Tag Archives | TV

Factoring Bill O’Reilly

Combative, finger-waving cable television host Bill O’Reilly parted ways with Fox News Channel a few weeks after the New York Times published claims of sexual harassment and large sums for settlements. Is the downfall of America’s top cable TV host a negative or positive for free speech, the culture and the country? I think the answer depends on the facts, which we don’t know. That the relevant facts are not known is why I think O’Reilly’s downfall is ominous.

I’m not a fan of the show. I rarely watched The O’Reilly Factor, which ran for 21 years and was top-rated, commercially successful and highly influential. What I’ve written about O’Reilly since he went on Fox News following his work on the lurid Inside Edition is almost entirely negative. In my media commentary, I’ve opposed sensationalism and consistently named O’Reilly as one of the worst practitioners.

Bill O’Reilly on “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News

But it’s worth thinking about why he stayed at the top of TV ratings for so long. His show was topical, entertaining and consistent on its own terms. Watch The O’Reilly Factor for the full hour and you’d get a general idea of news and culture from a certain, often neglected, perspective. O’Reilly’s viewpoint is a mixture of pragmatism, traditionalism and Puritanism. Bursting with anger, humor or pathos and never taking a position on principle, O’Reilly goes by the “gut” with no coherent philosophy. He sees himself as an advocate for “the folks” next door, not for the Constitution, liberty or capitalism; he was never for individual rights. O’Reilly sees himself as a common man who’s “looking out for you“, presumably a fellow commoner, but he’s never been an advocate for an idea.

In fact, O’Reilly is contemptuous of seriously thinking about ideas.

Yet he accepted Roone Arledge’s idea to mix news and entertainment. Similarly, O’Reilly accepted professional political influencer Roger Ailes’ idea to build an entire cable TV brand on Arledge’s hybrid “infotainment” and narrowly cast it to the oldest Americans, whose pragmatism, traditionalism and Puritanism is threatened by what’s regarded as libertarianism, liberalism and secularism. O’Reilly put together a nightly, primetime program intended not to inform and enlighten, but, chiefly, to soothe, rationalize and reaffirm viewer beliefs. Curmudgeon O’Reilly sat on his lead for years with a clever, carefully produced sprinkling of light features and news coupled with emotional outbursts of opinion by overgroomed people who are always overruled by the host. The result is a kind of kabuki theater.

The O’Reilly Factor‘s worst histrionics were reserved for displays of its underlying ethos: cynicism. The closest the 21-year-old program comes to having a philosophical point is an airy, annual campaign against “secular progressives” waging “war on Christmas”, a tiny symptom of a much wider war on reason. So, O’Reilly became both a lightning rod for those too lazy to think—really think—about what’s wrong with the world and for those who are angry, and rightly so, over the assault on Americanism. Audiences could safely tune in without the necessity of having to think. This is most evident in his exchanges with guest Leonard Peikoff, whose appearances painfully demonstrate that O’Reilly—who treated his guests as antagonists—is hostile to philosophy. He rose to the top strictly on the fact that Americans do not take news—or ideas that make the news—seriously.

O’Reilly’s basic value proposition was time spent with a misanthrope sneering, shrugging or chuckling at any one or anything that shows passion for reason. Whether considering lives crippled by acts of war or economic despair, O’Reilly always pushed Americans to lighten up, stop thinking and just go along with his superficially jovial, insidiously toxic blend of anti-intellectualism. He typically started the show with a warning—”Caution!!!”—of its toxicity and ended with a condescending smirk. This was his appeal: viewers found his nightly Howard Beale-style rants and raves, ups and downs, irresistibly comforting. He was like a boozy uncle who rants for an hour, pats you on the head for letting him ramble and then spins around the bar stool before he tries to make his way to the door.

In this way, Bill O’Reilly represents the current and combustible mixture of everything wrong and right with America—its basic goodness and decency, unthinking stoicism and pragmatism and America’s fast-spreading cynicism. An O’Reilly Factor segment on the law oversimplifying complex cases and brushing up against crucial issues but never getting too deep would invariably be followed by vulgarity and cynicism; every seven seconds of outrage preceded three minutes of Gutfeld and McGuirk, forced laughter from Dennis Miller, a talented comedian reduced to calling the host “Billy”, or another asinine video segment dubbed “Watters World” produced to make viewers feel superior by mocking everything gone wrong with the world—the flipside of the way NPR strives to make listeners feel superior by tearing down everything right with the world. O’Reilly on The O’Reilly Factor was more like the circus ringmaster.

Megyn Kelly at Fox News

He often put on a good show, covering, if barely, essential news, often with a fresh perspective neglected or diminished by the “mainstream media”. He aired programs and segments that brought attention to important issues, such as mistreated war veterans, various injustices and thoughtful discourse. Though he rarely broke news—it was CNN’s Drew Griffin, for instance, who reported the VA’s abuse of veterans—his common man theme occasionally challenged the status quo. He took urban black crime and despair more seriously than many of his detractors. The careers of Juan Williams, Mary Katherine Ham, John Stossel, Marc Lamont Hill, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Tavis Smiley, Megyn Kelly and Kirsten Powers, who represent a range of views by skilled or capable columnists, scholars and intellectuals, were advanced by Bill O’Reilly.

Ironically, it was Powers, an anti-abortion Democrat and longtime Fox News pundit until recently when she went to CNN, whose attack on O’Reilly yesterday underscores the downside of his being let go from Fox News. While she made a point on Anderson Cooper’s program to say that, in all her time working with O’Reilly, she never experienced sexual harassment from O’Reilly, she charged him with what she termed “sexual discrimination”. Her evidence? O’Reilly’s closing comment after a segment with Margaret Hoover thanking them for their “blondeness”. This came, Powers said, after he got Margaret’s name wrong and blamed it on there being so many blondes at Fox News. For this apparent transgression, Powers claimed, she went to a producer and, eventually, Roger Ailes, and demanded that O’Reilly apologize, which he allegedly refused to do, and so she boycotted The O’Reilly Factor for two years.

Powers added that she returned to The O’Reilly Factor (apparently, she initiated the return) without rancor, discord or O’Reilly’s having apologized and said they maintained a good relationship. If this is the most damning evidence of O’Reilly’s wrongdoing Kirsten Powers could muster, it’s not exactly convincing.

But it’s the fact of Kirsten Powers’ insinuation that’s disturbing about O’Reilly’s takedown by Fox News‘ parent company, 21st Century Fox. Not a single charge of sexual harassment against O’Reilly has been confirmed by the press. Not a single charge has been proven in court. Much less is known about the claims against O’Reilly than was alleged or known and, in some cases, proven and convicted or adjudicated in court, about similar or worse allegations against rich, powerful men favored by the orthodoxy that seeks to silence dissent, including Kobe Bryant, Marlon Brando, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby. That a major media voice is silenced without a single, proven assertion of wrongdoing—without Bill O’Reilly even being interviewed by internal investigators, according to Michael Wolff in the Hollywood Reporter—is alarming.

“O’Reilly’s ouster is yet another reminder that the profit motive can itself be an agent of change,” writes cultural commentator Megan Garber, arguing that firing O’Reilly serves the company’s long-term interest, in her O’Reilly piece in The Atlantic. Maybe so, and certainly advertising revenue was declining after the report was published and it’s 21st Century Fox’s right to run their business. They may have reason to think Bill O’Reilly, who built the brand for 21 years, may have done wrong. But if not, and they fired a journalist based on insinuation without regard to facts, it is an injustice that ought to concern everyone. Because if a top TV host can be smeared and brought down in America without evidence, without going to court, with not a single confirmed assertion of wrongdoing, so can you and me. Mass mobilization of public opinion to pressure a company to fire top talent, whether Bill O’Reilly or Brian Williams, has potential to silence the free press.

If you value freedom of speech, you should consider the possibility that Bill O’Reilly is an innocent man who has been unjustly maligned.

Richard Hatch

Richard Hatch has died of pancreatic cancer. The actor, who played Captain Apollo on ABC’s Battlestar Galactica, was 71 years old. We met twice; once in St. Charles, Illinois, where, as a boy, he taught me a lesson in benevolence. The second time was over 35 years later at a cafe in Studio City, California, where we talked about the science fiction series Battlestar Galactica, which was being discussed for a possible revival at Universal Studios (the interview is unpublished).

Richard Hatch

As a kid, I had been a fan of his work as a policeman on the ABC crime drama The Streets of San Francisco. Later, in the spring of 1977, when I found out Hatch was staying at the same resort where I was visiting with my family on spring break, I found him and asked for an autograph. Meeting an actor playing a dynamic young cop appealed to this suburban kid in the 1970s. I remember 1977 as strangely subdued yet also conflicted and turbulent. Nightly news was dominated by war, terrorism, domestic and foreign, hijackings, riots and constant dissent and debate over politics. So, I was drawn to cop shows. The Streets of San Francisco like KojakHawaii Five-O and Dragnet depicted the pursuit of justice as noble and important. They depicted a world in which peace was possible. Detectives proceeded to solve crime through investigation based on facts and going by reason. They were men of action. When Richard Hatch looked at me, listened and said Yes before signing his name, it affirmed more than my hero worship; his relaxed, amicable and accommodating manner showed me a certain kindness. I always remembered that he responded to my request with a quality more enduring than mere charm. He treated me as though asking for an autograph is the most natural thing in the world. I’ve had a number of formative encounters with VIPs—movie stars, sports champs, future presidents—that contributed to my ability to communicate with influencers. My childhood brush with Richard Hatch is one of the first.

I still have the autograph. When I interviewed him by phone in 2012, an extensive interview which covers the whole range of his career and is being quoted and cited in his obituaries, including the Hollywood Reporter‘s, I recounted the 1977 meeting and thanked him once again. He was still kind, if more seasoned and cautious, which I think is evident in the exchange. He was candid, too, and one of the things we discussed were his “abusive stepfathers” which added to my appreciation. When we met again—this time, as writer and actor, neither as a household name—he was indefatigable. And now I know that this is how I will remember him. To have been an actor, earned a livelihood and kept himself both whole and real, neither becoming beaten down nor neurotic and inflated, is an accomplishment. Richard Hatch, who remains known and beloved for single first, last and lone seasons of top programs as well as for touching countless lives including mine with his bright, positive attitude, was beautiful inside and out.


Read my interview with Richard Hatch (2012)

Rest In Peace, Mary Tyler Moore

Mary Tyler Moore

This is a memorial post about an actress and comedienne whose legacy should not be diminished, marginalized and misunderstood by the claim that what she accomplished helped others; in particular, women. This is the least of her achievements to me, anyway, and not only because I’m a man. Mary Tyler Moore was foremost an artist of impeccable ability, whose skills ranged from drama to dance in a variety of formats over decades.

This is a real achievement. Ms. Moore was not merely a type. She did not merely have “class”. She was not a feminist icon. She was singularly outstanding in the whole scope of her work, performing with everyone from playwright Neil Simon on stage and Robert Redford on 1980’s best movie, Ordinary People, to superstar Ben Vereen on TV and Elvis in his last motion picture. MTM played a cancer patient, a first lady, a housewife, a nun and a journalist. In a role I am sorry to have missed seeing her perform, she played the lead, a paraplegic who demands the right to die, on Broadway in Brian Clark’s thoughtful, moving Whose Life is it, Anyway? Like Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan and many great Americans of superior ability, Mary Tyler Moore, whatever her legendary success, tried, failed and flopped time and again. In so doing, she ran a company with her late ex-husband, Grant Tinker, and variously launched The Bob Newhart Show, David Letterman and Michael Keaton, among many other talented artists and wonderful shows.

MTM as Beth Jarrett in Ordinary People (1980)

If you’ve read this far, you probably already know her career in three main acts: playing perky, modern housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966 on CBS), playing modern, liberated producer Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977, also on CBS) and playing repressed, angry and obstinate wife and mother Beth Jarrett in Mr. Redford’s magnificent 1980 adaptation of Judith Guest’s novel about a fractured family on Chicago’s North Shore. That film is very personal for me, because it helped me sort through extreme confusion before I’d read Ayn Rand. As the villain, she was nurturing and nuanced, cleaning her home and fixing her broken family and simultaneously evading what tears it apart, exacerbating the fracture and worsening the sickness. It is an underappreciated film because its complex psychology is layered and multi-dimensional, so MTM’s Beth is neither a caricature nor is the ending distinctly happy or unhappy. Instead it ends on a cold, pink morning glimmer, which begins in earnest with the sound of a taxi door closing as her character makes a quiet exit that’s as liberating for the nuclear family as was her Mary Richards for the rational, productive woman.

MTM on cover of 1977 issue of TV Guide

This takes depth, courage and seriousness and Mary Tyler Moore pushed herself as an artist and made everything look easy, which she rarely gets credit for. Yes, her Mary at WJM was a serious-minded, goal-oriented career woman, not a catty social climber or golddigger, and she had friends of both sexes, all types and all ages. But Mary was also feminine, whether in smart slacks (not that any assistant producer at a third-rate station could have afforded those outfits) or evening gowns, and she tried new hairstyles, clothes and efforts to make herself attractive to men. Mary was private, not showy and ostentatious or self-centered. She was always interested, even if mildly, in what her friends and colleagues were doing, always from a distance and never sacrificing her own interests. And she really was interested in her friends and co-workers, not merely for the sake of ingratiating herself to them.

Mary put work first. As in her Dick Van Dyke role as her husband’s helpmate in those earlier five seasons, in her seven seasons as a professional broadcast news producer, Mary made an effort to make her productiveness matter; she strived to improve the broadcast. She made an effort to encourage colleagues. She wasn’t some insecure, neurotic freak constantly rambling on about what she did last night. She played tennis, dated younger and older men, kissed on the first date, struggled with ethics, stood on principle—Mary went to jail rather than reveal a source—examined her flaws, and took pride in her work. Certainly, she was attractive and relatable. But she was also willing to stand alone and be controversial; she never lived through others and Mary Richards was, in practice, neither a deranged hedonist like today’s TV characters nor a simpering altruist like many female characters of her time—Mary was an all-American egoist.

Personally, MTM’s life was full of tragedy, despair and passion. She’d been raised as a Catholic in Los Angeles, attending Immaculate Heart in Los Feliz, the daughter of an alcoholic who would be preceded in death by her siblings, one of whom she helped in assisted suicide when he became terminal, another whose death was ruled a suicide by drug overdose. MTM checked herself at one point into the Betty Ford Center for treatment of alcoholism. Her only son shot and killed himself with a sawed off shotgun in an act which was ruled an accident. Politically, MTM went from campaigning for a Democrat for president to watching Fox News and describing herself as a “libertarian centrist”. She believed animals have rights, supported embryonic stem cell and diabetes research and, though she once met with the pope, she married a doctor, who survives her.

I already own the whole MTM series on DVD (one of the few, besides The Twilight Zone and Frasier) and I’ve seen Ordinary People more times than I can count. In all the flops and misses, the best episodes, funniest lines and greatest roles and performances, from the newlywed in Danville or the sexy mom in Capri pants in New Rochelle to the corn-fed, Twin Cities single lady and dysfunction source in Lake Forest, Illinois, it turns out after all that Mary Tyler Moore could do it all—and, in reality, she did.

 

 

Remember Ron Glass

The cast of the gritty, Greenwich Village police comedy, Barney Miller (1975-1982), was anchored by Hal Linden in the lead. He played the 12th precinct’s rational police captain, who was practical, balanced and optimistic. The show’s uniquely dry, humorous pathos stemmed from shuttling between cynicism and idealism, almost always with a dash of the ridiculous. A multicultural cast avoided tokenism in the writing, which twists stereotypes every which way with cop and criminal characters that are old, Puerto Rican, black, female, Polish, gay, etc. The most intellectual character was a police detective who’s a writer named Harris.

220px-barney_miller_cast_1974

Ron Glass (seated, far left) as Det. Harris on ‘Barney Miller’

Detective Harris was played by Ron Glass, who died last week. Glass played Harris with perfection for all eight seasons. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the show, which isn’t easy to find in syndication, and longer since I watched with my dad as a kid while it aired on ABC. I remember Detective Harris as clever and discriminating in spending his wit and intelligence on his work in the precinct; Harris did his job and did it well and was often called upon for his writing skills. What was distinctive, besides his being black in an era in which most black TV characters were poor, uneducated or criminal, is that Harris was both intellectual and debonair; he was handsome and was always the best dressed without being a dandy.

Det. Harris was also the only one with a steady, long-term career goal outside of law enforcement. He was usually relaxed, driven and disciplined. Harris always held himself a bit removed from his co-workers. He was proud, even a bit arrogant, yet affable and he never sought to be just one of the guys. Harris had higher aims. As I recall, the sophisticated detective was also the least prone to suffering, guilt and self-pity. Harris was an egoistic, happy policeman.

I can’t think of too many writer characters in Seventies television, let alone writers portrayed as positive and efficacious, as against fundamentally flawed and neurotic, and in mostly male work environments. I noticed this as a boy and, because I knew I wanted to be a writer, I found myself looking to Harris as a character every week, watching how he held and handled himself, checked himself, disciplined himself, withdrew or spoke up and worked within the precinct as a means to an end. That Harris, who eventually wrote and published a book, happened to be black was less integral to his identity than that he wanted to write. I noticed this, too. I think that’s thanks to Ron Glass, who took biting lines and deadpan looks, gave the character depth—not merely sass—and created an indelible cop-writer.

Last week, a decrepit dictator died who should be remembered for mass enslavement, misery and death and, as a warning, for glorifying thuggishness in TV, media and culture. TV also lost an amicable and talented entertainer, Florence Henderson, who played a cheerful housewife and mother for five seasons on another ABC comedy. Seeing the glorified thug on TV taught me early in life that something was terribly wrong with the world. Watching an idealized parent on TV gave me some guidance in the form of an often artificial and silly situation. I gained the most value from watching an actor playing an intellectual policeman who chooses to become a writer. For eight seasons on Barney Miller, Ron Glass made projecting a goal into the future seem possible and enjoyable. He did it with a sense of hard, grueling work as a rare and rewarding achievement. For this reason, I think it’s Ron Glass, the least likely of these three to be known, grieved and remembered, whose work will have—and ought to have—the greatest impact in the future.

Goodnight, Earl Hamner

The rich and gentle drawl of Earl Hamner is gone tonight. The old writer, who kept an office on Ventura Boulevard here in the San Fernando Valley near my home—down the hill from where he lived with his wife, Jane, who survives him, and a property full of pets—died today at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Hamner, who was 92 years old, is also survived by his children, Scott and Caroline.

earl1I met and interviewed Earl Hamner over 10 years ago in that office. He was one of my favorite people to interview because he was natural and unscripted, yet sharp and insightful. Everything came to him and talking about his past works invigorated him—he clearly enjoyed thinking about his work—and he wasn’t fussy and neurotic about this or that issue, problem or question, which is rare and refreshing. Earl Hamner was curious, bright and exuberant about his past, present and future. I think this comes across in the interview (read it here) which is one of my best. In this case, I am proud to say that I know Earl Hamner thought so, too, because he told me so and wrote it on his Web site.

We stayed in touch and met and talked about politics, Hollywood and writing projects and he was joyful every time. It wasn’t a put-on. Like his most enduring character, the mountain child John Boy Walton, who becomes a writer, Earl Hamner was a man whose poverty, family and wondrous life experience burnished on his mind, character and soul and, through his strength, idealism and fortitude, made him a soothing, generous and masterful storyteller of the American way. He is gone tonight and I know that I will miss this wonderful man, who was both passionate and kind but not too much of either. The writer leaves behind the treasure of his moving and meaningful stories well told—and a life well lived.


Interview with Scott Holleran: Earl Hamner (2005)