On July 31st, the New York Times ran a story entitled "Voices From Above Silence a Cable TV Feud," detailing the almost pathological and utterly boundless mutual abhorrence that MSNBC's Keith Olbermann shares with and for Fox News host Bill O'Reilly. (For purposes of brevity, these two gentleman shall be referred to as KO and BO respectively within this piece.)
Brian Stelter's piece details how the acrimony witnessed nightly and the unbridled loathing that each has for the other rose to such levels that a corporate sit-down was had. This summit made the Gates-Crowley "Lagerheads" brew klatsch look like, well, a cheap and tawdry photo op. This was the 1957 Appalachian meeting redux.
It was perhaps the fiercest media feud of the decade and by this year, their bosses had had enough. But it took a fellow television personality with a neutral perspective to help bring it to at least a temporary end.
At an off-the-record summit meeting for chief executives sponsored by Microsoft in mid-May, the PBS interviewer Charlie Rose asked Jeffrey Immelt, chairman of G.E., and his counterpart at the News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch, about the feud.
Both moguls expressed regret over the venomous culture between the networks and the increasingly personal nature of the barbs. Days later, even though the feud had increased the audience of both programs, their lieutenants arranged a cease-fire, according to four people who work at the companies and have direct knowledge of the deal.
Channeling Don Corleone, Immelt and Murdoch ostensibly asked: "How did things ever get so far? I don't know. It was so unfortunate, so unnecessary." The blood feud was getting out of control.
KO targeted BO for the kill from what seems the get-go. BO reciprocated in kind. Their history was ofttimes unseemly and over the top. KO had chided and needled BO mercilessly about allegations of workplace sexual harassment that were settled out of court. KO was relentless in referring to the ostensible confusion that one would enjoy when confusing a falafel with a loofah. (Ahem.) In addition, KO often sponsored BO for lifetime membership in the "Worst Person in the World" club, a regular feature on KO's "Countdown."
BO then called nightly for KO's exile to television Elba, even drafting a petition demanding such. Now, as they say on Fox News, "get this": BO had a change of heart and thought that Phil Donahue should be returned to MSNBC's airwaves in his old time slot, currently held by none other than KO. As you recall, PD was eighty-sixed in 2003 from his own MSNBC show fewer than eight months after being hired. His ratings were nowhere near BO's but they were reported to be MSNBC's highest at the time. It was reported that Donahue's anti-war philosophy would be a hard sell over the din of sabers being rattled at the time. Now, ask yourself: Just how torn up do you think BO was when his direct competition was axed over his pusillanimous and impuissant reluctance to engage in the "war on terror"? Puh-leeze. But at the height of the BO/KO TV donnybrook, BO had a change of heart. Here's a passage from BO's entreaty to bring back Phil.
"We, the undersigned, are becoming increasingly concerned about the well-being of MSNBC ... Therefore, in an effort to rescue MSNBC from the ratings basement and to restore the honor and dignity of Mr. Donahue, who was ignobly removed as host three years ago, we ask that you immediately bring Phil Donahue's show back at 8:00 PM EST before any more damage is done."
-- Text from an O'Reilly-authored petition to remove Olbermann from MSNBC, Feb. 22, 2006
BO was relentless in his fusillade against KO and continued to retaliate with unmitigated and impassioned vigor. Stelter noted in his piece that BO exhibited what may be the pièce de résistance in the gotcha game.
In late 2007, Mr. O'Reilly had a young producer, Jesse Watters, ambush Mr. Immelt and ask about G.E.'s business in Iran, which is legal, and which includes sales of energy and medical technology. G.E. says it no longer does business in Iran.
Mr. O'Reilly continued to pour pressure on its corporate leaders, even saying on one program last year that "If my child were killed in Iraq, I would blame the likes of Jeffrey Immelt." The resulting e-mail to G.E. from Mr. O'Reilly's viewers was scathing.
Stelter further notes that despite what appeared to be Appamattox, BO and KO weren't exactly through with their on-air jousting. Not just yet.
But like any title fight, the final round could not end without an attempted knockout. On June 1, the day after the abortion provider George Tiller was killed in Kansas, Mr. Olbermann took to the air to cite Mr. O'Reilly's numerous references to "Tiller, the baby killer" and to announce that he would retire his caricature of Mr. O'Reilly.
"The goal here is to get this blindly irresponsible man and his ilk off the air," he said.
The next day, Mr. O'Reilly made the extraordinary claim that "federal authorities have developed information about General Electric doing business with Iran, deadly business" and published Mr. Immelt's e-mail address and mailing address, repeating it slowly for emphasis.
Then the attacks mostly stopped.
Those two whacky kids were just having too much fun. Corporate détente and eventual rapprochement be damned. One more poke in the eye apparently did the trick. We'll see. As a viewer and respected media critic (ahem again), I pray the blood is never stanched.
Why this is fascinating.
We've all heard of backstage rivalries and professional enmity. Beefs and vendettas. How many times have you heard of Sinatra blackballing someone? (Ask Jimmy Roselli.) Remember the feud between Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis? Of course. (Ironically enough, they were brought together for an attempted reconciliation by Sinatra himself.) But that was backstage. Off the air. The KO/BO dust up is front and center. Page One. It's a shoot.
Please note, that for purposes of this disquisition, I must clarify that I am referencing the TV characters of KO and BO vis-à-vis their show personalities. I don't know either of them personally. I've been on BO's show twice, the first time just after he announced the name of his new endeavor as "The Factor." I quipped that it sounded like a blood disorder and he looked at me bemused and not the slightest bit amused. He treated me fairly and was courteous.
So what I write is about the character of KO and BO. I never thought Bob Crane was really Col. Hogan. (Though I had my doubts about John Banner and Sgt. Schultz.) I hope that neither KO nor NO are in any wise similar to whom they portray on the tube. For their families' sake. They are popular because of their personalities, teeming with brio and cocksureness. To assume the position of TV persona they can't be shy, timorous or irresolute. And say what you want about these two men, being shy, timorous or irresolute are descriptives never attributed to them. They are at the height of their game for a reason. God. (I kid.)
The work versus the shoot.
Professional wrestling of the '60s and '70s taught me lessons about show biz and life in general like nothing else. Pro wrestling was the Greek drama, the morality play; it was the quintessential display of the battle of good versus evil. It pitted the baby face against the heel. The good guy versus the bad guy. No one who ever watched a match scratched their head and wondered who was the dastard and who was the darling. I devoted a chapter to my love of this art form in my book. (Shameless plug admitted.)
And to create that drama, one had to appreciate and sell the illusion that what appeared in the ring was real. That's right. Real. A better definition would be "as real as one could get without breaking the law by having opponents kill each other, but maintaining a realism that made the wrestling attendees wonder if they were in fact actually watching two men beat each other within an inch of their lives." And like all good drama, there was a script and a story line. The entire event, i.e. the choreographed match, the plot, the "finish," was all a "work." Phony? Yes, I suppose. Just like Shakespeare and West Side Story were phony. But unlike Summer Stock, these two guys in the ring actually bleed. Their own blood, no less.
Now, when two combatants became ticked off or wanted to teach the other a lesson, actual fighting would on many occasion seep into the match. Into the work. When the wrestling became real, when the punches weren't pulled, when business was meant, it was a "shoot." The real thing. The pugilistic real McCoy. KO versus BO is a shoot.
Heel versus heel.
KO and BO are both heels. Baby faces to their own fans, heels to the others'. The two characters are fascinating. Again, nothing personal intended here, but let me describe these two combatants' "ring" personas as if they were wrestling participants.
KO and BO are two similar cats in many respects. Their characters are almost infantile in their treatment of each other. These two babies actually hate each other. These monumentally insecure men detest each other to the extent that they care not that it affects the quality of their shows or contributes to the uneasiness of their audience. These are two guys from not-so-serious pasts who now want very much to be respected and considered as media vanguards, two societal forces that can control destiny and history with their words alone.
In one corner there's KO: Olbermann, the snarky Eddie Haskell who thinks he's smarter and pithier than everybody and anybody in the room, especially his Fox counterpart, the oafish Ted Baxter.
In the dark trunks, it's BO: O'Reilly, the boorish tough guy, the narrow-back Irish bowling alley lout, the ham-fisted, bar stool diplomat, the "humble" Tom Joad, looking out for us, exposing injustice and liberal elitism.
Both of these guys have Goliath complexes: large men who are braggadocius and to be respected. KO trying to rid himself of the image of an erstwhile sports guy and BO, the journalist manqué, trying to rid himself of KO.
Let me reiterate, this describes the TV characters portrayed. But, folks, this is a shoot. This verbal fisticuffs and televised truculence are vitriol vérité. And it's brilliant.
KO versus BO.
The character KO is a very smart, well-educated and most articulate presenter and analyst. His persona channels Murrow as evinced by his unabashedly-purloined valedictory, "Good night and good luck." The KO character has an encyclopedic baseball memory bank and provided some of the most cogent and highbrow sports commentary ever while at ESPN. Bar none. But that wasn't his strong suit. Or to be more correct, that wasn't his ultimate ambition. He wanted to flex his cerebrum over more heady and intellectually satisfying issues. And, more importantly, he wanted to weigh in and provide a lucid and eloquent counter to the mindless prattle of BO and his legions of nitwits. Without saying he was a liberal, or announcing any particular political predisposition, KO wanted his title shot as the anti-BO. KO would rail against Bush 43 in special commentaries where he would seethe and froth rabidly, at one time ordering through clenched teeth a most furious order that the commander-in-chief "shut the hell up." 'Twas great TV. And KO's fans ate it up. Ben Affleck's spot-on SNL bit as KO says it all. Res ipsa loquitur. By the by, please refer to the must talent Michael Terry's rendition of KO venting his spleen anent an errant Subway Sandwich "sandwicheer."
There had been nothing at MSNBC so over-the-top while at the same time so articulate, intelligent, and thoroughly entertaining. He was the anti-BO and MSNBC was now the flagship anti-Fox.
As for BO. Think Sgt. Slaughter (all you '80s rasslin' fans) but not as well-spoken. All-American, rock-ribbed, the product of a hardscrabble youth from Long Island. No-nonsense. A man of humble beginnings who loved his country. He takes no prisoners and no guff from elitist, secular whatevers who hate this country and the American God. A plain-speaking "guy." And that word "guy" would thoroughly permeate not only every newscast on the Fox News Channel, but all of BO's words, scripts and messages. He was a guy's guy. Even in his "Talking Points Memo," Bill the guy would always frame the issues as just a, well, guy. Incidentally, this "Talking Points Memo" feature almost took on the form of an actual person or entity. BO would say that was this certain memo thought and felt and believed. "Talking Points Memo" had a belief. Odd, indeed. I suggested that KO should retort that "yellow legal pad" believes that "cocktail napkin with cacographic scrawl" was in fact correct. The battle of stationery. Back to BO.
BO's a big, tough sumbitch. His character is loutish and quite feisty, if not rudely and unnecessarily combative. But only when his opponent is located miles and studios away. You saw BO scream furiously at Rep. Barney Frank, who was teleported elsewhere. He did however wax ballistic when encountering and "interviewing" in-studio one Jeremy Glick, a young man whose father was killed on 9/11. BO went postal when the young Glick blamed Bush or the administration for prosecuting an unnecessary war. Imagine that? Glick had his mic turned off at the insistence of a most-crazed BO. (N.B. Glick was and is considerably smaller [as are most, in fact] than the Brobdingnagian BO.) It was great TV. BO sold it to his fans; KO's folks saw BO as the consummate, Bush-loving heel. But it was a shoot.
And therein lies the beauty of this "war." I happen to like rough-and-tumble commentary very much. It's not news, it's not journalism, it's not Cronkite. And there's nothing wrong with that. For all too long TV commentary has been faux conservative, cookie-cutter, playbook, bumper sticker, echo chamber, RNC stenographic "caca de toro." BO was on top of the world. The only person even near him was Hannity & Colmes moiety, Sean. And, incidentally, compared now to the increasingly unhinged Glenn Beck, who's pulling up the rear (as to ratings, that is), Sean should have quite the worried look. But KO barged through the door, threw down the gauntlet and pimp-slapped BO. The fight was on.
The buggy whip, spittoon, antimacassar and Walter Cronkite.
What do these items have in common? They're all obsolete. They represent a time that is no more. They provided a service and a utility that has since been replaced or made unnecessary. There will be no more Cronkites because we've not the journalistic taste bud to even detect and appreciate a Cronkite presence nor do we even care what true and pure journalism denotes. It's now professional wrestling, folks. It's a work, but a shoot in re KO versus BO.
Exhibit A. On the August 2nd edition of This Week with George Stephanopoulos, for the weekly Rountable segment, George invited Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Bloomberg's Al Hunt and the Wall Street Journal's Jerry Seib along with author and columnist Michelle Malkin. Michelle Malkin!
This is not a slam Michelle piece. Read for yourself what she's said in the past and judge her accordingly. The point is that she's been a very effective conservative firebrand. She's not the staid, deliberative journalist. She's an Ann Coulter wannabe and very successful. Think Laura Ingraham without the humility. But on This Week, George Will and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman have been panelists for Chrissakes. Serious news and journalistic heavyweights. Columnists, yes, but very high-end. What her inclusion shows is that producers, executives and maybe George himself want to revamp and ramp up the tenor of the show by having her on. She may have the concomitant desire to tone her image down and lard on some gravitas. In any event, her appearance heralds the dawn of nouveau news, infotainment as it's been coined. Prediction: Joe the Plumber will be invited next followed by Joy Behar and Carrot Top. Don't laugh, can you say Senator Al Franken?
Sorry. There is no solution. At least not one that will satisfy me. If you defang the O Boys and demand that they stick to the news and never reference each other, what's the point? For me, that is. Maybe I'm a sadist. Maybe it's schadenfreude. I just like a great work but love a shoot. There's something so exciting about watching something that is normally choreographed and predictable disintegrate. Think "Animal Acts Gone Bad" or anything on truTV. This is the YouTube generation. This is the epoch of reality shows and celebrity meltdowns. So what if that includes the "news." And let's be honest, we've been so saturated with data for so long that we've habituated to the idea that there's nothing "new" about news. Not to mention, as I've stated, we've lost any and all sentience for being able to differentiate between news and commentary, and frankly we don't give a flip about it in the first place.
BO versus KO will forever be remembered as one of televisions greatest hate affairs. And that's not exactly a novelty. History is replete with example after example of healthy, though acrimonious, er "competition." Who can forget the absolute abject loathing and hatred between Gore Vidal and Bill Buckley? It was wonderful. Lady Astor and Winston Churchill and their brilliant ripostes are the stuff of legends. And apocrypha, perhaps.
But, I know, I know. These two guys, if given the slightest bit of leeway and discretion, will kill each other. KO's references to Andrea Mackris are de minimis when compared to what is and will hurled when BO is PO'd. You can titter all you want about phone sex and cell phone pillow talk and that certainly is embrarrassing, but that's nothing when you consider that BO will insinuate that KO's corporate boss is in bed with Iran, a terrorist state.
Cue Taps. No, I see the writing on the wall. When these two leviathans return from vacationing, nothing will be said. No references will be made, tacit or explicit. And it will eat away at KO. He's always preferred attacking directly and broadside. He'll be tempted to refer to BO subtly, vaguely and cleverly. For the first week, KO won't be able to say "Hello" without the audience detecting a wink or inflection as code for questioning BO's parentage. If I know KO as I think I do, he's in a Morse Code immersion program as we speak, learning how to blink invectives. BO will think he won. The swagger will be more pronounced, the smirk will drip from his lips. He's always been fine saying nothing save for a numskulled petition calling for the TV expuragtion of his nemesis.
Whom am I kidding? It's over. But it was one of the greatest shoots ever. There won't be another of this magnitude for a very long time.
And that's the way it was.