O’Reilly, Capitalism, and Public Political Discourse

One of the most fascinating moments in the Bill O’Reilly-Jon Stewart “Rumble” came at an unlikely time. It wasn’t when O’Reilly and Stewart were sparring over President Obama, or the deficit, or taxes. It wasn’t even when Stewart had his heart-to-heart with Clint Eastwood.

It came when the moderator asked, “What do you think is the most fundamental problem with the public political discourse?”

“Stewart,” O’Reilly fired back.

Once Stewart had given his full response, O’Reilly had a different one word answer.  And, believe it or not, it was the c-word:

“The problem with the discourse situation in America is capitalism*…*

You can make a lot of money by being an assassin. A lot of money. It doesn’t matter if you’re right-wing or left-wing, alright? You go in and you’re a hater—radio, cable, in print, whatever—you get paid.

And there are people who do that. And they go in, and they don’t believe half the stuff they say, and they just rip it up, and they get paid a lot of money. And that has coarsened everything. They’re phonies, and capitalism drives that.

There are people, Americans, who want to hear hate…And that is just blowing it all up…It’s not coming back either, it’s not gonna get any better. We have to live with it. Freedom of speech.”

In the Branner lounge where I was watching the Rumble, the room fell silent, as if no one knew how to react. The room O’Reilly was in seemed the same way. There was no follow-up from the moderator or Stewart, and no response from the audience except a smattering of applause. The unusual silence in both locations added to the ominous air about O’Reilly when he delivered his diatribe, creating a surreal feeling that the camera was zooming in on his face.

The question thrown around the Internet: who was O’Reilly talking about? Many have suggested it’s Rush Limbaugh. Others have taken a more psychoanalytic spin and ventured the guess that it’s O’Reilly trying to redeem himself. Personally, I wonder whether O’Reilly wants to differentiate himself from his network’s other talking heads.

But I think there’s a more interesting question here: how can O’Reilly insist that PBS and NPR be defunded, as he did during the Rumble, if he believes that the capitalist media industry is “the most fundamental problem” poisoning this country’s political discourse?

Of course, those two views aren’t necessarily incompatible. One could simply believe that while an unfettered media market has its pitfalls, state-supported media is the greater evil.

The pros and cons are relatively clear. Public media costs taxpayers money, for one. Past that, the question seems to hinge on which set of incentives for distortion are stronger. Public media would presumably have a motive not to bite the hand that feeds it by criticizing the government, though it seems like basic protections such as locked funding would help with this problem. The distortive incentives for private media, as O’Reilly said, are essentially that they will do anything to attract viewers.

Besides his beef with hate-spewing commentators, O’Reilly also believes the entire media carries a significant liberal bias. He recently said on his show, for example: “The Associated Press is one of the largest newswire services in the world, and it’s biased against Mitt Romney. I think this is true beyond a reasonable doubt…This is a huge advantage for President Obama.”

So is O’Reilly just out of his mind to think networks like PBS and BBC are actually worse than a persistently dishonest private industry that is the single biggest factor behind our nation’s discourse deficit? Maybe, but I think we can find a better answer.

From a certain standpoint, O’Reilly’s comment on capitalism being the problem was, peculiarly, very much in line with conservative ideology about business. When the free market isn’t handling an issue terribly well but is at least functional, liberals and conservatives tend to be divided over the solution. The more terrible the market you are willing to tolerate before conceding the government has a role, the more conservative you probably are.

So even if O’Reilly had Rush in mind, the fact he prefers Limbaugh to Lehrer shows just how conservative he is. To whatever extent O’Reilly’s response about capitalist media was less right-wing than you expected, his opinion about public media becomes more**right-wing than you realized.

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