The Washington Post

O’Reilly a populist? Only when it’s convenient

Bill O’Reilly has enjoyed fashioning himself as a contrarian in a building of straightforward right-wingers at Fox News.

He doesn’t hesitate to embrace a moderate Republican in a chat with former Fox man Glenn Beck; he scolded the far right for personal attacks on President Obama; and he’s just generally projected an image as a champion for honest, working people.

The powerful and super-popular host will even sit for an interview with the mainstream media if it’ll help him deepen this profile. The Los Angeles Times in March 2010 credited the hosts’ “populist instincts” for pushing him to the top of the cable news ratings. It also had this to say about the guy:

Sitting in his 17th-floor corner office on a recent afternoon, O’Reilly maintained that he hasn’t changed. “If you’re coming to me to hear the choir, then you’ve got to be a relatively new viewer, because we’ve been pretty independent for a long period of time,” said the 60-year-old host, thumbing through manila folders holding research for that evening’s show.

O’Reilly has long cultivated his outsider status, bristling at being labeled a conservative or a Republican mouthpiece. So it’s not surprising that at a time when commentators on the political right have sharpened their attacks on Obama, he has sought a different tack: criticizing the president’s policies but not the man himself. “I like Obama,” he said, but thinks he lacks the experience to handle the job.

Most of the time, the civic playing field enables O’Reilly’s iconoclastic routine. He can slam tax-and-spend policies one moment, deplore the death penalty the next, and then hector the New York Times. From the outside, it looks like fun.

Every so often, however, the national discourse generates a controversy that forces O’Reilly to choose. Is he really a booster of the everyperson? Or is he a mouthpiece for the elites aligned with the deregulatory strain of the Republican Party? This very bind has emerged from the Occupy Wall Street protests.

O’Reilly has called the protesters “anarchists” and “loons,” even though it’s well documented that Occupy Wall Street’s ranks carry plenty of working stiffs of the ilk that O’Reilly purports to represent. In yesterday’s spectacular conversation with Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, O’Reilly faced a choice of endorsing the protesters or the bankers.

It happened like this: Smiley was lamenting that the police have arrested plenty of protesters, but that no bankers were imprisoned for any wrongdoing connected to the country’s economic meltdown.

O’Reilly responded:

“Because they didn’t violate any laws, Tavis.”

Both Smiley and West exploded, “OOOOH.”

And O’Reilly continued to play defense attorney for Wall Street, saying “it’s true” that no laws were broken. His antagonists asked how he was so certain — the authorities, they claimed, hadn’t investigated the matter. More shouting defiance from O’Reilly ensued. If the exchange gets sufficient rotation on the Web, perhaps journalists in the future will pause before playing up O’Reilly’s alleged populism.

Not that the dissonance between the common-man defender and the Wall Street apologist bears any consequences for O’Reilly. “He wraps himself in rhetorical binds all the time,” says Ari Rabin-Havt of Media Matters, the full-time watchdog group. “He doesn’t care. It doesn’t make a difference. I don’t even know if he recognizes the dissonance.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.

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