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Bill O’Reilly Versus Stephen Colbert

Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly is often the target of Stephen Colbert’s humor–and lately, Colbert’s jabs have begun to sting.

Mr. O’Reilly, clearly angry at Colbert, seems to have become somewhat consumed by him as well. For example, on a recent program O’Reilly referred to Colbert as a “deceiver,” an “ideological fanatic” who is “misguided in the extreme” and “clueless” but “the guy does damage.” He “gives cover to powerful people who are selling Americans a big lie.”

Subtle.

But it didn’t stop there. When it was announced that Colbert will replace David Letterman next year, O’Reilly weighed in against his nemesis again, saying, “Colbert has built an entire career on pleasing the left.” O’Reilly said Colbert will have difficulty going up against “high energy guys who want to have a good time on their shows” (NBC’s Jimmy Fallon and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel).

“It’d be hard to imagine that 40 percent of Americans who describe themselves as conservative will watch Colbert and that’s a lot of folks to lose from the jump,” O’Reilly said. “But Colbert will have good writers and surely he knows his challenge. Place your bets now.”

Appearing on ABC’s The View, O’Reilly said Colbert is a “mouthpiece for the far left,” a person who “snipes” and makes “these little snarky remarks.”

A few thoughts on all this, the first of which is that I’m not sure Mr. O’Reilly does himself any favors in going after Colbert. Virtually every time he does, Colbert takes O’Reilly’s attacks and milks them for all they’re worth. He is playing right into the trap set for him by Colbert.

Second, this fairly good-natured 2007 interview between Colbert and O’Reilly is useful to this extent: Colbert isn’t any more or less of an “ideological fanatic,” “deceiver” or “mouthpiece for the left” now than he was then. Colbert’s shtick hasn’t changed, but O’Reilly’s irritation with Colbert clearly has. One can’t help but think what’s driving this now is more personal rather than philosophical.

Third, Colbert is a comedian–one with a liberal slant for sure, but still a comedian. And so for O’Reilly to treat Colbert as if his comedy is secondary to his ideological agenda is, I think, a mistake. Remember, Colbert’s character is a satire of O’Reilly. The character was created in order to get laughs, which it does.

Which brings me to my fourth point. I’m more conservative than Mr. O’Reilly, but I’m also a fan of both Colbert and Jon Stewart. Not because I agree with their politics. Not because I think their caricature of conservatives is fair. (You’d never know from them that Fox News features far and away the best news show on the air in the form of Special Report w/Bret Baier.) And not because I don’t think from time to time they might act in ways that are bothersome and reveal their core (liberal) convictions.

No, I’m a fan because Stewart and Colbert are masters at comedy, with Stewart, I think, the best there is. (Stewart is also an excellent interviewer.) So they’re liberal comedians for sure–but the fact that they’re liberal doesn’t mean they aren’t funny or clever. Or that they don’t at times expose conservative weaknesses or hypocrisies. I tend toward the view that even conservatives should be able to appreciate their professional excellence.

One final point: When Colbert takes over for Letterman, he’s going to set aside his ultra-conservative Colbert Report character. I therefore doubt Colbert will be seen as all that politically partisan in his future role. We’ll see.

Bill O’Reilly is a talented person; there’s no way he could have dominated cable television for so many years unless he was. He can show an admirable independence and he’s often well informed. But he strikes me as a person with a tremendous ego, even by the standards of television personalities, and quite sensitive to criticism. The latter shows up now and again, but never more so than in his recent battles with Stephen Colbert. And in these battles–with O’Reilly attempting to bludgeon Colbert as if he were a combination of Paul Krugman and Howard Dean while Colbert responds with humor and mockery–Colbert almost always comes out on top.

Papa Bear needs to relax a bit.  


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