The O'Really Factor

That noted media critic Bill O'Reilly takes the major networks to task in a syndicated piece seen on Monday's Daily News op-ed page. O'Reilly argues that the departure of Tom Brokaw and the looming retirement of Dan Rather mask deeper problems for the major networks: that they are too Eastern, too elitist, and too liberal. Disaffected viewers seeking "honest analysis" are turning to Fox News Channel, O'Reilly argues, because it offers "provocative analysis" and a "traditionalist point of view."

O'Reilly's argument is a tired one, buttressed by old and, for the most part, flawed points (however, there's no denying Fox's appeal). Two of his claims stand out as requiring comment, purely because of their audacity and ubiquity in right-wing media critiques: 1. O'Reilly says the media are dominated by people who "see the world from a Manhattan or Georgetown point of view." Leave aside the fact that since New York is the nation's biggest city and Washington is the seat of national government, they are logical locations for media headquarters. Instead, let’s look at the locations of the network HQs:

CBS is on 57th Street between Tenth and Eleventh avenues. (Disclosure: I used to work there.)

NBC is at 30 Rockefeller Center.

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ABC is located on 66th Street between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West.

Fox, however, is headquartered at Sixth Avenue between 47th and 48th streets.

Therefore, the cultural divide between snobbish Northeastern liberalism and down-home heartland traditional values lies somewhere in the few yards between Fox and NBC. I think there's a hot-dog guy at the midway point. 2. O'Reilly writes: "The joke in the industry is that the only time you hear an anti-abortion point of view is when some nut blows up an abortion clinic." There are a lot of jokes in the industry. A lot of them concern Fox News and—since his legal troubles earlier this year—O'Reilly himself. But laughs aside, O'Reilly's claim is unfair.

The fact is that nowadays we hear very little debate about either the pros or the cons of abortion because the issue has matured. In the early 1990s people were getting in fistfights outside clinics in Wichita, Kansas. Now, abortion writ large is a background issue to arguments over so-called "partial birth" abortion, stem cell research, and foreign aid to groups that support abortion.

It's a shame the networks don’t talk more about abortion in general (as well as poverty, workers’ rights, the crumbling infrastructure, environmental justice, etc.). But the lack of such discussion reflects societal trends, not network news bias. In the mid 1990s, the anti-abortion side shifted tactics away from a frontal assault on Roe v. Wade to focus on eroding access to abortion via laws imposing waiting periods and parental notification. At the same time, polls showed that most Americans favored some right to abortion, courts generally upheld the right, and fewer and fewer U.S. counties had access to abortion services.

But when the debate does surface on the network news, pro-lifers do seem to get their licks in. Some recent examples:

• "I felt like giving the emergency contraception was murder." —Lenita Akles, a nurse in Anniston, Alabama, who quit her job because her clinic began handing out the morning-after pill. She was featured in an August 2004 NBC piece.

• "I sacrificed my children on an altar of selfishness and fear." —Caron Strong, who regretted her decision to have an abortion. She was seen in an August 2004 CBS Evening News piece about abortion as an issue in the presidential campaign.

• "You don't parade up to receive Holy Communion as if you are in full communion with the church when, in fact, you are promoting something that is, that is, that is seriously evil." —Bishop Michael Sheridan, head of the Catholic Church's Colorado Springs diocese, in a May 2004 ABC World News Tonight segment about some churches denying Communion to people who support abortion rights.


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