Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bill O'Reilly Takes on Semantics

I try my best to avoid Bill O'Reilly. I figure that if the blogosphere can let me do my thing, then Fox Network can let him do his. Nevertheless, I was intrigued that Rolling Stone's National Affairs Daily blog should post a YouTube clip under the headline, "Bill v. Bill: See O'Reilly's Attempt to Smear a Real Reporter." Now, for all my appreciation of much of what Rolling Stone reports (a far stronger feeling than my desire to avoid O'Reilly), I have to confess to blog editor Tim Dickinson that the language of a barker for a carnival side show leaves a really bad taste in my mouth. Then I confess that I was still curious enough to watch the video!

I think it is fair to say that every accusation that O'Reilly made did not hold up under scrutiny. I say this on the basis of the fact that O'Reilly was explicit about his evidence, playing what he felt were the relevant excerpts from an interview that Moyers gave to Rolling Stone. Moyers was very careful with his language, deliberately speaking in terms of categories to avoid being attacked on instances. Thus, it would be fair to say that all grounds for O'Reilly's attacks were products of O'Reilly's own reading of the text; and he would probably be hard pressed to find others to validate his particular reading.

Nevertheless, O'Reilly chose to do just that, bringing Marvin Kalb on to comment on the whole affair, entirely on the basis of what had just been aired. Kalb, of course, is no stranger to the skills of critical reading; and, like Moyers, he is very careful in the language he uses. So, Kalb did not explicitly call O'Reilly out on the holes in his reading but proceeded, instead, to start to tease out some of the subtleties in the language being used. This was too much for O'Reilly, who cut Kalb off with the sentence, "I'm not going to argue semantics; you came here for journalism."

As they say, give a man enough rope and he will hang himself, perhaps even before your very eyes. O'Reilly's single sentence at the very least carried the connotation that semantics has no place in the business of journalism, leaving those of us old-fashioned enough to view journalism as a form of communication (with all the contingent implications about both semantics and rhetoric) to wonder if O'Reilly might have been citing a Fox policy statement. Now, having done more than a little international travel, I know that, like CNN, Fox now provides news and comment to an international, rather than just domestic, audience. If this is a statement of what Fox thinks about semantics, then I should not be so surprised that we are now living in that world without reflection!

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