I don't often see my sister, but she knows I've dabbled in media criticism, and so she recently mailed me commentary by James Wolcott that in print was called The Sweet Smell of Disgrace and on the Vanity Fair web site was re-packaged as Brian Williams, Rolling Stone, and the Rise of the "Media Culpa."
In print and in pixel, Wolcott has fun with mixed metaphors and false gravitas. But if you read the essay, you get the impression that Wolcott laments not the well-publicized screw-ups of his fellow journalists, but the web-driven accountability for those screw-ups. It's the "yippee-kay-yay cries of Schadenfreude from the usual rodeo hands on the Internet" that irritate Wolcott more than "promiscuous copycats" and marquee names brought low. Brian Williams and Bill O'Reilly are the names that Wolcott cites, one dinged for false memories and the other for "serial exaggeration."
That work in front of a camera and behind an anchor desk tends to encourage a "flexible" relationship with truth is hardly news, is it?
Wolcott would have done much better to examine the upper-middle-class progressive biases that he shares with Williams and O'Reilly, but does not admit to having. At least two things function as tells there:
One: Wolcott writes that debunked stories of sexual assault on college campuses "did considerable damage after their credibility crumpled," and by that he means that fraud at the heart of those particular stories couldn't help but damage the preferred narrative of the Predatory College Male. An essayist with an eye on the reputations of students falsely accused would have recast the same sentence to point out that the debunked stories actually did considerable damage before their credibility crumpled.
Two: On the basis of precisely nothing, Wolcott declares that Bill O'Reilly (by default the "conservative" in his analysis, if only because Brian Williams needed a counterweight) has respectable TV ratings because he "functions as the angry white man's apoplexy supplier" and "his average viewer is Grandpa Simpson, shaking his fist at a cloud."
Wolcott does not seem to fathom that there are "angry white men" who can't stand Bill O'Reilly. As one such recently pointed out, "O'Reilly is a pretty thoughtless man, given to the sort of rantings of the Lunchbucket Philosopher, basing his philosophy not on Judeo-Christian teachings, as he never tired of cliche-ing, but on his visceral gut reactions."
In other words, pace Wolcott, Bill O'Reilly has not earned enough respect among conservatives of either gender (read: people whom progressives seldom pal around with) to be a preferred "apoplexy supplier." O'Reilly is actually more of an apoplexy target, especially now that -- like the progressives he occasionally challenges -- he's decided that appeasing terrorists, and arguing with women who do not appease terrorists, is the better part of valor. "No Spin Zone"? It is to laugh.
Wolcott would know that if he'd read or talked to a few "angry white men" instead of writing them off as cartoon characters. He might also know that no one following the news needs help from professional contrarians to work him- or herself into a proper snit, because ignorance and injustice are easy to find, even if not always in the places where our mandarins look first.