Bill O'Reilly blames liberalism for the decline of the newspaper industry. At last week's annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists in Philadelphia, Mr. O'Reilly cited declining circulation as evidence that "the folks," as he calls them, are alienated by the liberal ideology he insists dominates America's newsrooms.
"They hate you," he said jabbing the air with his index finger. "When someone hates you, they're not going to give you [their] money."
It was an interesting theory -- one which Mr. O'Reilly backed up with plenty of anecdotes, but no circulation figures. Asked by a reporter -- OK, it was me -- to give an example of newspapers that "the folks" can read without fear of ideological brow-beating, he nominated the Chicago Tribune before amending his answer.
Without answering the question, Mr. O'Reilly identified several mainstream newspapers that he reads every day, including The New York Times. It was odd because he had bashed it as unequivocally "liberal" minutes before.
In my follow-up, I asked Mr. O'Reilly to identify those newspapers he believes ordinary "folks" reward with higher circulation figures.
Yes, there was a hidden agenda in the question -- I wanted to get a resume within the hour to those newspapers that were actually growing in circulation.
To my surprise, Mr. O'Reilly failed to come up with a single newspaper that puts it all together for "the folks" in a way that doesn't violate the ideological neutrality of the reader.
There was no mention of New York Post, The Washington Times or even a nod in the direction of the editorial page of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Nor did Bill O'Reilly attempt to explain why the circulation of conservative newspapers is smaller than so-called "liberal" papers, given the public's alleged disgust with liberal journalism.
Mr. O'Reilly's analysis did hint at the ruthless pragmatism of readers when he also blamed the Internet for the industry's problems. He could have been talking about my wife -- she reads only online the newspaper that pays half our bills. She's annoyed that we continue to subscribe to the print version and is unimpressed when I remind her of the relationship between circulation and advertising dollars -- and she's an economist!
My wife has joined the ranks of people who used to read newspapers, but I can assure Bill O'Reilly that she's just as "liberal" as she's ever been. Alas, she even has the cancelled checks to the John Kerry presidential campaign to prove it. Until recently, she was still sending money to Kerry's senatorial war chest, but I put an end to that nonsense when I found out about it. "Teresa Heinz doesn't need our money!" I bellowed.
If "liberalism" as Mr. O'Reilly defines it is principally responsible for the woes of the newspaper industry, it would be interesting to hear his perspective on the decline of Fox News' ratings in recent years.
"The O'Reilly Factor" is still the No. 1 news show on cable as Mr. O'Reilly never tires of pointing out, but his audience dipped between 2005 and 2006 before rebounding this year, according to the Nielsens.
It was only a matter of time before fans of "The Factor" discovered digital video recorders like TiVo. Until the bean counters learn how to count folks who abandoned the tyranny of watching television in real time, audiences will continue to shrink.
Meanwhile, the ratings of MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," Mr. O'Reilly's chief ideological foil, are growing steadily. Could it be that Mr. Olbermann's brand of two-fisted liberalism better matches our national mood regarding the Iraq war?
Bill O'Reilly's positions on gun control, immigration reform, capital punishment and gay rights are refreshingly progressive, but no one better articulates the nation's weariness with the incompetence of the Bush administration than Mr. Olbermann.
Surely, Mr. O'Reilly wouldn't attribute the growth in Mr. Olbermann's audience to a disenchantment with "traditional conservatism" by "the folks." I suspect he'd be the first to say that was too simplistic a reading of a very complex situation.
So why was Bill O'Reilly wagging his finger at a bunch of ink-stained wretches in the print press when the only difference between our respective mediums is the willingness of advertisers to support one medium's business model at the expense of the other for now?
I wish I had asked him what he plans to do when the average household's monthly cable and Internet bill exceeds $100. Is it too farfetched to imagine a future where a 50-cent newspaper makes sense again?
Correction/Clarification: (Published June 30, 2007) This column as originally published June 26, 2007 stated that the ratings of "The O'Reilly Factor" were shrinking. The audience dipped between 2005 and 2006, but rebounded this year.
Tony Norman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631.