It’s a Rich Battle as O’Reilly, Times Critic Square Off in Culture War

By Nathaniel Popper

Published March 12, 2004, issue of March 12, 2004.
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The culture war sweeping across America sometimes can appear to boil down to a sparring match between two men.

In one corner is Bill O’Reilly, representing the Fox News Channel and the new brand of conservative populism sweeping the nation. In the other is Frank Rich, wearing the colors of the New York Times and liberal urban culture.

This past week saw one of the most heated rounds yet between these pugilists of punditry.

On Monday, the Fox host devoted the editorial segment that opens his top-rated cable news show, “The O’Reilly Factor,” to slamming Rich for his “savage attack on Mel Gibson.”

While the launching point was Rich’s outspoken criticism of Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” O’Reilly spent most of his time condemning Rich as a member of the “elite media,” which, O’Reilly said, “believe that the majority in the country — white Christian Americans — are prone to oppressing the minority.”

During his tirade, O’Reilly complained that liberal “elites don’t debate, they attack and marginalize.”

O’Reilly was responding to Rich’s weekly Sunday column in the Times’ Arts and Leisure section from the day before. Not coincidentally, in the March 7 column Rich had raised questions about O’Reilly’s show three days earlier, during which the host had asked a film critic whether the hubbub over Gibson’s movie was because “the major media in Hollywood and a lot of the secular press is controlled by Jewish people?” (Please see Campaign Confidential report on Page 4.)

While Rich has not resorted to personal invective in print, during a recent interview with the Forward he compared O’Reilly both to Father Charles Coughlin, the antisemitic radio host from the 1930s, and “Ted Baxter [from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”], the blowhard local anchorman, where it’s all about him rather than the issue.”

With their unflinching styles, neither Rich nor O’Reilly lacks for foes. This is the same Frank Rich about whom Mel Gibson said, “I want his intestines on a stick…. I want to kill his dog.” O’Reilly had the honor of appearing on the cover of Al Franken’s recent book lambasting the Fox network.

But O’Reilly and Rich seem to have developed a special fondness for sparring with each other across the chasm that separates their two media outlets. During the past year, O’Reilly has been mentioned in almost a quarter of Rich’s weekly columns, while Rich has so irked O’Reilly that during one recent show, in responding to a letter writer he found distasteful on a completely separate topic, the Fox commentator said, “you ought to have dinner with Frank Rich.”

The two have (disrespectfully) disagreed on most of the weighty cultural-political issues of the past year, from William Bennett’s gambling habit to gay marriage to Janet Jackson’s infamous Super Bowl halftime performance.

“Frank Rich and his secular ilk couldn’t care less about American children,” O’Reilly said of Rich’s take on the Jackson incident. “How dumb is this guy?” O’Reilly asked.

Behind the personal barbs, though, the divergent opinions of the two commentators provide perhaps the most compact public display of the questions and attitudes that divide so many Americans today, most of all in the vehemence and acrimony with which they disagree. O’Reilly frequently critiques the liberal permissiveness of Rich, “whose view is,” according to O’Reilly, “let’s tolerate almost anything, except people with whom we disagree.” For his part, Rich has shown more than a little disdain for O’Reilly’s insistence that he is in touch with some true voice of the people.

“It’s the unwritten rule of our culture that the public is always right,” Rich wrote in a Sunday column. “The ‘folks’ as Bill O’Reilly is fond of condescending to them, are always innocent victims of the big, bad cultural villains.”

In this war of words, each has accused the other of taking the repartee a little too far.

“If you go up against the elite media, it’s not going to be pretty,” O’Reilly said Monday night. “You’ll be branded a bigot, racist, antisemite, homophobe.” Rich, on the other hand, has said that O’Reilly’s constant references to the “elite media” are a veiled “code word” for Jews — a reference that the host seemed to make explicit in his March 4 question about Jewish control of the media.

“Whenever he attacks me, it sets off a flood of antisemitic e-mails and voice mail messages,” Rich told the Forward.

Given the effect these men have had on one another, it might surprise some to learn that they have never met in person. Of course, at this point — during a time when Americans seem to have so much trouble coming together — perhaps it is best that the two commentators keep their distance.

But O’Reilly, who was unavailable for comment, appears to be itching for a face-to-face showdown: He has extended numerous invitations to debate on his show, but so far Rich has declined — leading O’Reilly to brand Rich a “coward” during his March 8 broadcast. “He’s hiding under his desk,” O’Reilly said.

Rich, meanwhile, shows no signs of taking the bait.

“I get five to 10 requests for television appearances each week,” Rich told the Forward. “I turn down any that are ideological, and any that involve people shouting at each other.”

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