Taking on the Talkers

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 5, 2007; 7:28 AM

As an experience in vertigo, it's hard to beat sitting down with Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann in the space of 24 hours. The bitter cable rivals are both sharply critical of news organizations -- but appear to be living in parallel universes.

On his Fox News show, O'Reilly routinely denounces "the corrupt media," filled with leftists who "despise the Bush administration." When I appeared recently, he called the network newscasts "obsolete dinosaurs" and demanded: "What newsman at CBS or NBC is conservative?"

Journalists, of course, aren't supposed to be openly conservative or liberal. But a common view at Fox is that mainstream reporters hide their liberal sympathies, while commentators at the fair-and-balanced network are upfront about their views.

"I think the traditional Americans have walked away" from the networks, O'Reilly said. "You know, I saw a promo on NBC News today. You know who the promo was from? The San Francisco Chronicle thinks they're great. Why not get the Beijing Daily Sun? All right? Come on!"

O'Reilly never mentions Olbermann by name, but Olbermann loves to taunt his 8 p.m. rival, as he did with me on MSNBC's "Countdown." More important, he assailed the media from the left. Olbermann said that after 9/11 , "we" -- meaning journalists -- "suspended our disbelief on behalf of what we thought was best for the country" and failed to challenge the administration during the run-up to the war.

"Why did we have to wait until the war's problems were pretty much apparent in '05 and last year," he asked, "when we depend on high-powered journalism to be the official question-raiser and the red-flag throwers often in front of public opinion, not behind it?"

It was a fresh reminder, as if any were needed, that nearly everyone in America has a highly opinionated view of the media -- not just talk-show hosts who provoke and pronounce for a living, but viewers, listeners, readers and Web surfers as well. Some think mainstream journalists are biased to the left; others view them as patsies for the Bush White House; and still others find them arrogant, celebrity-obsessed or just plain irrelevant. But are many of these folks simply viewing the news business through their own ideological lens?

As the author of a new book on the network news wars, "Reality Show," I got a whirlwind tour of media fault lines while making the chat-show rounds.

On "The Daily Show," Jon Stewart worked up a head of steam challenging my argument that the anchors had framed the Iraq story in a way that helped turn public opinion against the war. To him, they were just delivering the facts, not making editorial judgments.

"Let's say 20 people are killed in a bombing," he said. "How do you not report on that? In what world is that not a kind of big story?"

As I explained that the daily body count had become so depressingly familiar that the anchors had searched for other ways to underscore and emphasize the carnage, Stewart argued that such basic reporting was, quite simply, their job. Our allotted time had expired, but Stewart kept going for several more minutes -- which he knew would never be aired -- venting about the media's inability or unwillingness to get at the "truth." The crowd, of course, loved it.

Some interlocutors even disputed my premise that Brian Williams, Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric, with their combined nightly audience of 25 million, still mattered. "Evening news is dead," declared Glenn Beck of CNN's Headline News.

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