Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Letterman vs. O'Reilly: A Missed Opportunity

If I lived in a bubble and only watched last night's guest appearance by Bill O'Reilly on Late Night with David Letterman, I'd equate the conversation with two reasonably intelligent people arguing at a party. Unfortunately for both personalities concerned, this is not good enough.

I thoroughly dislike O'Reilly. He lies, he misinforms, he deserves all the mud slung at him for his radio and television programs. He does a tremendous disservice to this country with just about everything he says. Just do a search on Media Matters to get a list of the excrement he spews on an almost daily basis and you'll understand why so many otherwise reasonable people in this country are so misinformed and have such errant attitudes. He has a news/opinion show and posits himself as an informed commentator on news and our culture, but his consistent mischaracterizations of just about everything are sick and damaging. As Jon Stewart said to him when O'Reilly was on the Daily Show, "Perhaps we add insult to injury, but you sir, you add injury."

On the other hand, I like Letterman a lot. Sure, he's been funnier, but he's still great and I thoroughly appreciate his disdain for much of American culture. Mostly he shows it through snarky comedy, but occasionally he just cuts loose and lets you know what he really thinks - kinda like pouring acetone onto the nail polish of life. Last night Letterman tried to do just that. Sadly, he was unprepared for the debate that followed.

Letterman is not a news anchor or pundit. He'll be the first to say it. ("I'm not smart enough to debate you point for point...") But if you're going to get into a public debate with anyone, never mind a media personality like O'Reilly (I can't bring myself to call him a journalist) you should at least have your boxing gloves on and be warmed up. Letterman was not. It would not take a lot of research to determine that in fact more than 90 percent of what O'Reilly says is crap; still, Letterman did not do it. I suspect this was just an instance of Letterman stepping outside of the boundaries he normally carefully sets for himself; he just couldn't help it, I guess, having such sympathy for Cindy Sheehan.

On O'Reilly's side, his complaint about Cindy Sheehan's use of terminology - "Freedom Fighters" -- is typically microfocused and misleading. Perhaps it was a poor choice of words on Sheehan's part. I'm fairly sure, however, that these terrorists think of themselves as freedom fighters in that they're trying to free their country of US troops. But for O'Reilly to focus on this one term makes reasoned debate impossible. Instead we're throwing beakers of pointless vitriol at each other. Is Sheehan horrible for using more ennobling terms for the terrorists who killed her son? Have you stopped beating your wife? Spider-Man, threat or menace? It's all on the same stupid, inflammatory, useless level. This is typical O'Reilly; find one small inflammatory factoid and make it the centerpiece of whatever type of point he's trying to make on any given day.

In watching the video I was reminded of the presidential debates last year, when a questioner asked Bush about his stewardship of the environment. After a typically mealy-mouthed response, it was John Kerry's turn to respond. I was supremely disappointed that the senator from Massachusetts did not royally tear Bush a new one. It would not be hard to assail Bush's record on the environment, but for some reason Kerry just didn't or couldn't step up to the plate.

It's the same thing here. Letterman's smart, O'Reilly lies. It should not be hard to punch a hole in the putrid wet paper bag that is the framework of O'Reilly's worldview. Sadly, Dave didn't manage it, much as I wished he could have.

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