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Olbermann vs. O'Reilly: Mutually Assured Prosperity



I wasn't going to write about this. Believe me.

But the feud between MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann and Fox News Channel gasbag Bill O'Reilly has heated up in recent weeks, with O'Reilly threatening to sic Fox Security on any callers who mention Olbermann's name and the Countdown host retaliating by naming his lanky nemesis ""worst person in the world" just about every week.

Seemingly begun as an ideological struggle, this feud is now clearly personal. And since O'Reilly has named me during his "most ridiculous" segment -- putting both the St. Petersburg Times and MSNBC on his hit list of news outlets to be boycotted by his sizable audience -- and I occcasionally trade emails with Olbermann, I felt a bit too conflicted to wade into it all. Now O'Reilly has named us 5th on his list of newspapers which protect child predators because we dared to criticize his criticism of prosecutors work in the Jessica Lundsford case -- this guy sure does like lists, don't he? (check out TV crit Chase Squires' artful dressing of O'Reilly as a clown on his blog!)

Then a pal called from the Los Angeles Daily News seeking some quotes for a story, offering the conventional wisdom that O'Reilly is screwing up by picking on a guy with a fraction of his ratings. And I stepped up with one, hardly original observation: this feud is a boon for both guys -- besides allowing them to vent their feelnigs about the other, it's just good business.

Olbermann has admitted as much, telling Brian Lamb from C-SPAN: "When I attack Bill O’Reilly or criticize him for something that he said on the air...if I punch upwards at FOX News, the clever response, the cynical and brilliant response is to just ignore. Like, well, 'why do we have to worry, they have one-seventh of our audience?' (But) they attack. Bill O’Reilly’s agent calls the head of NBC week after week saying, you have got to get Olbermann to stop this, as if for some reason there are rules here."

Indeed, as David to O'Reilly's Goliath, Olbermann has nothing to lose by attacking the larger guy. And because O'Reilly's show works on a different level than other broadcasts -- conflict is the high-octane fuel which powers his success -- this public fight with Olbermann works for him, too.

Being a bully, O'Reilly often picks unfair fights, cutting off callers to his radio show, interrupting guests or threatening to turn off their microphones and siccing his fans on smaller media outlets. In his universe, he is the populist truth-teller ""lookin' out for you" against all comers, even a guy on a mickey mouse cable network which earns a fraction of his ratings.

As testament to the effectiveness of this "no-spin" spin, consider this: I wrote a Q&A with CBS anchor Bob Schieffer in which I introduced Olbermann as a "smart-guy anchor," and quoted him saying something nice about Schieffer. I got about five emails from people incensed that I dared compliment such a flaming liberal.


Because each guy is speaking to his own crowd, this feud works for both. People who hate O'Reilly have a new champion in the snarky, often-amusing Olbermann. People who love O'Reilly but are tired of hating Al Franken, now have a new object of scorn. And Fox News has more evidence of the liberal media conspiracy which has managed to hand conservative Republicans control of the White House, both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court. Hmmmm.

It's like a New York Media-based version of the 50 Cent/Game feud. Except in this fight, the battle is fought with biting scripts and clever video clips. Somehow, I respect the hip hop way of settling scores a little better.

Nicolas Lemann makes these points and many more in a riveting, incisive meditation on O'Reilly for the New Yorker. Here's a sample: "Network news is—even now—about authority, and cable news, increasingly, is about itself...(Fox News' slogan) 'Fair & Balanced' had always been a code whose meaning—here’s news that gives you the world as you already see it—was perfectly understood by the Fox audience...Mainly, O’Reilly, like every political talk-show host with a big following, is a populist, who, in his beyond-irony way, is a rich, middle-aged white guy aligned with the ruling party, and who has the guts to stand up to the élitists who run (but also hate) this country. To say that that doesn’t make any sense is to deny oneself the pleasure that a close study of O’Reilly affords."

Pure poetry. And Lemann also explains why we find such behavior so fascinating to watch, despite its contradictions. Never underestimate the power of telling people what they want to hear -- or of a good, ol' fashioned, public spat.

Statewide Black Newspaper Makes Strong Debut -- If You Can find It

The Cherry brothers, Glenn and Charles, have brought their statewide black newspaper to the marketplace -- but finding it may be a challenge.

The Florida Courier debuted March 3 with a strong visual design and lots of copy from the Associated Press and other news services. Among the original pieces: a story on the destructive side of bootlegging, a look at the PBS series "Negroes With Guns" and a travel page story on Glenn and Charles' trip on radio DJ Tom Joyner's week-long Fantastic Voyage Caribbean cruise (I smell a tax write off here).

Developed with help from a graphic designer who works for the Times (he was working as a freelance consultant), the Courier offers a strong visual design and interesting collection of stories. But it is hard to tell sometimes which communiy is represented in each story, and taken together, the pieces don't offer much community connection.

It can also be challenge to find the Courier, which seems to still be working out distribution channels. Books for Thought in Tampa had some copies of the first issue, and now some copies have appeared at the Enoch Davis Community Center in St. Petersburg.

The Cherrys, who also own own two black newspapers on the state's east side, WTMP-FM in Tampa and a host of other radio stations, have struggled to produce issues -- the debut was pushed back many times and te second Courier edition is dated two weeks after the first one. It will be interesting to see if they can develop an appetite for a newspaper which reads more like a general-interest black-focused magazine than a newspaper with in-depth community information.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:36pm]


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