In November of 1990, I was in Togo’s capital city, Lomé, finishing up the paperwork for the close of my Peace Corps service. A friend and I, as we usually did in the morning when we were in the city, had found a street stand serving coffee, bread and eggs to people who would eat them while sitting on a low, wooden bench at the side of the road. It was a wide dirt street running from Kodjoviakopé (where the Peace Corps office was) to the central market.
As we drank our coffee, people suddenly appeared, running toward the marketplace. We were tired from a long trip down from the north (where we were stationed) the day before, so paid a lot less attention than we might have. Something of interest was happening, but we would hear about it soon enough, we figured. No one else on the bench got up to run, so we figured we were fine right where we were.
A few minutes later, we and saw a plume of dark black smoke spurt into the sky above the marketplace and heard a series of booms. Quickly, people were running back in the opposite direction they had been running before. I seem to remember that some of them were bloody or had torn clothes, but that may just be the imagining of intervening years.
We heard later—I think—that a number of people had been killed. Six, if my memory serves me right.
It may be wrong, however, as wrong as Bill O’Reilly’s memories of a riot he witnessed in Argentina a few years earlier. As wrong as at least some of versions I’ve heard of a party at my grandparents’ house in the late 1940s. As wrong as most of the stories we’ve heard on bar stools, over Thanksgiving turkeys and from that person in the next seat on a long, cross-country flight.
So, what’s the difference? After all, Bill O’Reilly isn’t in a position where people should be trusting him, like Brian Williams was, where confidence is a necessary part of the job. O’Reilly is a “news clown” of the sort presaged (and named) by Philip K. Dick in his story “Top Stand-By Job” in Amazing Stories, in October of 1963: Dick’s Jim Briskin’s shows include things such as “his quaint account—it had touched the hearts of millions—of the mutant blue jay which learned, by great trial and effort, to sew.” Like Brisken, no matter how much he blusters, O’Reilly is nothing more than an entertainer. And it is stories that entertain us, truth completely to the side. That people fool themselves into feeling differently shouldn’t be his fault, should it?
Here’s the problem, and it’s demonstrated in the PKD story: News clowns are just too close to politics and to real journalism where the quest for truth, not fame or power, should be central. They become just too close to places where honesty, and not entertainment, should be the touchstone. Briskin sees a chance to become president and decides to try, but does not succeed.
The story ends with this:
“Look, Jim-Jam Briskin’s back on the air,” Leon said, gesturing at the TV set. Sure enough, there was the famous, familiar red wig, and Briskin was saying something witting and yet profound, something that made one stop to ponder. “Hey listen,” Leon said. “He’s poking fun at the FBI, can you imagine him doing that now? He’s not scared of anything.”
Don’t bother me,” Max said. “I’m thinking.” He reached over and carefully turned the sound of the TV set off.
For thoughts such as he was having he wanted no distractions.
A distraction is all that O’Reilly is, too—and that’s the problem, for he claims to be something more. Yet he continues to clown, making threats against a reporter: “During a phone conversation, he told a reporter for The New York Times that there would be repercussions if he felt any of the reporter’s coverage was inappropriate. ‘I am coming after you with everything I have,’ Mr. O’Reilly said. ‘You can take it as a threat.’” This is nonsense; this is just plain silly.
If I, or your Aunt Thelma, exaggerate a story and are caught out, we are simply embarrassed, apologize and move on, wondering about our memories and whether or not we are losing our minds. When Williams does it, he really must step aside. We’ve a culture of trust that has developed surrounding our legitimate news anchors and legitimate journalistic endeavors and outlets (for all of Sarah Palin’s “lame-stream media” comments, there are still reasons to trust much of American journalism). The problem for O’Reilly is that, even though he is not a legitimate news anchor or even commentator or journalist of any sort, he plays one on TV, and on a network that, as a whole, masquerades entertainment as news. So, he’s in a bind much greater than Williams faced: He cannot admit to having lied or exaggerated, for that would be putting the lie to the entire Fox News charade. So, he has to fight back; he has to.
And that is why none of the rest of us is Bill O’Reilly—unless our lies, too, have been used to fool people in a harmful way, to defraud them or to advance our own careers.