Why is Kristof picking on O'Reilly?

Media criticism.
Feb. 10 2006 4:42 PM

Sympathy for Bill O'Reilly

Why is the Times' Nicholas Kristof picking on him?

Nicholas D. Kristof
Nicholas D. Kristof

Plagued as he is with elephantiasis of the ego, Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly relishes attacks from the New York Times or any other A-list media. So, when New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof swiped Fox on Dec. 11 ($) for its many reports and commentaries on the alleged "war on Christmas," you could almost hear O'Reilly's psyche crack, its outer protective area slough off, and expand two days later as he evened the score by calling Kristof one of the "usual committed left-wing ideologues."

Kristof returned to the riled O'Reilly on Dec. 18 ($) with a prayer for the Most Watched Man in Cable News, calling him one of those "demagogic table-thumpers who exploit public religiosity as a cynical ploy to gain attention and money."

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Then, putting the non into non sequitur, Kristof challenged O'Reilly to use his media power to "stand up to genocide in Darfur" instead of contesting the nonexistent war on Christmas. "If you really want to defend traditional values, then come with me on a trip to Darfur," he wrote.

As Kristof readers know, he's such a frequent visitor to the Darfur slaughterhouse that he's purchased a time-share condominium there. I jest, of course, but there's something around the bend about Kristof's Darfur-instead-of-Christmas harping. Every journalist who chooses to report on Subject A receives critical mail and phone calls from folks who insist that the journalist should be reporting on Subject B if he thinks A is a problem. Kristof must think it's clever to stoop to a gambit that's beneath any self-respecting blogger.

Kristof's taunt also smacks of the sort of self-aggrandizement you're more likely to view on The O'Reilly Factor than on the Times op-ed page. Kristof seems to be saying, As the vicar of Darfur, I stand in absolute judgment of all who have not paid witness to this crime against humanity by touring the region with me.

In a new column this week, Kristof proved his elephantiasis outbreak was more severe than O'Reilly's. After O'Reilly wrote in his column he couldn't take a break from his day jobs (radio and TV shows) to visit Darfur, Kristof asked readers on Feb. 7 ($) to pledge the amount of money they'd be willing to spend to send O'Reilly because maybe money, not time, is what's kept the TV host from making the hajj. This jab fails to qualify as wit because O'Reilly's TV and radio contracts and his best-selling books have made him hugely rich.

The pledge-drive prank makes less sense because Kristof isn't really asking for the money. "Don't send money; all I'm looking for is pledges," he writes in the Feb. 7 column, giving an e-mail address. How much have Kristof readers "pledged" to Kristof's ego—I mean, the O'Reilly trip? As of Feb. 10, $215,003, according to Kristof's blog. Har har.

Don't get me wrong. Bill O'Reilly deserves it in the shins—or even higher—at least two times a week. His bullying, grandstanding, and modern know-nothingism make him a plump target. But Kristof doesn't want to engage or debate O'Reilly, he wants to embarrass him by playing dada games.

Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make a newspaper columnist. Most columnists start off with a bag full of ideas and endless energy. But the job begins to weigh on even the most talented journalist. He starts writing columns about columns he's written, about his kids, or about the deaths of relatives. He composes columns as open letters to world leaders—or writes from inside their heads. He quotes cab drivers. His columns become more assertion than argument. Finally, he starts picking silly, protracted fights with other media machers.

Kristof, a Times columnist since November 2001, can do better than this. If he's run out of gas, why doesn't he re-enlist as a reporter?