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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION | TELEVISION

A Bit of Raw Energy in the Spin Cycle

August 17, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Not since Republicans no-bizzed-like-show-bizzed in Philadelphia two weeks ago has so much been made of so little.

This week's Democratic National Convention has produced a conga line of media covering media covering media in a lunar scape of news so barren that Tuesday's stump speeches by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and his niece Caroline Kennedy somehow got live coverage even on network TV, giving the GOP good reason to complain.

On a related front, the Democrats' presence here has offered opportunities galore for an entire cosmos of news, talk and interview shows right up to tonight's acceptance by Al Gore of his party's presidential nomination. With this media phenomenon comes a classic symbiosis.

Much space to fill, many propagandists itching to fill it.

How have they filled it? With few exceptions, by giving the same answers to the same questions day after day.

More than just tedious, much worse it's irrelevant. This also includes CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel anchors who have had little to do at Staples Center but report fast-breaking non-news and stale factoids, moderate narrowly focused discussions of hashed-over topics and wait for the next bag of bull and obfuscation to walk in.

Well, it's a living.

As with the GOP in Philadelphia, this circular assembly line of spin keeps rolling along from sky box to sky box, visiting both upstarts and established biggies and shows with tones as diametrically different as CNN's genial and benign "Larry King Live" and "The O'Reilly Factor" on the Fox News Channel.

O'Reilly's 4 p.m. hour of combat has more raw energy than any show of its ilk, and even when driving you bonkers this week, he was a real hoot and just about impossible to switch off.

If King is the Marcel Marceau of TV interviewers, O'Reilly, a former ABC correspondent and host of the moderately tabloid "Inside Edition," is the antichrist, darting his flaming tongue from a big, bad mouth that operates incessantly.

How frustrating to be a news talk show host who is made to suffer guests who get in the way of his monologue. Poor man. So much wisdom to give, so little time to impart it.

You have the feeling he wouldn't hesitate to weigh in just as aggressively if the subject were the mating habits of the tsetse fly.

O'Reilly spins hyperbole even as he calls his show a "no spin zone." Yet he deserves credit for running that rare interview hour, at both party conventions, that truly challenged partisan spinners, regardless of their political stripe. Despite professing to be nonpartisan, however, he does appear to froth more when attacking Democrats, liberals and--this one makes him boil--"big government." He also does him homework, making him a formidable inquisitor.

He has said how much he'd like to get President Clinton in the studio with him. When former Clinton confidant Dick Morris, who has reinvented himself as a Fox news contributor, mentioned to O'Reilly on the air recently that the Clinton White House regarded him as the "hardest interview," O'Reilly paused to bask. "Really?" he replied. You knew that somewhere inside he was hyperventilating.

Guests who do best with him are sure of their positions and tenacious in expressing them. It's not unlike O'Reilly, as he did often this week, to ask a question and tolerate about a sentence of answer before impatiently butting in: "Now here's what I think."

Here he was at Staples Wednesday when the topic was Head Start with director and child activist Rob Reiner: "Even if it doesn't work, I would fund it. Know why?" Reiner lips parted. Too late. O'Reilly: "Here's why."

In the same hour, he promised to give "the last word" to Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, then tried trumping what she said. It's his nature. At the end of each hour, he reads letters, many of them highly critical, an admirable practice that's highly unusual for TV. Neutralizing that good deed, though, he also lowers the boom on those critics. "Got two pieces of bread?" he replied to one Wednesday. "Then put your letter between them, because it's baloney."

Not that he doesn't appreciate a good tiff, as when conferring his papal blessing on some guests. "You're a smart guy," he told actor Ron Silver, a Democrat, this week. "I was flying from then on," Silver joked on the phone the next day.

They had argued on the show about Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush. Silver said he wasn't put off by O'Reilly's attacking style. "I liked the give and take," he said. "It makes for fun and interesting television."

Plus, he added, "there are plenty of other forums where you can have a reasoned discussion." That may not be true. But spend some time with O'Reilly, and a little baloney rubs off.

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