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Midweek Perspectives: A pinhead editorial writer's adventure in the No Spin Zone

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

By Michael McGough

One of my guilty pleasures as a teenager in the 1960s was to stay up late and watch Joe Pyne's syndicated talk show. The highlight of any Pyne show was when unwary audience members stepped into the "Beef Box" to lodge some complaint, only to be humiliated by Pyne. As I chuckled over their embarrassment, I used to ask myself: "How could these people be so stupid?"

   Michael McGough is editorial page editor of the Post-Gazette (mmcgough@post-gazette.com). 

For the past week the same question, in politer terms, has been put to me by Post-Gazette colleagues. How could I be so stupid as to agree to appear on Bill O'Reilly's radio show to defend an editorial approving the idea of allowing prisoners to form musical groups and be photographed for a cable TV documentary?

A little backstory, as they say in Hollywood: Last week one of Bill O'Reilly's assistants called my colleague Tony Norman to invite him to come on "The O'Reilly Factor" to discuss an Oct. 29 PG editorial about a controversy over the VH1 documentary series "Music Behind Bars." Norman relayed the request to me.

I didn't expect O'Reilly to do anything but trash the editorial, but I agreed to appear on television with him -- I even wore a camera-friendly blue shirt to work last Wednesday -- because I thought somebody should defend what we had written.

I grew more eager for the conversation after researching what O'Reilly had had to say about "Music Behind Bars." Not content to accuse the documentary of glorifying criminals, he had interviewed the sister of a murder victim.

Naturally, the poor woman was distraught to be reminded of the crime. But that wasn't enough. O'Reilly allowed her to embellish her understandable emotion with an implausible argument: "In my opinion, watching this makes you want to be this person, because you're able to go ahead and, you know, be a rock star in prison if you do these kinds of crimes." Making use of a grieving relative in this way struck me as tabloid-TV exploitation.

I also looked forward to drawing O'Reilly out on the hard questions: If wardens say that offering prisoners outlets like music helps keep them under control, who are you to disagree with them? And where do you draw the line? If prisoners are to be denied access to musical instruments, what about art supplies or books?

When I came to work Wednesday, I got a call from O'Reilly's staff: There had been a change of plans. Instead of appearing on O'Reilly's TV show, I would be interviewed by phone that afternoon for the No Spin Zone segment of O'Reilly's radio program.

Fair enough -- or so it seemed. After listening over the phone to O'Reilly ramble through other subjects, I was cued to enter the No Spin Zone.

O'Reilly, to his credit, read part of our editorial aloud. Then things deteriorated. I got to make a couple of my points. One was that you don't have to be a touchy-feely liberal to see the practical value of giving prisoners, even lifers, recreational outlets.

My other point was this: If someone I loved had been murdered, I wouldn't be content with keeping the killer out of a band or away from VH1: I'd want him to be drawn and quartered. That would be the natural reaction of any relative of a murder victim -- which is why the American judicial system does not allow victims to sit as jurors or determine prison policy.

But then I did the unthinkable: I criticized O'Reilly for "parading" the murder victim's sister on his show. Here is some of what followed, as found on O'Reilly's Web site:

"Mike, shut up. I resent the fact that you said that we exploited this woman. We gave this woman a voice. That's something that you and your stupid newspaper would never do, you pinhead. You would never do that.

"You're too busy making highfaluting moral pronouncements about how prisoners should be treated inside of prison, that they should have creative expression after they've taken a human life. You see, you and your ilk and all of this pinhead editorial nonsense never get down to the suffering and pain of the crime victims, because you don't want those voices to be heard. The Post-Gazette should be ashamed of itself."

Again, fair (or unfair) enough. I expected cut and thrust, and if the "shut up" and "pinhead" seemed like elementary-school invective, well, that was apparently part of O'Reilly's shtick.

But then O'Reilly hung up on me. Or as a sympathetic e-mailer wrote: "I was particularly offended by the way he cut you off just before his tirade -- as if to give the listening audience the impression you had been struck silent, like some whipped pup, by the brilliance of his argument and the morality of his tone."

If you criticize O'Reilly, the No Spin Zone becomes the No Talk Zone.

An hour or so after the radio interview, I got a call from someone in Boston congratulating me on holding my own with my "host." I thought that would be the beginning and the end of my 15 minutes of fame. What I didn't know is that O'Reilly would recycle part of Wednesday's radio interview for a spot on his Thursday "O'Reilly Factor" TV broadcast. I was going on television after all, or rather my edited comments were.

I'll let a viewer who contacted me describe the scene: "You were the man of the hour on the O'Reilly Factor last night. The way he highlighted your name and organization, I'm surprised it wasn't accompanied by a Wanted poster."

After the audiotape was played, O'Reilly summed up: "We're right on this one. VH1 will never recover from this atrocity, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette should be ashamed of itself."

Proving that television has a greater reach than radio, O'Reilly's trial of me in absentia triggered a spamathon of e-mails to me and the editor of the Post-Gazette.

A few were semi-respectful in expressing the view that "Music Behind Bars'" indulged criminals who should be required to do the hardest of hard time. Others, however, called me a "maggot" and suggested that I might want to crawl into Charles Manson's cell with him. From Out West, a Mr. Buck wrote: "We have an old saying in Wyoming: Screw you and the horse you rode in on."

This would be more amusing than disturbing but for the fact that suddenly we were inundated with calls from O'Reillyngs threatening to cancel their subscriptions -- because of an editorial that had been published two weeks earlier without causing any great controversy. Some of these people were even from Pittsburgh.

Like the kids' game of Telephone, the jihad against the PG morphed from manufactured outrage over an editorial into an ever more elaborate urban legend. Some readers complained that the PG was wrong to have "sponsored" the VH1 series. (For the record, we didn't.) A high school student wrote that he was circulating a petition asking people not to buy the paper "until you stop your funding of this show!"

Given all this grief, was my adventure in the No Spin Zone worth it? Most of my colleagues don't think so. Why legitimize a bully and a blowhard who shuts up "guests" who dare to disagree with him?

But one of my e-mail correspondents makes an important point on the other side: "I commend you for even going on his radio show; too many in the press shrink away from confrontational conservatives, thereby denying the public any chance at hearing both sides." That's true, and it is a fact of life that, unlike the late Joe Pyne, Bill O'Reilly appears on a major television news network.

Still, once is enough. This "pinhead" won't be making any return visits to the No Talk Zone.

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