There he is – again! – that act you’ve known for all these years: the one and only Bill O’Reilly, my Fox News colleague, best-selling author and occasional tormentor as host of the “The O’Reilly Factor,” the top-rated political talk show that airs at 8 p.m. ET on the Fox News Channel. But to find him here…?
It startles at first glance: Bill’s face is frozen in a particularly agitated and assertive moment, eyes aflame with anger, mouth agape, finger jabbing the air … But he’s rendered in micro-dots, his face enlarged by 150 percent or so and washed in some sickly green hue that makes him look like an alien, almost … Slapped diagonally across Bill’s forehead is a stark black headline: IN-YOUR-FACE POLITICS. Beneath the finger reads a subtitle: THE CONSEQUENCES OF UNCIVIL MEDIA.
To author Diana C. Mutz, a political science and communication professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and someone who identifies herself as a “political psychologist,” the Visage of O’Reilly is central to our times, a negative Shroud of Turin: the embodiment of all that is ruinous of politics today. But when you question Mutz on the subject, as I did during her recent visit to “The Foxhole,” you find there is actually much good she believes O’Reilly to have done in the service of modern political discourse … Two such starkly divergent positions, simultaneously held: by the sedate standards of political science, it is a veritable love-hate relationship.
While I am no psychologist, I immediately recognized the need to probe these deep-seated and conflicted feelings at the heart of In-Your-Face Politics, which was published in March by Princeton University Press. “Do you regard Bill as uncivil?” I began. “Yes,” Mutz said flatly.
She added: “The show contains a lot of what we’d call uncivil political discourse, meaning that it’s far more heated than what we usually experience in our day to day lives.” I reminded Mutz, who is also director of the Annenberg Center’s Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics, that much non-political daily discourse, such as arguments between spouses, can grow uncivil, and that O’Reilly surely hadn’t gone that far. “Is he the very face of incivility to you?” I pressed.
“Well, he is associated with high levels of incivility,” Mutz replied. “And certainly it’s one of the shows that people think of when they think about ‘shout’ shows and people raising their voices and that kind of thing. What’s interesting to me about this as a political psychologist is that people actually do process it the way they would a face-to-face conversation that they were witnessing ... Just as you might be uncomfortable if you were at a dinner party and there is a couple across the table arguing with one another, people can have that same kind of physiological reaction when they watch television where there’s heated debate.”
I asked why the face of a cable television talk show host had been chosen to embody a negative trend in the field of politics; after all, Bill O’Reilly is not directly involved in campaigns or elections, which is how we typically define “politics” in any given country.
ROSEN: Are we saying that the Bill O’Reillys of the world, the media figures, determine our politics?
MUTZ: No, we’re not saying they “determine” politics. But there’s no doubt about it: The way the American public learns about politics is through the media. And whether it’s during a campaign or between election years, this is where public discourse on matters of political importance happen[s].
Asked to characterize the status of incivility in American politics today – following a long tradition in which, for example, Grover Cleveland was dogged with cries of “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa?” – Mutz cites the great competition to traditional television news outlets now posed by cable TV programs and other technology. It was here that the psychologist’s deeply conflicted feelings for the notoriously unsentimental O’Reilly rose to the surface, irrepressible:
MUTZ: People who are only tangentially interested in politics – those people are going to tune out altogether unless we make political television more lively, more interesting to watch. And I think that’s really a major contributor to more incivility in the kind of political discourse that we see on TV.
ROSEN: But to the extent that your diagnosis is that political television today has come to encompass a kind of gladiatorial nature to it, wasn’t that the whole point, was to make it livelier? And –
ROSEN: – and isn’t that what you’re prescribing, then?
MUTZ: Absolutely! In fact, what we see in the studies that we do is that people remember the content far better when it’s in that kind of format. When it’s uncivil, when people are raising their voices, they remember who stands where; they also are more likely to send it to their friends, via email – clips of the show, or to ask them –
ROSEN: So that’s a good thing, no?
MUTZ: It’s a good thing in that people are more likely to watch it than they would be if it were some calm, civil, PBS-type debate –
ROSEN: And, and more likely to remember it, as you just told us –
ROSEN: And more likely to share it –
ROSEN: – and enlighten their fellow citizens, right?
MUTZ: That’s right. And many things about it are good –
ROSEN: So you’re pro-Bill O’Reilly!
MUTZ: [Laughs] Well, there are some negative externalities that flow from it, unfortunately.
Click the video above to watch the full episode of “The Foxhole” with guest Diana C. Mutz, and learn the full contours of Bill O’Reilly’s negative externalities.
James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole." His latest book is "A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century" (Crown Forum, October 4, 2016).