! She wrote him off as a "milquetoast", but softened her criticism by stating that "even the worst Republican is better than any Democrat".
Ah. Glorious silence.
I had survived Ann Coulter for a total of three minutes.
THURSDAY, JANUARY 4
The first day of the new "Democrat-controlled" Congress. I'm sure they'll be given a respectful honeymoon period by the right-wing medi...huh?
7:56am, Fox News Channel:
"Republicans are facing a blackout when it comes to taking part in the legislative process. They're getting shut out!"
The victimization continues unabated. God's in his heaven. All's Right with the world.
This claim that the Democrats are reneging on their pledge of bipartisanship by freezing the Republicans out of the first 100 hours of legislation becomes a consistent talking point in all of the conservative media I encounter on this day. If true, I think it's a completely legitimate story. I'm not big on the philosophy that hypocrisy is okay when it's "my" people doing it.
That evening, on "Hannity and Colmes", Republican Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia (a benign chucklehead familiar from his two appearances on "The Colbert Report") said how funny he found Nancy Pelosi's hypocrisy on this issue. Bob Beckel, sitting in for the absent Colmes, made the point that I'd been dying to hear all day: that the Republicans had been excluding Democrats from this process in exactly this manner for the past twelve years. To which Kingston replied innocently that "we didn't run on a platform of open rules and allowing the minority to have amendments." So there you have it. As long as you don't claim during the campaign that you're going to be fair and treat the opposition party with respect, you don't have to do it. Remember that the next time you're accused of murder. "Well, your honor, I never specifically promised that I wouldn't kill anyone."
On this historic day, when Nancy Pelosi became the first female Speaker of the House, she was given the royal treatment by Rush Limbaugh: on the home page of his website, Pelosi and Hillary Clinton were depicted in bee costumes under the headline, "Queen Bee Syndrome Buzzes Washington". Another photo of Pelosi was captioned, "A Mommy in charge of the Nanny State". Am I simply a hyper-sensitive liberal or does this seem just a tad sexist? I didn't see Harry Reid demeaningly portrayed in, say, the pink bunny suit from "A Christmas Story".
The treatment of Nancy Pelosi was no kinder that evening on Fox. O'Reilly launched a segment on Pelosi's assumption of the speakership by asking, "Should we care?" and described her as "the most liberal woman in the world". Things declined further on "Hannity and Colmes", where the once-again Colmes-free Hannity ripped into the Democrats' agenda under the banner, "100 Hours To Turn America Into San Francisco". Somehow, I don't think he meant Pelosi wants to make America hilly and picturesque. It seems to be Hannity's mission to turn "San Francisco" into a sneering pejorative code word, along the lines of "Massachusetts" and "France". The headline "The San Francisco Speaker" remained onscreen as he bashed every item the Democrats had pledged to enact, such as raising the minimum wage. But wait, don't these people always crow about how they're looking out for the little guy? In the spirit of my week-long exercise in an alternative lifestyle, I suggest that we cut the salaries of Rush and Hannity and O'Reilly to the minimum wage for a week and see how they manage. Force them to man the checkout at Wal-Mart (or, in O'Reilly's case, a small-town Tiffany's). "Thank you for working at Wal-Mart, Rush. And good luck getting those prescriptions filled."
Even funnier than Hannity's demonizing of San Francisco was his claim that Pelosi's vow to expand federal funding of stem-cell research was "a clear bow to the Michael J. Fox wing of her party." Could there be a less divisive figure in our popular culture than Michael J. Fox? A funny likeable guy battling a debilitating disease? Somehow he's now some nefarious character in control of his own wing?
Did Hannity learn nothing from Rush Limbaugh's ill-advised attack on the beloved Marty McFly?
To read the answer, please turn your computer screen upside-down: (ON)
And while we're concocting controversies, Hannity also gave more airtime for Dennis Prager to warn of the dire consequences of allowing Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison, a Muslim, to take his oath on a copy of the Koran. Prager's concern: "The Bible, which is the basis of America's values - not the Constitution, the Bible - has been replaced with another religious text for the first time... If we get rid of that book as the acknowledged repository of our values, we are in bad trouble and we will lose our liberties." When I first moved to Los Angeles, I would occasionally listen to Prager's "Religion on the Line" radio program on KABC and found him to be thought-provoking and reasonable, but age or simply the pundit's need to constantly be in a righteous snit have turned him into an extremist caricature whose arguments often don't have internal consistency. Even though Prager acknowledged that Ellison has every right to use the Koran, that the use of any book in the swearing-in ceremony is purely symbolic, and that the Constitution provides that there shall be no religious test to serve in the United States government, according to Prager the sky is still falling.
I feel like I've been relatively easy on O'Reilly so far, but it wasn't until Thursday that O'Reilly the Bully made his grand appearance. On his TV show, his guest was a woman named Sunsara Taylor, whom he introduced as "a prominent member of the far-left group, Truth Can't Wait." Ms. Taylor laid out her arguments against the Iraq war, citing the number of deaths it has caused and decrying the "torture being committed in our name". When Ms. Taylor dared to say that she was citing "facts", the nasty O'Reilly of myth and legend burst forth like a phoenix:
"No, they're not facts. You are a loon. You're a lunatic. And if you weren't a lunatic, 90% of America would agree with you. You're a lunatic. You got maybe 8% that agree with you. The majority of the country, Miss Taylor, with all due respect, think that you're a loon."
Ms. Taylor, the loon, proceeded to argue that the majority of the country now opposes President Bush. O'Reilly's retort? "They voted him in twice!" Funny, the "They voted him in twice" argument didn't hold much sway with the right-wing during the Clinton impeachment.
Still, you've got to hand it to O'Reilly for perfecting the technique of firing one last cheap shot at his guests before insincerely thanking them for enduring his brutality. In this case: "The land of Oz is a lovely place and I hope you enjoy it there. Thank you, Miss Taylor, we appreciate you coming on the program."
I challenge you to find me a commentator from the left who treats their guests with anything approaching O'Reilly's spectacular rudeness.
Now remind me: who is it again that's destroying decency in our culture?
FRIDAY, JANUARY 5
As the week has progressed, I've become even more fiercely committed to maintaining the purity of this project, to the point where I avoid glancing at the front pages of newspapers and have to avert my eyes when Wolf Blitzer's "Situation Room" flickers silently in front of my treadmill at the gym. Even checking the Drudge Report feels like I'm cheating, since he's not as strictly partisan as most of the other outlets upon which I've been relying. Sometimes there's a right-wing boner that's just too juicy for Drudge to resist.
Fox was continuing to push the "Republican shutout" angle. During a promo for one of their Saturday financial shows, a Fox reporter asked, "Will a GOP shutout by the new Democratic Congress be good or bad for stocks?" I was momentarily startled, not by the question but by the use of the word "Democratic". Going into the week, I was braced for a lot of skewed language, but I have only heard a few deliberately truncated references to "the Democrat Party" and not a single use of the term "homicide bombers". Come to think of it, I didn't hear of any violence in Iraq at all. I guess the war must have stopped! Does that mean we can bring home the troops?
The only time I've ever been in contact with a human being at Fox News involved that asinine expression "homicide bombers", which had been floated briefly by White House press secretary Ari Fleischer as an alternative to "suicide bombers". The thought process must have been that "homicide bomber" sounded scarier, putting the emphasis on the innocents being killed, but it actually diminishes the heinousness of the act. If someone is so committed to their cause that they will kill themselves to carry out their mission, that's a particularly scary prospect and much more difficult to fight. Whereas "homicide bomber" could aptly describe anyone who uses a bomb to kill other people. By that definition, most any American soldier who launched a missile during the "shock and awe" phase of the war could be described as a "homicide bomber". Even the White House seemed to realize that this change in verbiage was absurd and it fell out of their vernacular quickly, but Fox News apparently didn't get the memo and continued to use the phrase for years. A couple years back, I read online about an AP story in which a quote from Hillary Clinton on the subject of suicide bombers had been altered to read "homicide bombers" when it appeared on Fox's website. I fired off an e-mail to a general address at Fox, saying that they're entitled to whatever style guide they want, but they've crossed a journalistic line when they start changing people's direct quotes. I quickly received an e-mail from a Fox staffer who completely understood the ethics involved and whose apology seemed genuine, and the quote was restored to its original form soon thereafter. It briefly gave me hope, knowing that at least one employee at Fox hadn't been entirely corrupted.
Which probably means he got canned.
SATURDAY, JANUARY 6
By the weekend, I was feeling NewsMaxed out, weary of all the negativity and whining. Maybe everyone else was too, because the programming I encountered on the weekend was less divisive, less angry. True, Fox's financial programming on Saturday morning sported the network's standard provocative headlines, cloaked with just enough distracting punctuation to allow them to say, "Hey, we're not saying it's true, we're just raising the question."
For example: HANG MORE DICTATORS: BEST THING FOR THE MARKETS?
Or: DEM CONTROLLED CONGRESS WILL "NOT" HIKE YOUR TAXES!
(That one gets the runner-up prize for the week's best inadvertent Borat homage. The winner was L.A. radio host Larry Elder who, on Thursday, had described his guest as a "retarded...reTIRED drug enforcement agent".)
The only talk radio I caught on Saturday was "the best of John and Ken" on KFI - and what I heard startled me. Discussing the possible troop surge and the likelihood of a draft, the more splenetic of John and Ken (I've never known which is which) said there was no way to build our armed forces without a draft because no one in their right mind would sign up to go fight in Iraq, a war which John or Ken described as "something stupid that an idiot president did". The evening-drive chatterboxes on Rush Limbaugh's L.A. station, noted foes of illegal immigration who were instrumental in driving Democratic California Governor Gray Davis out of office, were saying that the Iraq War was stupid and President Bush is an idiot?
I need a quick ruling from Bill O'Reilly. Are John/Ken loons?
SUNDAY, JANUARY 7
The final day. Hallelujah.
On "Fox News Sunday", Brit Hume's first guest, Senator Mitch McConnell, spoke optimistically of the benefits of divided government in attacking controversial matters, because both parties must share responsibility and/or blame for taking on the tough issues. Again, I'm all for true cooperation between the parties, but why wasn't McConnell campaigning in favor of divided government two months ago alongside his Democratic brethren?
During the obligatory panel discussion, Bill Kristol returned to Fox's airwaves, cheerleading as best he could for President Bush's imminent proposal to surge more soldiers into Iraq, describing this as "a rare act of political courage" on Bush's part. "The easy thing would have been to follow the advice of the Iraq Study Group." I propose that we engrave "Stubbornness Is Courage" on the wall of the Ministry of Peace, right under "Ignorance Is Strength."
When Kristol went on to call opposition to the President's plan "irresponsible", fellow panelist Juan Williams wasn't going to let him get away with it, citing polls that indicated lack of support for the surge even among most Republicans. Williams asked, "The majority of your party are now irresponsible because they disagree with you?" Kristol simply said, "Yes", with a smile and a chuckle, an expression I've seen on Kristol's face many times before which I've always read to mean, "Yes, I know that what I'm saying is horse manure, but a shill's gotta do what a shill's gotta do."
The rest of the day passed uneventfully and, as midnight approached, my experiment ended with a whimper. On Fox, there were no crowds in Times Square. No confetti. No Blue Man Group. No Kreskin. Just a three-year-old episode of "War Stories With Oliver North".
Life goes on. And I had mine back.
Going into this experiment, I hadn't expected any startling revelations. Immersing yourself in the right-wing echo chamber and emerging with the conclusion that they have a conservative bias is about as shocking as dunking yourself in the ocean and declaring it moist and salty.
But after my week in common-sensory-deprivation, I found myself both depressed and curiously hopeful.
I was pleased to find that, by and large, the straight news reporting to which I was exposed seemed untainted by ideology. But bare-bones news headlines represented a tiny fraction of what I heard and saw. Most of the time, I was pummeled with griping and moaning and snide remarks - qualities which are definitely present in liberal talk radio too, but not, I would contend, to this oppressive degree. I'd be hard pressed to give examples where Rush, O'Reilly, Hannity and the rest said anything remotely optimistic or constructive. Their entire arsenal of arguments could be boiled down to "If it's Democrat, it's crap!" Based on this week's sampling, one could come to believe that, on every single important issue of our day, Republicans have the correct answer and Democrats believe something absolutely antithetical and are therefore wrong and scheming to destroy America. To hear them pontificate, you'd think the gravest threat to our nation comes in the form of a grandmother from San Francisco armed only with a gavel.
I've heard it said in recent years that "the country is more divided than it's ever been"...and the right-wing pontificators are sure trying their darnedest to make this statement true. But surely this is the blinkered observation of people without historical perspective. Things weren't worse in the 1960s, when the civil-rights movement and another divisive war provoked mass protests which often turned violent? When major leaders were being assassinated with unimaginable frequency? Or how about the 1860s? I dimly recall some quibble between the northern and southern states which got out of hand. I can envision it now, like a sepia-toned daguerreotype panning slowly past my eyes to the sound of a doleful fiddle.
Not to pooh-pooh the many contemporary challenges we face, but my parents grew up during the Depression and World War II. I'd say they had life slightly tougher than we do, if only because it was nearly impossible back then to get your hands on an iPod, a flat-screen TV or a Nintendo Wii (except for the stockpile kept by William Randolph Hearst in his vast underground vaults at San Simeon). Compared to massive unemployment and a global conflagration of unfathomable scope and misery, I'd say we've got things relatively comfy. Are you telling me that we can't find common ground to unite in tackling today's problems? Well, you are telling me that if you're a right-wing talker.
It was heartening to detect a few cracks in the monolithic Bush boosterism from the guests and even some of the hosts during my period of enforced Rightness. But what truly makes me hopeful exists outside the paranoid bubble in which I dwelt for a week. It's the anecdotal evidence from my encounters with people in rural Wisconsin during my Christmas vacation, where the constant fearmongering from the Right is no longer having the effect it did in previous years. It's the public-opinion polls which consistently show overwhelming disapproval of the President and the job he's doing. It's the declining ratings of Fox News and the rising popularity of MSNBC. Rush and O'Reilly and Hannity may be singing the same old song, but it's to a smaller and smaller congregation.
I don't mean to minimize their impact and influence, and I know they will always have their loyal core of ardent followers. But after seven days in their world, I've come to think of the conservative pundits as the equivalent of those whackos (who seem to have existed primarily in New Yorker cartoons) wearing sandwich boards reading "Repent, the End is Near!" The first time you encounter that sign, you might become alarmed. The message may remain disconcerting the next few times you see it. But after a while, when all the gloom and doom they're predicting fails to come to pass, it just might start to dawn on you:
"Maybe the nut with the sandwich board isn't the most reliable source of information."
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