Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine carried a cover story titled "Getting Hosed." Over a cartoon of Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill Maher (who looked more like Robin Williams), "investigative humorist" Gene Weingarten, calling himself an "unapologetic, unreconstructed New Deal liberal," resolved to absorb 24 hours straight of punditry on TV, radio, and the Internet, and disdained Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, but also Keith Olbermann. In an online chat, Weingarten said this about conservatives: "I continue to believe that far right wing conservatives are either intelligent, rich people protecting their self interest, or poor, misguided, deluded fools who have been conned by the first group into working against their best interests." Weingarten selected Valentine’s Day for his experiment, and the hot issue of that day was Jane Fonda dropping a C-word in promoting "The Vagina Monologues."
Clearly, Rush and Bill are courageously willing to address this shocking and distasteful subject even at the risk of driving their audiences into multi-orgasmic rapture. Limbaugh joyfully eviscerates Fonda and moves quickly on to other things, but O'Reilly is in high dudgeon and is all over this reprehensible event. He's morally outraged, and seems to want to wring all he can get out of it, as though it were, say, a luffa sponge. As someone in the broadcasting business, he says, he doesn't want to become "the scold police," but he wonders just the same if someone ought to call the FCC and demand punishment. (Later at night, on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor," he will devote an entire segment to the issue, practically sputtering in exasperation when he can't persuade his guest, lawyer Anita Kay, to agree with him that heads must roll... B-b-but "this is the most vile word in the lexicon of obscenity!" O'Reilly protests. Laughing, Kay basically tells him to calm down and grow up, that the average 12-year-old girl has heard this word, and it's no big deal. It's my favorite moment of the day. (Anita Kay, the cure for the common scold.) Weingarten found himself liking Rush as much as he hated Bill, despite declaring himself a fervent liberal: The peril of listening to Limbaugh and O'Reilly at the same time is that you tend to compare them, and these are dangerous waters for an unapologetic, unreconstructed New Deal liberal like me. The comparison makes you actually like Rush. He's funny; O'Reilly is not. Limbaugh teases and baits his political adversaries; O'Reilly sneers and snarls at them. Limbaugh is mock-heroic; O'Reilly is self-righteous. So, when Limbaugh speculates that the Democrats in the House committee went after Roger Clemens because liberals hate cherished American institutions such as churches, the Boy Scouts and baseball, you know he's sorta kidding. When O'Reilly says liberals who oppose torture of prisoners just don't care how many people will die in a terrorist attack, you know he's as serious as an aneurysm.
But Weingarten goes looking for a reason to dislike Limbaugh:
It's complicated, but here it is: There's something real about all this palaver all around me; in its own overheated, perfervid way, it's inspiring. You can't get away from that. Unfettered discourse is the sign of a robust democracy. It's a genuine war of ideas out there, being fought by highly committed people who care about the world. And I am no conscientious objector. I'm not a witling. I have opinions. There are timeless truths; there are friends and there are enemies; there is right and there is wrong, and, by God, Rush is wrong. To admire Rush in any way is to consort with the enemy. It's treachery. It's siding with them. I focus on Rush once again and finally notice something. A toehold. Limbaugh mocks Obama mercilessly for what he sees as the thinness of his message and the mooing, unquestioning devotion of his supporters. That's all fair game, and Limbaugh prosecutes it with bite, flair and humor. But there's this, this . . . thing he sometimes does -- how did I not notice it before? -- when he pronounces the candidate's last name. He lowers his voice a register and booms it out from his chest, drawing out each syllable. I'd taken it as just a theatrical embellishment, but now I see it for what it is. Rush is reducing Obama's name to an African tribal chant. "O-bahh-mahh." He makes it sound like: Booga booga. Yo' Mama. Now, that's ugly. I'm right. I know I'm right. I'm so right. I lean back in my chair, at peace again. At war, again. Rush sucks.
But Weingarten also found Keith Olbermann’s shtick to be dramatically over the top as he described a scrape between President Bush and the Democrats over NSA electronic surveillance and whether telecom companies will get legal immunity:
Olbermann begins strongly, addressing himself directly to Bush that he's only protecting his cronies, the powerful telecoms. Yay!
Now he compares the bill Bush wanted to other bad laws, including the Alien and Sedition Acts, which I actually think might be just a little over the . . . Uh, now he's comparing it to . . . slavery. Now he's addressing Bush directly, and he's . . . oh, God. "If you believe in the seamless mutuality of government and big business, come out and say it! There is a dictionary definition, one word that describes that toxic blend. You're a fascist! Get them to print you a T-shirt with FASCIST on it!" Now he's, he's . . . ". . . and if there's one thing we know about Big Brother, Mr. Bush, it is that he is -- you are -- a liar!" I've already checked the thesaurus, so I know there's no help there. "You are a liar, Mr. Bush. And after showing some skill at it, you have ceased to even be a very good liar!" And: "You said that the lives of countless Americans depend on you getting your way. This is crap! And you sling it with an audacity and a speed unrivaled by even the greatest political felons of our history!" I mute it. Silence again. I send an e-mail to a friend who I know is online. This is what it says: o s, s brtu dytpmh [rtdpm/ I realize I had my hands on the wrong position on the keyboard. I have to resend it. It says: "I am a very strong person," more of a plea than a statement of fact.
On Monday, Weingarten consented to a chat session online at washingtonpost.com. When asked about how awful the experiment was, he replied:
The whole thing was painful, including the writing. The only joy I got was hiding a secret, nasty, double-entendred luffa sponge joke in there, about Bill O'Reilly, and in coming up with the expression "a tempest in a crock pot." And then even this small joy was dashed when I discovered the expression had already been used four times on the Web. Wait, one more thing. I felt I had reached something of a valuable insight when I explained the fundamental difference betweeen Limbaugh and O'Reilly. [He requoted the aneurysm passage above.]
He later added:
I like Mr. Obama's opinions. Actually, I like Mr. Limbaugh's opinions, too. I suggest liberals listen to Limbaugh from time to time. He's funny, and when we're weak on an issue, he gets us good. O'Reilly is just a mean 'ol hypocrite.
Unsurprisingly, Weingarten is a huge fan of the Newsy Giggle Twins on Comedy Central:
Vienna, Va.: Gene, Did you hear any of the right wingnuts bash Stewart and Colbert? I tend to think that the wingnuts are very, very afraid of those two. Gene Weingarten: Very shrewd question. I think Colbert and Stewart are the most influential political voices right now. And I think they are untouchable by the right. I hope they are helping to raise a generation of kids who are skeptical of the raging right. Actually, I think the Bush administration has helped this along, too.
A liberal from Potomac, Maryland said he differed with Weingarten on Olbermann:
...I appreciate Olbermann's ability to work up outrage over a genuinely outrageous issue (as opposed to a campaign-manufactured "outrage" prompt), whereas it seems to just irk you. Now that you've recovered from your ordeal, have your feelings on his tirade changed? Gene Weingarten: No, we are not in the same boat. You are sunk in partisanship, and therefore adrift, unable to tweeze reason from hype. It's not your fault. I found Olbermann just as over the top and outrageous as most of the right wingers. There is no excuse for taking what is essentially a matter of political disagreement over an issue that is, on some level, debatable, and start talking about fascism, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and slavery.
The very next exchange was this:
Washington, D.C.: I appreciated the part of your piece on Keith Olbermann. I used to be a great fan of his show, but it has continued to devolve into the kind of ranting to which it was meant to be an antidote. Step back from the dark side, Keith! Gene Weingarten: He has no shame. AND it has helped his ratings. Which underscores that... He has no shame.
Weingarten recommended to a conservative questioner that he try Randi Rhodes if he wanted to sample liberal talk radio:
Prince William, Va.: As part of the small conservative minority among your minions, I appreciated the distinctions you drew between Limbaugh and O'Reilly. Is there someone like Rush from your end of the spectrum that you would recommend to us right wingers, and someone like O'Reilly that we should feel free to ignore? Gene Weingarten: I'd totally ignore Olbermann. Sure, listen to Randi Rhodes.
Finally, whatever good will Weingarten may have gained with conservative readers by seeing some skill and entertainment value in Rush Limbaugh crumbled with this answer:
Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: I'm an extreme liberal, and I watch Fox news and their associated commentators. Simply, I want to know what the opposition is saying. And they have changed my views. I used to think conservatives were misguided. Now I think they're evil. Gene Weingarten: I continue to believe that far right wing conservatives are either intelligent, rich people protecting their self interest, or poor, misguided, deluded fools who have been conned by the first group into working against their best interests.
I don't think that answer was meant for giggles.