Bill O'Reilly: Voice of fear and ignorance

Friday, December 28
The recent dustup between blowhard broadcaster Bill O'Reilly and the Great Barrington Select Board over holiday lights is a wake-up call for many here in the Berkshires who are insulated from the hard-right political venom spewed daily over the nation's commercial radio airwaves as well as via cable or satellite on the Fox News Channel.

O'Reilly and his ilk, including Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and Glenn Beck, reach an estimated 30 million-plus Americans every day as they spew out a venomous blend of overheated pro-war, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-"socialized medicine," anti-women's rights rhetoric that helps poison the nation's political and social discourse.

Unfortunately, they far outnumber, in reach and influence, the liberal Keith Olbermann on MSNBC and the temporarily-sidelined equal-opportunity political satirist Jon Stewart and his fellow Comedy Channel protégé Stephen Colbert (whose faux-right wing spoof of O'Reilly & Co. is so spot-on that some viewers don't see through it). They've been sorely missed, even though the Writers Guild of America strike they've honored by remaining off the air is a just cause. They'll be back, most likely without their writing staffs, on Jan. 7.

  • Ultra-right demagoguery has a long, dishonorable history in American broadcasting, dating back to the radio days of the late 1930s, when Father Charles Coughlin's anti-Semitic, pro-Fascist ravings found an all-too-ready audience of sympathizers. Famously, he blamed the Great Depression on an "international conspiracy of Jewish bankers," the same group he claimed was responsible for the Russian Revolution.

    Carried by hundreds of stations via CBS Radio (!) and, by some estimates, reaching as many as one-third of Americans, Coughlin's sympathetic expressions of support for Hitler and Mussolini finally were forced off the air in 1939 after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, a precursor to U.S. involvement in World War II. But other, less extreme right-wing broadcasters like Boake Carter and Fulton Lewis, Jr. continued to attract huge audiences.

    University of Indiana media researchers released a study of O'Reilly's commentaries earlier this year, finding that he consistently vilifies certain groups and presents others as victims as part of his skewed world view. The analysis found that the broadcaster used derogatory names every 6.8 seconds, on average, during the "Talking Points Memo" segment of his infamous, ironically titled "No Spin Zone."

    "If one digs further into O'Reilly's rhetoric, it becomes clear that he sets up a pretty simplistic battle between good and evil," said Maria Elizabeth Grabe, an associate professor of telecommunications on the Bloomington campus. "Our analysis points to very specific groups and people presented as good and evil." The researcher found that O'Reilly employs propaganda techniques eerily reminiscent of those 1930s radio hatemongers.

    Utilizing propaganda tools familiar to students of World War II, the researchers identified O'Reilly's major patterns, all part of his effort to inject fear into the body politic. These include name-calling, "glittering generalities," card-stacking, the bandwagon effect (catering to the widespread desire to follow the crowd), and a pseudo-populist "plain folks" appeal to listeners in an effort to convince them that his ideas are "of the people." The Indiana University study team compared O'Reilly's approach to Father Coughlin's, even reaching the conclusion that the Fox newshound is a "heavier, less-nuanced user of propaganda devices" than Coughlin was.

    Key findings pinpoint the use of fear in 52 percent of O'Reilly's commentaries — for example, he moaned that the U.S. was "slowly losing freedom and core values" at the time when "left-wing" media were "unfairly" criticizing the now-disgraced former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for his role in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

    In the World According to O'Reilly. "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," the study concluded. "Our results show a consistent pattern of O'Reilly casting non-Americans in a negative light. Both illegal aliens and foreigners were constructed as physical threats to the public."

    Victimized by this vast left-wing conspiracy are most Americans, the U. S. military and the Bush administration, he argues as he casts himself as the chief protector of our fundamental freedoms. He's fond of inviting those he portrays as liberal East Coast elitists and "secular progressives" on his show so he can bully them into submission.

  • O'Reilly has every First Amendment right to air his views as he has evolved into the advocate-in-chief for neo-cons and disaffected fundamentalists. It's his style and his extremist techniques that are so offensive.

    We knew O'Reilly slightly during our CBS News days in the early 1980s, when he was a promising investigative reporter and news correspondent who left the network in a huff when colleague Bob Schieffer used some film footage shot by network crews originally assigned to O'Reilly. Bloated egomania already was becoming evident.

    With 10 months of the presidential campaign still ahead, O'Reilly will find plenty of fodder to support his hate-based cottage industry. The $10 million a year man is a self-described frequent visitor to the Berkshires; in the unlikely event that you encounter him on the streets of Great Barrington, be sure to give him a warm greeting.

    Clarence Fanto is a regular Eagle contributor.


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