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Category: Art and Entertainment

The Fox Disconnect

| February 18, 2009

As part of a Women’s Media Center campaign demanding that Bill O’Reilly apologize for his personal, sexist attack on the legendary White House correspondent Helen Thomas, Courtney Martin, a member of the WMC Progressive Women’s Voices program, appeared on The O’Reilly Factor this week to drive the message home. Here is Martin's account of the experience and its aftermath. (The WMC also received hundreds of hateful, profanity-laced, sometimes threatening emails and calls after calling for O’Reilly’s apology.)

The green room of The O’Reilly Factor is a surprisingly jovial place. I’m led back to the hair and makeup booths by a fresh-faced intern, and I don’t even mind it when the really nice woman from Pittsburgh teases my hair because we’re having such a great conversation about urban renewal. The producer wanders back and we chat. He wonders if I always take a hard liberal line and I explain that, because I’m from Colorado Springs, and have lots of red-blooded Republicans in my family, I don’t dehumanize the conservative side, but I tend to think in progressive ways. It turns out that he went to boarding school in Colorado Springs. We play the name game to no avail. It’s friendly. It’s light. And then he says what every producer and/or host has said to me every time I have done a conservative television or radio program: “You ready to have some fun?”

Laura Ingraham said it to me right before she screamed, “Do you even believe in God?” and wondered if my parents were “deeply ashamed” of me. Neil Cavuto’s producer said it to me right before Neil insinuated that I was 17-years-old—on the air. And now O’Reilly’s producer said it to me, directly prior to Bill’s temper tantrum about being called sexist. He got so riled up that he directed the crew to shut off the outro music so he could yell a little more.

I know that these folks think of their shows as performances. More than news programs, they are three ring circuses—bring in the donkeys so the elephants can rough them up to raise the ratings. But what bothers me about the “ready to have some fun” framing is that it denies any culpability in the vitriol that comes after. Laura or Neil or Bill’s own rhetoric and thespian flare is one thing. But the email that their viewers immediately send is quite another. Here are some PG-rated samples:

You are living proof of Limbaugh's Undeniable Truth of Life, #24; Feminism was established in order to allow unattractive women equal access to the mainstream. Proof? I love your jutting lower jaw and crooked face. You have a face for a writer.

Feminism as practiced by the likes of you is nothing more than a means to gain access to the mainstream of society for and by ugly, loudmouthed bitches and lesbians that no one wants to be around. One of my jobs as a man is to protect (deserving) women. I would NOT protect you. In fact, I would toss you to the predators. I would trade you to the predators. I would betray you to the predators. I would NOT want you to pass on your weak genetics.

Bill O'reiley [sic] should have spanked you on his show.

So while it may be all fun and games to O’Reilly or the other Fox regulars, there are real world consequences—some of which documentary filmmakers and media critics have documented in excruciating detail—to the climate of partisan rage and hatred of the other they promote. Hosts like O’Reilly and Ingraham model a particularly vicious and shallow way of relating to those who think unlike themselves—taken to the extreme by their viewers who hide behind the veil of the internet (although some of them, shockingly, send this kind of vitriol from their professional email accounts). It is as if right wing pundits provide the material of partisan hatred, sexist objectification, and spurious logic, and some of their viewers take it and shape it into freakish proportions.

I actually sent Bill O’Reilly’s producer a link to a feministing post that I had written featuring many of these hateful emails, and he immediately wrote back: “I’m sorry to read some of those emails—Bill obviously doesn’t condone that kind of nasty commentary to you—or any of our guests!” It’s kind of him, but frankly doesn’t own up to the link between Bill’s show and these emails. Bill may not direct his viewers to spew hatred and violence towards his guests, but whatever he’s doing sure produces a lot of it.

I’m not afraid, but I am disturbed by the disconnect. Because unlike those who emailed me, I see Bill and Laura and Neil as real, complex human beings. I disagree with them ideologically, but I assume that they actually strive to be moral actors in the world. Of course we have different definitions of morality, but hiding behind the performance of punditry and downplaying the power of their words is, at best, insincere and, at worst, dangerous in both blue and red America.

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, in fact, just the other night cited a not so tenuous connection between the inflammatory rhetoric of Bernard Goldberg, one of Bill’s favorite regulars, and a recent double murder/suicide. Olbermann pointed out that Goldberg’s hateful rhetoric (“Screw them…they are unimportant people, they are throwing spitballs at battle ships”) about the women taking issue with O’Reilly’s description of Helen Thomas (ahem, ahem, me) coincided with the release this week of murderer Jim David Adkisson’s suicide note. In it, Adkisson stated that he stormed a Tennessee church and murdered two people as proxies for all the Democrats in the House and Senate whom he would like to kill, in addition to the people in Goldberg’s book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America.

Olbermann explained: “None of us at any end of the political spectrum can be responsible for what the ultimately hateful or the deranged wrongly infer from our work, but the same week it is revealed that this terrorist is partially inspired by Bernard Goldberg maybe Mr. Goldberg could skip the lines about screw them…Wait til Monday until you give the next Jim David Adkisson something to work with, sir.” Or how about ceasing the inflammatory rhetoric all together and trying to return punditry to a state of actual dialogue?

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