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Toward the end of The O'Reilly Factor, his popular weeknightly cable-news program, Fox News squawker Bill O'Reilly presents "The Most Ridiculous Item of the Day," an entertainingly combative segment that often focuses upon media members who've said unkind things about him. The press is to O'Reilly what the United States is to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- an adversary so powerful that merely taking it on enhances his reputation. As such, O'Reilly delights in setting up straw journalists and figuratively incinerating them with a few well-chosen insults and a rueful shake of his head.
O'Reilly doesn't discriminate in terms of geography: He's attacked opinion-givers nationwide. However, he seems to particularly enjoy savaging scribes from Denver, where he worked circa the 1970s at Channel 7. In 2005, he assailed the Denver Post's Cindy Rodriguez (who's blessedly decamped for Detroit) after she penned a gratuitous assault on him; she managed to milk two more columns from the first after he obliged her with an on-air pummeling. And last November, he referred to venerable Rocky Mountain News TV-and-radio writer Dusty Saunders as a "creep" for comments he made in regard to the canceled O.J. Simpson tome If I Did It.
Still, these dustups were minor in comparison to O'Reilly's treatment of Post media expert Joanne Ostrow. On April 7, she wrote an online piece chiding O'Reilly for spewing "racist bile" in an epic blowup with fellow Fox personality Geraldo Rivera. (O'Reilly and Rivera had harangued each other over a March 30 Virginia Beach crash in which two young women were reportedly killed by Alfredo Ramos, a drunk driver with a previous record and no green card. The former viewed the tragedy as an indictment of U.S. immigration policy; the latter argued against using the deaths to make a "cheap political point.") Two days later, O'Reilly put Ostrow in the "Ridiculous" spotlight, branding her "flat-out dishonest, and a far-left ideologue." In the meantime, O'Reilly producer Porter Berry phoned to ask if Ostrow would debate her statements on the Factor; she declined, saying her prose spoke for itself. Then, on April 10, Berry, a cameraman and a sound technician ambushed Ostrow in the parking lot of a Wild Oats market. (Berry flew in for the task.) On April 11, O'Reilly aired this forced conversation on his nationally syndicated radio staple and the television Factor.
Although KOA's Mike Rosen and KHOW's Peter Boyles scoffed at the notion that Ostrow had been stalked, her experiences imply otherwise. Since she went directly from her home to Wild Oats, Ostrow believes Berry staked out her residence and tailed her to the business. "The saving grace was that I wasn't picking up my daughter," she allows.
What does Berry say to Ostrow's assertions? Zip -- and his silence comes with a serving of irony. When reached on April 16, he claimed he couldn't speak without permission from Fox News's media-relations branch. "I'll do anything they tell me," he maintained. Requests to interview both Berry and O'Reilly were then submitted to a Fox spokeswoman, who phoned back to say, "We're going to take a pass." Was it hypocritical for the two men to criticize Ostrow for not standing up for her actions when they rebuffed inquiries about theirs? The spokeswoman didn't retort on the record -- but she did request that her name not be printed. (No problem, ma'am. Happy to preserve your deniability.)
The next day, Berry agreed to personally ask the spokeswoman for permission to speak. He apparently got nowhere, and an e-mail to O'Reilly went unanswered.
Not all e-mails to Ostrow received replies, either. She received about 200 cyber-missives following her O'Reilly appearances (along with a hundred voicemails and several handwritten scrawls), and while she responded to the 10 percent or so that were civil, she deleted the remainder, which were, she says, "disproportionately mean-spirited . . .vicious, vulgar, rude and crude." Their arrival during the same week that newscasts were filled with reports about disgraced talk-show veteran Don Imus makes her wonder if there's "a larger story here -- something about the public discourse being in the gutter."
Pundits nationwide have raised the same issue vis-à-vis Imus, who was fired after calling women basketballers from Rutgers "nappy-headed hos." Because Imus is a big star in New York, where most networks are based, and often had journalists and newsmakers on his show, his slow-motion flame-out got an incredible amount of play. For instance, the April 13 edition of the Katie Couric-hosted CBS Evening News led with a whopping seven minutes on Imus -- and only afterward did correspondents get around to discussing that day's suicide bombing in the Iraqi parliament building. Nevertheless, radio listeners in many parts of the country (including Denver, where he hasn't been heard for years) don't have enough personal investment in Imus for his downfall to effect widespread cultural change. The lesson learned is the same one established by Seinfeld alum Michael Richards's epithet tirade last November: There are some things African-Americans can say that most Caucasians can't.
O'Reilly suffered no such slips in his infamous face-off with Rivera, and he tried to limit the scope of his statements after the fact. "Our reporting was exclusively about criminal illegal aliens," he stressed on April 9. Yet O'Reilly's repeated use of Ramos's booking photo tended to overwhelm such nuances. This frightening image made every person without papers seem like a potential killer, just as the mug shot of Willie Horton in an infamous 1988 George H.W. Bush campaign commercial hinted that each convict furloughed by Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis might be a violent rapist. The message sent was, close the borders or aliens may murder your children.