campaign desk

My O’Reilly Ambush

A CJR editor’s unexpected interview
February 3, 2009

My usual bus-stop companions are an Irish man with an interesting cap and a tall young Indian woman with a shy smile. Our formula is to exchange a few words about the weather—the Irishman generally has a more negative take—and then enjoy the silence. This is a 7 a.m. bus, after all.

My companions weren’t around last Friday, though, to see what I saw coming hurriedly down the icy sidewalk—a three-man camera crew. I am about to be interviewed, I thought, perhaps about mass transportation or some facet of life in northern New Jersey. But no, the one with the microphone was calling out my name. He introduced himself, “Dan SomethingOrOther, Fox News.” Oh, I thought.

Not that I had been expecting to be interviewed on the streets of Teaneck, but I had a clue why they were there. Earlier in the week I’d exchanged e-mails with a producer from The O’Reilly Factor, who “really just wanted to get me on with Bill.” I had written back: “Hi Ron. While I genuinely appreciate this, and would be happy to come on the show some other time if that works, I have zero time to prepare for this due to multiple deadlines, so I’m going to pass.”

This was apparently his accomodation to my schedule, to come to my bus stop at sunrise. How nice.

The subject of the interview was an article from the January/February issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, about how some right-wing media attacks on Barack Obama, rather vicious ones, are continuing well past his election. The piece was written by Michael Massing, one of our contributing editors, and it argued that loyal opposition is one thing but character assassination is quite another. I thought it was persuasive.

We didn’t talk much substance, however, Dan and me. We talked labels. His line of questioning was, How could your magazine of journalism criticism hire a writer from the “radical far-left” magazine, The Nation, to attack Fox and other conservative outlets? How is that fair and balanced?

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I am a morning person, and, with a little caffeine, usually kind of Zen at that hour. I said that Massing was an excellent and highly respected reporter and critic who writes for many outlets. And, more to the point, what about his argument and his examples? What part of the piece, exactly, are you challenging? I thought I did OK at the bus stop.

I did a little less well after the bus came and Dan and his crew followed me into it, amping up the aggresssion somewhat. That was a little disconcerting, to my bus driver as well, who can be heard in the background urging Dan and crew to exit. This, of course, is the part of the interview O’Reilly chose to air on Monday night.

In cases like this you often think afterward of what you wish you had said. I wish I had pointed out that The Nation is a fine magazine of the political left, just as magazines like The Weekly Standard are fine political journals of the right (perhaps noting that CJR praised the Standard for its excellent cover story on Detroit just last week). And that, anyway, Massing has written just once for The Nation since 2003, and writes all over the place for the best publications in America. Or that among his best work is a book on American drug policy that credits Richard Nixon; or that his blockbuster critique of the press coverage of the runup to the war in Iraq irritated The New York Times a lot more than it irritated Fox; or that he’s working on a history of the Protestant Reformation. And etc.

Or, more to the point, I might have cited chapter and verse from the article in question: how Massing and CJR documented instances of radio yahoos calling the president a Marxist, a radical, a revolutionary, a communist, a thug, a mobster, a racist, an agent of voter fraud, a black-power advocate, a madrasah graduate, an anti-Semite who wants to “gas the Jews,” a Muslim whose true loyalties are outside the U.S, an associate of terrorists, a “little bitch”— even the anti-Christ. Massing suggested that this bordered on being un-American, and I agree. If Dan had mentioned he might be coming to Teaneck, I might have carried a handy underlined copy of the piece.

But hey, it is what it is. My wife and children find it hilarious, in a supportive way. The woman who cuts my hair says she wishes she had been able to do something prior to my TV experience. Personally, even uncut, I think my hair compares well with O’Reilly’s. It seemed to be not a really big deal, all in all. By noon the day of the interview I had received three e-mails from strangers about the segment. I wished two of them good luck with their anger-management courses, and with the more reasonable third, I will try for a dialogue worthy of our new bipartisan era.

You can watch portions of the video here.

Mike Hoyt was CJR’s executive editor from 2001 to 2013, teaches at Columbia’s Journalism School and is the editor of The Big Roundtable, a startup that is a home for narrative writing.