O'Reilly v. Olbermann

In the midst of the various legal battles involving free speech and what can and cannot be said in public spaces -- Howard Stern's laudable battles being foremost in mind -- you may have missed the less monumental but amusing dispute between Fox's Bill O'Reilly and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann. While not a formal legal action, I'd more aptly describe it as a flame war, but an instructive one at that.

So first the requisite disclaimer: I watch and enjoy Keith Olbermann's show on MSNBC, and watched him previously on ESPN. Conversely, while I have watched O'Reilly's show and listened to his radio broadcast, I find it much less entertaining and enjoyable (although his rants are entertainment of sorts). Additionally, Olbermann and I are Cornell graduates, so I am further biased. Olbermann, in one of his most amusing ESPN days, would report on professional sports drafts and note that no Cornellian was drafted -- again. Good stuff.

So take a look at this. It seems that O'Reilly has banned the very mentioning of Olbermann's name on O'Reilly's radio show, with threats of reporting the phone number of the caller to the authorities through "Fox Security" and insinuations of harassment. This after a caller mentioned Olbermann's name and perhaps praised his show.

Pretty absurd (as the legal commentator on Olbermann's show explained), sure, but its very existence raises an interesting issue. During Bill Clinton's first term, I once called the Bob Grant show (when it was on WABC-AM in New York) and got cut off when I mentioned that I thought Clinton was a good President. But I wasn't threatened with legal action and visits from the authorities for mere use of a name or expression of an opinion -- on a radio call-in show. And Grant was not known for his even temper.

Were Fox not a major network, and O'Reilly not a major media figure, this might be ignored as mere puffery and an effort to draw attention and get ratings. Maybe it is, but shouldn't we take a little more seriously the fact that a major network would allow such threats to be broadcast, suggesting that they support such threats? Especially as we live in a time where free speech rights seem to be under a bit of attack, it seems a bit disturbing that a major media outlet would allow such patently absurd behavior.

O'Reilly doesn't want Olbermann's name mentioned? OK, that's one thing -- it's his show. But the next step -- the host of a program on a major network seriously threatening callers with legal action and visits from the authorities? That seems a bit different. While silly, it's a cautionary note about the times that we live in, and what is deemed acceptable by some. The question becomes whether those making such threats are in positions normally afforded to those who should garner respect, even if not for their political opinions. I'll stick with Olbermann and see how this develops.

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