DOUBLE CROSS

08.03.09

Top Talkers’ Sham Truce

The peace between Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly is nothing more than a forced armistice. Lloyd Grove on why the slapfest will soon be back on—and why the two cable-TV megalomaniacs are essentially the same.

UPDATE: Truce? What truce? The New York Times published a front-page story on Saturday announcing a cessation of hostilities between MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly. As The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove predicted below, the peace agreement didn’t hold. It lasted just long enough for Olbermann to return from vacation for Monday night’s Countdown, in which he blasted the Times story’s author, Brian Stelter, O’Reilly, and News Corp. Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch as the “Worst Persons in The World.” For good measure, he called O’Reilly a “racist clown.”

Judging by the hoopla surrounding the supposed truce between Fox News star Bill O’Reilly and MSNBC host Keith Olbermann—the Hatfield and McCoy of cable television—you’d think peace had broken out all over the planet.

A front-page story in The New York Times, no less, recounted a mid-May confab of corporate titans—Rupert Murdoch, chairman of Fox’s parent company, News Corp.; Jeffrey Immelt, Murdoch’s counterpart at MSNBC’s parent, General Electric; and, yes, Charlie Rose, Facilitator to the Famous—in terms worthy of the Yalta Conference.

If pressed to have a reconciling beer with one of them, I suppose I’d choose O’Reilly, who at least, on rare occasions, betrays a self-deprecating sense of humor. But I have almost come to think of them as the same person.

With Southern charmer Rose massaging the principals with his patented verbal balm, Murdoch and Immelt “expressed regret over the venomous culture between the networks and the increasingly personal nature of the barbs,” high-mindedly agreed to a cease-fire, and even shook on it, The Times’ Brian Stelter reports. “It was time to grow up,” an anonymous “senior employee” confided.

Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but I can’t get too excited about a forced armistice between two megalomaniacal cable-TV demagogues who really deserve each other. While I wouldn’t dare liken it to the Hitler-Stalin Pact—that’s the kind of overwrought sophistry best left to Olbermann and O’Reilly—there’s more than a whiff of self-serving opportunism in this image-burnishing deal.

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Full disclosure: I am not an unbiased observer, having tangled with both as a gossip columnist over the years. To give them their due, they are both talented broadcasters (and very tall, each measuring in at well over 6 feet), and both have provided their respective audiences with some diverting moments of entertainment at 8 p.m.

If pressed to have a reconciling beer with one of them, I suppose I’d choose O’Reilly, who at least, on rare occasions, betrays a self-deprecating sense of humor. But I have almost come to think of them as the same person: Double O.

Olbermann’s impassioned and lengthy “special comments” about the outrages of the Bush White House, complete with angry glares and flying spit, were mesmerizing and occasionally informative; he is an accomplished writer and a facile ad libber. O’Reilly—who can be dour and distant in the flesh but lights up the screen with his magnetic persona—is a fearless interviewer. His incisive grilling of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were among the best TV interviews of the 2008 presidential campaign, peeling away layers of talking points to reveal each candidate’s core of grace under pressure. His more recent shouting match with Rep. Barney Frank—“You’re a coward!” he bellowed at the Massachusetts Democrat—was just plain riveting television.

Olbermann and O’Reilly also share some notable character flaws, many of them on public display. Both are surprisingly thin-skinned, unable to resist responding to the least little criticism with overwhelming force. I’d hear about it whenever I wrote something O’Reilly didn’t like, as occasionally my job required. Once he went on the late Tim Russert’s CNBC show, calling me a “weasel” and other such epithets in a five-minute rant; another time, according to a Fox publicist, he demanded that I be cut from the guest list of Fox News’ 10th anniversary celebration.

Olbermann, after taking exception to my selection of quotes from an appearance he made on C-SPAN, named not only me, but my 20-something assistant, as his “Worst Person in the World”—a strange tantrum against relative unknowns that surely baffled his viewers. Not satisfied, Olbermann sent a private side-letter to the newspaper owner demanding that my assistant be fired.

Their feud was just fine while it was boosting ratings and confined to name-calling between two schoolyard bullies—most of the nastiness coming from Olbermann, whose audience is a fraction of that of the man he enjoys insulting as “Bill-O the Clown”—but it got out of hand when Murdoch and Immelt became collaterally damaged victims. In recent years, Olbermann has personally attacked Murdoch as a dotty old man (doing his impression of an Aussie-accented pirate who keeps grunting “AAAARRH!”) and O’Reilly has attacked Immelt as an unpatriotic money-grubber who sells out America to enemies like Iran (while Bill-O incited his followers to flood GE’s switchboard and crash the company’s stockholders meetings).

Even all that would have been tolerable (and indeed Murdoch and Immelt have tolerated it) if the positive ratings impact of the Double O feud hadn’t reached the point of diminishing returns—which is also why the deal won’t last: The second the higher-ups make the calculation that there’s a legitimate business purpose in reviving the slapfest, it’s game on—and Double O, once again, will be a license to kill.