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O'Reilly is more like Colbert than you think

Bill O’Reilly is a liberal-hating commentator for Fox News. Stephen Colbert is a comedian whose TV persona parodies O’Reilly. But are they really so different?
Stephen Colbert speaks onstage at Robert F. Kennedy Center For Justice, Dec. 11, 2013.
Stephen Colbert speaks onstage at Robert F. Kennedy Center For Justice, Dec. 11, 2013.

Stephen Colbert and Bill O’Reilly are feuding again, this time over inequality.

O’Reilly is the liberal-hating commentator for Fox News. Stephen Colbert, newly chosen to succeed David Letterman as host of CBS’s “Late Night,” is (for now) a comedian whose TV persona on Comedy Central parodies O’Reilly. But are they really so different? Colbert is an actor. O’Reilly, though sincerely conservative, is a bit of one, too.

Consider the O’Reilly method. On April 7, O’Reilly laid into a “grievance industry” that “says that America is not a fair nation, that the deck is stacked against minorities, women, the poor, gays, atheists, Muslims -- you name it.” Because this was Fox News, O’Reilly did not elaborate whether these grievances had any legitimacy; he merely observed, neutrally, that their ultimate source was the anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s (while failing to mention the civil rights protests that preceded these), which brought about “profound [but unspecified] change.” Less neutrally, O’Reilly said the sixties bequeathed a “culture based on anti-authority” that embraced “political strife … sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.” The implication was that any political protest emanating from the left was just another form of self-indulgent hedonism.

Such griping is so familiar that we tend not to notice anymore that it is not, strictly speaking, an argument. It’s a pose. Grievances constitute an “industry.” The Vietnam War is invoked rather than segregation because it’s socially acceptable to scorn anti-Vietnam protesters but not to scorn civil rights protesters. O’Reilly didn’t point out that he himself opposed the war and took a college draft deferment. O’Reilly’s reverence for Martin Luther King -- which he uses as a club to beat up current civil rights leaders -- suggests he also supports wholeheartedly all civil rights laws passed during the 1960s. But that went unmentioned, too, presumably because it would have interfered with his purpose, which was to express contempt for social upheaval. He achieved that by, in effect, playing a role – a cartoon conservative, spouting indignation. Only at the end did O’Reilly concede, in passing, that inequality was a problem that needed to be addressed through “intelligent discussion and smart policy changes” that he didn’t specify.

The next night, April 8, O’Reilly went after Colbert.

Colbert had played clips from an earlier O’Reilly tirade against equality, then mocked O’Reilly for saying “The truth is there will never be equality in this world” because different people have different (i.e. unequal) abilities. O’Reilly, Colbert agreed, will “never be as emotionally mature as a toddler or understand how ties work as well as a middle schooler.” Pretty funny and a little bit mean. Colbert also had fun with O’Reilly’s claim that hooliganism by fans at college sporting events is a manifestation of the anti-authority ethic bequeathed by the 1960s. In fact, college students were misbehaving well before that. A new biography of John Updike, for instance, relates (according to a New York Times review) that when he was at Harvard the budding littérateur performed “elaborate pranks that required great mounds of elephant dung and the destruction of cars.” That was back in the conformist 1950s, a full decade before Berkeley’s Mario Savio ushered in a decade of student protest.

Apparently Colbert’s insults stung. O’Reilly answered that “I strongly believe in fighting for equality and also believe institutional bias should be against the law. What I oppose is government trying to impose equality” because that is the road to serfdom (“take a look at China and the former Soviet Union”). Note how what begins as something resembling a coherent argument (for equality of opportunity rather than equality of result) quickly degenerates into right-wing hysteria about the Red Menace.

O’Reilly objects that the “grievance industry” wants to use government to “impose equality.” At the moment the main political vehicle for doing so is a proposed increase in the minimum wage. But back in January O’Reilly let slip that he favors an increase in the minimum wage -- and not the puny $9 hourly wage that Obama proposed last year, but $10 an hour, a mere ten cents shy of Obama’s current proposal. So where’s the substantive disagreement? But Fox News doesn’t pay O’Reilly to play the conciliator. It pays him to play Archie Bunker.

O’Reilly called Colbert an “ideological fanatic” whose “analysis is delivered under the guise of comedy” but “does do damage” because he is in league with “powerful people who are selling Americans a big lie that this country is bad.” But if that were even remotely true it’s doubtful CBS would give Colbert a network platform. In fact, Colbert is nobody’s idea of an ideological fanatic and shows no signs of hating his country. But O’Reilly is right that delivering analysis “under the guise of comedy” is kind of sneaky. Colbert can plead that he’s just an entertainer, but the press treats him like a serious political commentator. The O’Reilly-Colbert spat has gotten coverage in The Washington PostSalon, The Los Angeles Times, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets. I sometimes worry that young people who get their news exclusively from Colbert’s show (and Jon Stewart’s "The Daily Show") will never learn the difference between a political put-down and a political argument. If only for that reason, I’m pleased to hear Colbert will quit lampooning O’Reilly in his new assignment and play himself for a change.

But at least Colbert is honest about what he’s been up to. Perhaps the news organizations lavishing coverage on the O’Reilly-Colbert feud -- a club I now belong to myself -- would say that it’s O’Reilly they’re treating like a serious political commentator, not Colbert. Yet O’Reilly is no less an entertainer than Colbert, reaching not for laughs but for dramatic effect by expressing more scorn for liberals than his actual political beliefs would seem to warrant. Fox News caters to the opposite end of the age spectrum from Comedy Central -- the elderly -- so there’s not much point in worrying that it might create lifelong bad habits in the same way. But older people are more inclined than younger people to get set in their ways, and O’Reilly’s performance art panders to and reinforces these crotchets, which can’t be terribly healthy.

Deep down, O’Reilly is no more of an “ideological fanatic” than Colbert. He just plays one on TV. And at this point it’s likely easier for Colbert than it would be for O’Reilly to abandon the act and just play himself.