In the Red Zone, A.k.a. the Land Of O’Reilly

Your correspondent begins his diary this year in Jacksonville, Fla. It’s a metropolis of 1.3 million in the northeast corner of the state–a place where the local landscape could probably best be described as “Generic America.” Consider the directions to the house we’re living in while I work on a film that’s shooting down here: “When you get off the Interstate, hang a left at the third McDonald’s. Then it’s just past the Dunkin’ Donuts, next to the Burger King, across from Hooters, by the Wal-Mart, just down the road from Home Depot–in the shopping mall with the Office Max, Jiffy Lube and Bed Bath & Beyond–near the strip mall with Radio Shack and Starbucks, next to the K.F.C., around the corner from the AMC Multiplex, near the Toys ‘R’ Us, just down the road from Sears and Kmart, alongside Comp USA, next to the Target, behind the Pizza Hut, across from Blockbuster.”

Following me so far? Good. Because the really ridiculous thing here–the truly absurd part of this–is that if you were to actually give these directions to a local resident, chances are that instead of being met with a blank stare, the person will shrug, squint and ask, “Now which Wal-Mart are we talkin’ about? The one on Orgeta, Wells Road or Roosevelt Boulevard?”

(Sorry, but the whole place reminds me of a game we play on Route 46 in New Jersey, the Sunrise Highway on Long Island, or Sepulveda Boulevard in Los Angeles: “Quick. Close your eyes. Now open them. What city are you in? What state? Haven’t a clue? We’re on Generic Avenue, in Miracle Mile America.”)

To be fair, the people I’ve met down here are gracious and friendly–even if their indigenous culture has been strip-malled into oblivion. (I particularly appreciate the way so many local waitresses and cashiers have chosen to display their support for our war efforts by painting their fingernails in patriotic red, white and blue color schemes.) But if you spend enough time down here–passing roadside shrines that are as likely to be memorializing NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt as the victims of 9/11–one thing becomes abundantly clear:

This is George Bush country. We’re firmly in the Red Zone. It’s also O’Reilly Country–as in Bill O’Reilly, Fox News star and current scourge of the New York Media Establishment.

I first met Bill O’Reilly 20-odd years ago, at Boston University. I was a sophomore, editing the daily newspaper. He was a graduate student, returning after several years in the working world to get a master’s in broadcast journalism. One afternoon, he strutted into our offices demanding a regular column.

Even then, he was referred to simply as “O’Reilly.”

Even then, he could be obnoxious, egotistical and hilarious–the latter usually occurring when you called him out about being obnoxious or egotistical.

“You’re ignoring graduate students,” he lectured us. “And nobody’s writing about the commuters–Massachusetts residents who can’t afford to live on campus.”

O’Reilly was right. So we gave him the column. And thus began a personal friendship that continues to this day.

As a friend, I’m happy for O’Reilly’s multimedia success. But stepping back as an observer, it also doesn’t surprise me. Nothing happens in a vacuum. And O’Reilly’s success is an almost predictable response to a decade of TV news sins: Too many politicians spinning without scrutiny. Too many puffball questions by Larry King. Too many cooing Barbara Walters sessions with murderers and sociopaths. Too many Sunday mornings when Tim Russert seems to be acting like the genial host of a make-believe drama called Meet the Press , where everybody goes out for brunch after the show.

In short, O’Reilly has become a stand-in for the audience–an audience that’s mad as hell, yelling at the TV set, tired of being patronized and played for fools.

Is O’Reilly over the top sometimes? Sure. But what his detractors fail to recognize is that he’s much closer to the journalism school of Mike Royko, Jimmy Breslin and Mike Wallace than he is to that of Morton Downey Jr. or Rush Limbaugh.

Consider the way he took the Red Cross and the United Way to task for mishandling the 9/11 charity funds. O’Reilly was the first to call for government oversight. And contrary to George Clooney’s complaints, O’Reilly was more than partially responsible for making sure the money went where it was intended to go. During an interview with the head of the United Way, the man first claimed that “100 percent” of the money was going to the families. But after aggressive questioning, he finally admitted, with great chagrin, that in fact the sub-charities were using the funds to cover administrative costs. Twenty-four hours after O’Reilly’s interview aired, the United Way announced that it would start making payments to the victims’ families. Would this have happened without O’Reilly’s intervention? Probably not.

(And if I may digress here for a moment, with regard to O’Reilly’s most recent dust-up with a celebrity, namely Sean Penn: This is the second time Talk magazine has shot itself in the foot with O’Reilly viewers. In August, Talk editorial director Maer Roshan appeared on the show, smirking as he disingenuously claimed that the fashion spread portraying Bush-daughter look-alikes in jail was just good fun. And now the magazine is hyping the interview wherein cover boy Mr. Penn opines, “I think that people like the Howard Sterns, the Bill O’Reillys and to a lesser degree the bin Ladens of the world are making a horrible contribution” to society. Attention, Talk editors: All hype is not good hype. In the 90’s, the rantings of a marginal celebrity may have created buzz; now they create the impression that the magazine is a waste of paper and time. So between Mr. Roshan’s smirk, and Mr. Penn’s worldview, I just have to ask: Are you guys deliberately trying to sell as few copies as possible?)

As I said before, nothing happens in a vacuum. O’Reilly is riding the Zeitgeist . But he’s also the beneficiary of some muddled thinking at CNN. Somehow, the network still doesn’t seem to realize that the United States has more than one time zone. I admire Jeff Greenfield. He’s a perfect late-night host. But when his show airs at 11 p.m. in the East, it’s only 8 in the West–when CNN is up against O’Reilly, in prime time. Unfortunately, Mr. Greenfield’s “slippers and hot chocolate” sensibility seems out of sync. And then there’s the Larry King problem. Didn’t anybody at CNN have the sense to stop him–to pull the plug–before he announced: “Coming up next, Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, who’ll tell us how the events of 9/11 changed her life forever!”

In the long run, the question is how well O’Reilly will play over time. As the careers of Messrs. Jennings, Rather and Brokaw attest, television remains a cool medium. And the last-angry-man act only goes so far. O’Reilly is smart and savvy and understands this. I wouldn’t bet against him.

Because after two decades of friendship, I’ve still never met anyone who was more in sync with Generic America.