An entertaining history of American journalism could be written based on its feuds, which detonate with the frequency of Baghdad car bombs. As the saying goes, it's not that people in the press have thin skins, it's that they have no skin.
Famous grudges have pitted William Randolph Hearst against Joseph Pulitzer; Alexander Cockburn against Abe Rosenthal and Norman Podhoretz; Walter Annenberg against the entire "liberal media"; Jim Bellows against Ben Bradlee; Ben Bradlee against Al Neuharth; Ted Turner against Rupert Murdoch; the New York Post against the Daily News; and Walter Winchell against Cissy Patterson, Ed Sullivan, Time magazine, Whittaker Chambers, Westbrook Pegler, Drew Pearson, and the entire known universe.
Modern news organizations prevent bad blood from splattering with its former velocity, muffling as they do disputes between journalists or media moguls. But one recent exception is the current on-air tiff between MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, who share the weekday 8 p.m. time slot. Over-the-top and nasty, the rumble evokes some of the nastiest pissing matches in journalistic history.
As if set on an elementary-school playground, the Olbermann-O'Reilly feud sets the sassy class wit against the bruising class bully. Nicholas Lemann's recent piece in The New Yorker pegs O'Reilly's height at 6-foot-4, and the big mook probably weighs in excess of 225 pounds. Often when interviewing guests in the studio, O'Reilly leans into them from across his table, squinting like Clint Eastwood and finger-jabbing in the direction of their chests as if his next move might be a punch or a thrown brick. He browbeats, accuses, dismisses, and intimidates like a young ruffian.
Olbermann is big, too, bragging about his size 14 feet on the air. But it's his wit and his eyes, not the threat of a sucker punch, that do the damage. Cutdown artist supreme, he has said of nemesis O'Reilly, "If he didn't do personal attacks he would be a mime." Such is Olbermann's appetite for inflicting psychic pain on O'Reilly that if the two men were transported back to their youths and dropped onto a playground, I suspect that every day O'Reilly thrashed Olbermann for his insolence, Olbermann would come back the next day in pretty bandages and taunt the bully anew.
The feud goes back to May 5, 2003—if not further—when Olbermann quipped at the close of a segment on Sen. Joe McCarthy's media manipulations, "So it was all programmed to look for fish to shoot in the barrel. Oddly, that's also how they program Bill O'Reilly's show."
That slam is overtly political, encouraging the audience to think of O'Reilly as a nut-bag fascist and not a self-styled populist. But the O'Reilly and Olbermann's feud is almost always more about style than it is politics. For example, Olbermann has repeatedly taken to declaring O'Reilly "Today's Worst Person in the World," but for crimes of hypocrisy, pomposity, and poor taste more than anything else. Nor was O'Reilly attempting to score political points in late January when he used the opening minutes of The O'Reilly Factor to whine about NBC's (read: Olbermann's) cheap shots against him. When Olbermann returned fire on his show by doing a deadly O'Reilly impression (see the video on Salon), it was just another example of the smartass jeering at the bully.
O'Reilly's February petition drive urging MSNBC to replace Olbermann with his time-slot predecessor, the liberal-liberal Phil Donahue, had nothing to do with the two men's political differences. Olbermann laughed and signed the petition. Likewise with Olbermann's regular zinging of O'Reilly over the October 2004 sexual harassment complaint filed against him by a Fox News Channel employee. References to the steamier pages in the sexual harassment suit have become such an integral part of Countdown With Keith Olbermann that all Keith needs to do to give his viewers charge is raise his eyebrows and say "loofah" or "falafel." (Warning for the faint of heart: That last link goes to sexually explicit content from the suit.)
So, if the dispute isn't political, why do they persist? Lemann's piece portrays O'Reilly as driven by class resentment, a sense of inferiority acquired as a byproduct of attending a minor college, and his failure to connect with the big time while at CBS News. "No matter how big a star he becomes, he's eternally the guy who was banished from the charmed circle," Lemann writes. But rather than healing his injured vanity, O'Reilly's high-profile success at Fox seems to have increased his vulnerability: The upside is that he's the hero to his 2 million nightly viewers; the downside is that he's the Maximum Enemy of tens of millions—many of them the "swells" who wouldn't give him the time of day in his youth and early career. Olbermann, who graduated from Cornell, is just the ticket for O'Reilly's tortured ego.
I'm sure that O'Reilly will reject my layman's analysis, but drop Olbermann on the same couch and I venture that he'd accept my diagnosis that he's only happy professionally when he's goading somebody out of their gourd. In the past, Olbermann's Satans were his bosses—at ESPN primarily, and at MSNBC, where he did a previous tour of duty. In O'Reilly, Olbermann finds the perfect target of his sarcasm and sadism: somebody bigger and more powerful; somebody who takes his bait and runs every time he casts a line; but also somebody who can't fire him or make him miserable enough to quit. That O'Reilly and Olbermann compete in the same time slot is pure gravy for Olbermann. That his ratings are up in recent months is a maraschino cherry on top of the gravy.