On her program last night, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow described the frustrations of trying to get answers from Fox News regarding the various misstatements, embellishments, falsehoods — and perhaps worse — of Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. “In what was a very unexpected and also sort of — I have to say — amusing development, they didn’t — we asked them for comment on the substance of the allegations. What they sent us was a lot of information about how great Bill O’Reilly’s ratings are.”
And there was no argument from Maddow & Co. on the ratings front. “And yes . . . your ratings are great!” said Maddow. “I’ve seen your ratings shoot my ratings right in the head. Well, I’ve seen pictures of that, I should say.”
The joke about pictures comes courtesy of O’Reilly himself. As media outlets have exposed over the past couple of weeks, O’Reilly has told tall tales of his exploits of his pre-Fox News days as a foreign TV correspondent. He has said he saw awful things take place in Northern Ireland and El Salvador, for instance. When pressed on what he’d witnessed, O’Reilly has said that he actually saw those awful things in pictures he’d seen. That claim has birthed many Internet jokes. (Disclosure: This O’Reilly fact-checking movement started with an article from Mother Jones, the employer of the Erik Wemple Blog’s wife).
In any case, Maddow cited the O’Reilly falsehoods as a departure from the mission of cable news: “We lose our way a little bit. We fail on what we are supposed to do — which in the broadest possible terms is that we’re supposed to provide useful and accurate information about the news to the American people. Right?”
Wrong, according to a strange strain of thought in the media-crit industry. In an appearance on Fox News just days after the O’Reilly critique surged, the Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik distinguished the controversy from the Brian Williams scandal, saying, “Bill O’Reilly is the most popular person on cable news TV, but it’s a nighttime show that has a very different agenda and no one, in cable TV — CNN, MSNBC, Fox — says these are journalistic entities, so there’s a difference right there.” Might want to check that statement with the cable nets, Z.
And CNN’s Carol Costello said on Feb. 23: “Bill O’Reilly is not a journalist. He’s an opinion guy. He makes no bones about that. So does it really matter if he embellished?”
Of course, there’s no incompatibility between “an opinion guy” and a “journalist.” The opinion sections of media outlets each day carry the work of journalists. But the sentiments of Zurawik and Costello and many others have served to ease the pressure on O’Reilly and Fox News as they try to make this very big problem go away.
As for standards and expectations, why not just defer to O’Reilly himself? In a famous 2003 interview with Terry Gross, the King of Cable News said, “The Factor is a program that pulls no punches. . . . My job is to expose the truth of any given issue at any given time,” he told Gross. “Our show is a tightly disciplined program. Opinions are based on fact.”
UPDATE 6 p.m.: There’s a disagreement brewing between MSNBC and Fox News. Maddow stated, “We asked them for comment on the substance of the allegations. What they sent us was a lot of information about how great Bill O’Reilly’s ratings are.” The Erik Wemple Blog has gotten a glimpse of Fox News’s response to MSNBC and found that the topic of O’Reilly’s ratings constituted approximately one-fourth of that response. A Fox News spokeswoman says the network is “not surprised it was distorted.”