Fox populi

What do the barking heads of Fox News Channel and other Murdoch media have that CNN, Rather and Donahue don't? A true, virtuous, tabloid soul.

Published August 22, 2002 5:06PM (EDT)

It was just after 7:30 at night when I booed Ted Kennedy.

Not a discreet boo, either. Not a delicate murmur of derision from the string section. It was the full bellows, and not an inconsiderable bellows, as my friends will attest -- a raspy-throated, bloodthirsty yawp straight out of the darkened balcony of some backwater 'rassling arena. It heretofore had been reserved for butter-fingered shortstops, pacifist prizefighters, marginally ambulatory racehorses, Woody Allen's Bergman period and Black Oak Arkansas. It never had been -- and it never has been again -- directed at any progressive politician. (OK, once, but that was Ralph Nader, and it was 3 in the morning on Election Night, and Fred Barnes was grinning at me on the television set.) But I let the senior senator from my Commonwealth have it that night. He was trying to kill my newspaper.

In 1988, I was in my fifth year at the Boston Herald, a doughty little tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch, who was then only dreaming of controlling the universe, and who'd not yet gotten fully into the business of subletting Speakers of the House. I'd come to the Herald from the Boston Phoenix, a former "underground" newspaper that redefined itself as "alternative" when it started making $4 million a year.

Suffice it to say that the respective philosophies of the two newspapers were a matter of comparing apples to andirons. The Phoenix was still classically liberal. Meanwhile, confronted with an issue of public policy, the Herald invariably would size that sucker up and arrive at an editorial position that should've been subject to carbon-14 dating. How, my good liberal friends asked me, could I go to work for ... them?

First, I told them, they asked. Second, I was becoming a sportswriter. Rupert loves sports. It makes him feel close to the common man -- which means Rupert doesn't have to reach so far to pick the common man's pocket. And last, they doubled my salary -- not a big deal, to be sure, given that the "alternative" media generally pays as though its paper is still stapled to lamp posts in Harvard Square.

So basically, for four years, I'd gone to ballgames, dropped the occasional subversive one-liner into my copy, and read the editorial page for laughs. Alas, the senior senator read it seriously, and he also read the city-side columnist who referred to him -- regularly, indelicately and accurately -- as "Fat Boy." The senator got revenge in his heart, and he soon saw his opportunity.

Murdoch owned TV stations in New York and Boston, where he also owned newspapers. It can be argued that the revenue from the TV stations kept the newspapers alive. But for him to legally do this, the Federal Communications Commission had to waive its rules regarding cross-ownership. In December 1987, working with Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., Kennedy got a rider tacked onto an appropriations bill that prohibited the FCC from repealing the cross-ownership rule, or allowing waivers to it. This would effectively force Murdoch to choose between his Boston TV station and the Herald.

A number of us trooped down the block to J.J. Foley's, Boston's last great newspaper saloon, to await the end. None of us was under any illusions. If Murdoch sold the newspaper, and we all knew that his head was in television at this point, it would die. There was no great love for the way Murdoch did business -- once, after his Fox network famously lost millions on a failed late-night talk show, I wore a button to an NBA playoff game that said, "Joan Rivers Got My Raise" -- but now, even though we were a small part of a massive global empire, it was as though we were lined up against some pitiless establishment to which none of us, not even Rupert, ever would belong. We were the guerrillas in the highlands, outmanned and outgunned. Venceremos, mate. We were the true alternative press, and The Man was after us. And Ted Kennedy was The Man. The senior senator popped up on "Crossfire," and that's when I booed him.

It was a long, strange evening. I went off to write a column off a Celtics game. While I was there, Himself turned up on a later newscast, and he announced that he was not going to be bullied out of owning a newspaper in which Ted Kennedy could be called "Fat Boy" with impunity. He would sell the Boston TV station. He would keep the Herald.

Well, you should've seen the crowd in Foley's explode. We'd brought the Establishment to its knees, man. Beer flowed. Strong men wept. I rejoined as the party was hitting high tide, and I vividly recall singing "The Internationale" at top volume. Someone else yelled, "Give us Barabbas!" for no good reason I could ever determine. Some guys from the Boston Globe showed up to commiserate and, transported by the news, one of my colleagues celebrated by repeatedly biting one of the Globe guys on the shoulder. He was amiably nonplused, but bought a round anyway.

And, of course, several months later, when nobody was looking, and when we were all back in Foley's, bitching about our salaries again, Rupert greased the skids in Washington, and got to keep both the TV station and the newspaper anyway.

That's how he does it. That's how he signs you aboard, like Ahab splicing hands with the crew. In his essential biography of Murdoch, William Shawcross quotes him saying, "A press that fails to interest the whole community is one that will ultimately become the house organ of the elite." Shawcross also recalls an interview in which Murdoch memorably flummoxed Barbara Walters by pointing out that, since Shakespeare wrote for the masses, if the Bard were alive that day, he'd be turning out scripts for "Dallas."

And his great gift as a mogul is how he brilliantly targets -- for himself and for us -- members of an elite to which even a billionaire like Rupert Murdoch can never belong. (Joe Kennedy, it should be recalled, performed a similar self-hypnosis concerning the people who ran Harvard University -- largely to ensure that his sons could get in there.) Shrewdly dressed in ragamuffin's clothes, Murdoch sizes up the gentleman's profession that journalism has become, and then looks deeply into the reporter's secret heart and sees the guilt festering there.

It's all nonsense, of course. Murdoch is no more interested in running a truly alternative press than he is in joining the Carthusians. But it's enormously seductive nonsense, partly because there is no little truth embedded in it. We actually do have a kept press today, enthralled by the political and social elites. It's completely lost that sense of being a craft apart from those institutions on which it reports. Friendships with sources are no longer a thing of which to be wary, and access has become a kind of genteel corruption. Taken all in all, it's become an upscale whorehouse with an unusual number of piano players.

Not here, says the Murdoch ethos. Here is where you can come and be raffish and bold and cynical. Here there are no friends, just grist for the mill. Write your bold treatises on the degradation of American popular culture, and don't be worried at all that your check comes from an unusually successful Australian tits-and-bum merchant. You are unbowed and unbought.

Forget the owner of the place, it says, with his television networks and his satellite deals, and the NFL and NASCAR, and all the politicians that he has in his pocket. Forget the fact that his politics are retrograde and his appetites apparently limitless. (Forget even that he gave a couple of million to Al Gore, too, just in case.) Pay no attention to the man behind the golden curtain, it says. Here's a place where you can still spit on the floor. It is not to be underestimated. After all, this culture gave us Bill O'Reilly, but it gave us the Simpsons, too. It got me to boo Ted Kennedy and mean it.

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"Every tabloid, as soon as it gets into safe waters, begins to grow intellectual." -- H.L. Mencken.

The tabloid sensibility is not a matter of ideology. It's a matter of volume. In the true tabloid mind, there is no right or left. There's only bombastic or boring. Some time after the end of the 1960s, the American left lost touch with its tabloid voice. Trailing behind, through a media age in which everything reshaped itself as entertainment, the Democrats became earnest and plodding and irredeemably dull. With very few exceptions -- Barney Frank knows how to be a tabloid pol as well as anyone does -- they became a party of chaperones. What they represented was big, but it was never powerful.

At the same time, energized by their most conservative members, the Republicans used the tabloid mind's various modern manifestations -- talk radio, for example, and the rise of the Internet -- to create elites against which they themselves could rebel. They were so far in front of the Democrats on this that the Democrats not only lost touch with the tabloid sensibility, they lost touch with the people to whom it most appealed, a great many of whom had been the party's traditional constituencies.

As with many other things, Bill Clinton was the great exception. He was a tabloid president long before his presidency hit the tabloids. Say what you will about him, he was never dull, and that saved him during the impeachment foolishness as much as anything else did. Suddenly, for the first time since conservatism reconstituted itself under Ronald Reagan, it was the ascendant right that looked like the national schoolmarms. Clinton, bless his black and mischievous heart, was too good a show to cancel, particularly at the hands of a passel of foul-tempered theocrats who clearly didn't get the joke. These, of course, were natural advantages not available subsequently to sad, earnest Albert Gore. Someday, somehow, Bill Clinton will take a paycheck from Rupert Murdoch. They were made for each other, if only as subtext.

Murdoch was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the conservative capture of the tabloid soul. He'd never lost touch with it in the first place, and the culture that he creates within his various enterprises is one in which the most egregious of capital sins is not necessarily to be liberal, it is to be dull. After all, it was within Murdoch's News Corporation that Michael Moore's "TV Nation" found its last home, both Bart Simpson and Fox Mulder found their voices, and the Village Voice briefly found itself with a blessedly absentee landlord.

The tabloid heart and the renegade soul of any Murdoch operation is in its upper management. He has a gift for finding talented eccentrics like David Hill, the brilliant telecaster who runs Fox Sports and who has been known to hold staff meetings at Buddy Guy's joint in Chicago. My editor at the Herald was a Fleet Street emigré named Ken Chandler who referred to me, regularly, and never without a smile, as "my Communist sports columnist."

There is a sense always that the shop is a small one, run locally, and not merely the distant appendage of a faceless conglomerate. It's not entirely dissimilar to the "mate-ism" that runs through all of Australian society, and it's so cheerily cultivated within the News Corporation that even people like me occasionally lose sight of the fact that Murdoch's labor history resides somewhere on the dark side of the Harlan County War.

You can see it all come to vivid life, especially, in the general ambiance of the Fox News Channel, which suddenly has become the subject of much huffing due to its success at carving off the largest smidgen of a slice of a segment of a portion of the overall cable TV audience. Granted, Brit Hume is as stiff as a board, and Tony Snow has the wit and charisma of a lawn ornament. Nevertheless, the whole FNC operation is loose and free and easy to watch, engaging as hell, and not wholly because it's so secure in its conservatism.

It's because, like any good Murdoch operation, it has found an "elite" that it is not, and that it can rebel against. FNC's primary definition of itself is that it is Not CNN. (To a lesser extent, it is Not CBS, NBC or ABC, either, but CNN is clearly the primary target of opportunity.) This is only partly about ideology -- about the notion of CNN as a leftist vanguard, which I think even the Fox people would admit was dubious at best. It's mostly about CNN being stodgy and boring. It's about CNN being un-tabloid in the extreme.

Look at CNN, as it tried to change, to adapt, to get in touch with the tabloid soul. Walter Isaacson went courting Tom Delay on Capitol Hill and he ended up convincing no one and looking ludicrous. CNN -- and now MSNBC, with its uninspired, and so far wildly unsuccessful, resuscitation of Phil Donahue's career -- tried to replicate Fox's nighttime chat lineup, and we've wound up with TV shows that are the equivalent of watching your 50-year-old uncle dance the frug at a family wedding. CNN can't do what Fox does because the corporate culture of AOL Time Warner -- with dour old Henry Luce still glowering down like the Bad Fairy -- is so different from the one that produced Fox News, and the one that has produced, over the last few years, the very living embodiment of the Murdoch ethos, as perfect a specimen of his culture as Lucy was of the people who threw rocks at each other across Olduvai Gorge.

In other words: CNN could never have produced Bill O'Reilly.

God, his head is big.

Honestly, even though it's a function of studio lighting and camera angles, this is one prodigious squash. Bill O'Reilly is halfway through his nightly "Talking Points Memo" and the only thing that truly penetrates is that this guy's face is the size of the grill on a '64 Camaro. "That's it for The Memo," he says, and thank God for it, I say. For a minute, I thought I was watching a documentary special about Easter Island.

When I was at the Herald, O'Reilly was a local anchor in Boston, and he contributed occasionally to the newspaper's editorial section, his columns often amusing sermons from a mount of O'Reilly's own construction. For example, in 1989, Barney Frank stupidly stumbled into a scandal involving a male prostitute named Steve Gobie. O'Reilly unleashed the hounds, calling for Frank's resignation and proposing Honest Bill O'Reilly as a replacement. Public enthusiasm for this selfless gesture was less than vast and, when Frank sensibly declined the invitation to disappear himself, O'Reilly grumbled his way offstage.

Now, in newspapers, or even in elective politics, incipient megalomania is not necessarily an advantage. In television, however, it can be an absolute boon. Over the past two years -- and with his $25 million deal -- O'Reilly has come to dominate the raucous little universe of cable political chat. (I hope dearly that, somewhere, an underpaid News Corporation sportswriter is sporting a button that reads, "Bill O'Reilly Got My Raise.") This has drawn to him some criticism. Michael Kinsley masterfully deconstructed the way O'Reilly scuffed up his Levittown upbringing, and James Wolcott had wonderful fun demolishing the "faux populism" of the whole Fox approach.

Unfortunately, both of these pieces missed the larger point. The chat shows are little more than a form of professional wrestling aimed at the parents of the kids who watch actual professional wrestling. O'Reilly isn't a successful TV performer because people actually take him to be the smartest yobbo in Kelsey's Bar. He's a successful TV performer because he's really good on television. He has created a character, the same way that David Duchovny or Jane Kaczmarek or The Rock have, and he plays it very, very well.

And he does it within a corporate culture most conducive to the creation of precisely that character. O'Reilly has become more adept than Murdoch at creating an elite to which he does not belong. Some of the details of the character he's created are silly -- Kinsley had a hilarious time with O'Reilly's claim that his fellow guests at a Washington dinner party defenestrated themselves rather than speak to him -- but the details are completely consistent, both to the character itself, and to the context within which he performs. Ducks do not give birth to racehorses and, just as it's impossible to imagine one of the three broadcast networks producing "The Sopranos," it's impossible to imagine, say, NBC producing a character like Bill O'Reilly.

For example, compare him to his most immediate competitor, Chris Matthews on MSNBC. Once, Matthews was a shrewd political strategist and a decent enough writer. But on television, he has to work much too hard to stay in character. Matthews regularly went zooming into orbit over Al Gore, whose syntax Matthews found ostentatiously proper and whose vocabulary Matthews found ostentatiously extensive, and in whom generally Matthews detected a lack of Regular Guyhood. This is the kind of high proletarian dudgeon that O'Reilly can summon without breaking a sweat. Matthews, a former intellectual whiz-kid in the employ of Jimmy Carter, perhaps the least Regular Guy ever to sit in the White House, looked as though he were pushing a truck up a hill.

Watch him on "Hardball," a career Beltway insider gasping and wheezing through his renegade calisthenics. Sooner or later, watching him closely, you can practically hear the little fire bell of his conscience ringing madly, and a tiny voice whispering, "What in Christ's name am I doing talking political theory on national television with an unreconstructed nutball like Gordon Liddy?" Bill O'Reilly is loud, abrasive, and approximately 50 percent as smart as he thinks he is, but he never has these moments where he falls so completely out of character.

Or, let us consider Phil Donahue, the Great Gray Hope on which MSNBC has hung its new prime-time lineup. There is no question that Donahue created a character -- three generations of "Saturday Night Live" casts have had someone who performed it -- and, perhaps, he is something of a template for O'Reilly in this regard. But the Donahue character is hopelessly out of its time. Its age has passed. He is as obsolete in the universe of television talk as the boys from the Ponderosa would be on "NYPD Blue." And, if a recent New York Times story is to be believed, the idea that they may have attached the vaunted remake of their network to an exercise in nostalgia already has begun to give the NBC suits a bad case of the vapors.

It may be completely artificial -- Kinsley and Wolcott are both correct about that -- but it is authentically artificial, which counts in a time in which we watch baseball in modern old-time ballparks while wearing genuine replica gear. The tabloid soul is never so thoroughly undermined as it is by guilt, and O'Reilly has been formed as its perfect public expression, by a corporate culture in which the tabloid soul is intact and pure.

I don't know when progressive politicians in general lost touch with the tabloid soul. Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, stalwart foe of NAFTA and proudly untriangulated old Democrat, suspects that it might have been educated out of the party -- that the progressive elite simply lost the proper respect for manufacturing jobs and the people who depend on them. Michael Moore has argued, correctly, that this often evinces itself in a liberal disdain for things like bowling. In any event, in abandoning the tabloid soul, progressive politicians generally -- and the Democratic Party in close specific -- have developed a number of traits quite lethal to a true opposition party.

They repeatedly underestimate the voter's capacity to support measures contrary to the voter's good simply because they are packaged in an entertaining way. They cannot fashion responses to naked charlatanism because they don't take it seriously enough as a political force. They don't understand that it doesn't matter if Bill O'Reilly is really a blue-collar hero as long as he can play one on television. They repeatedly are surprised by how seductive is the fakery of the carnival midway, even though that's how Rupert Murdoch got rich enough to afford a Newt Gingrich of his very own.

Not me, though. Not after that wonderful evening in Foley's, where I gave the royal bazoo to Ted Kennedy, and watched my colleague cheer and dance and bite people from other newspapers in support of a guy who'd sell us all to the Malay pirates if it meant another inch gained in support of his towering ambition. We were the alternative press, and The Man couldn't close us down. I cheered as loudly as anyone. For one brief moment, I was Bill O'Reilly. The idea still wakes me screaming in the night, not the least because I meant every word.

By Charles P. Pierce

Charles P. Pierce is a writer for The Boston Globe Magazine and for Esquire.

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