The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Showbiz boxing: Roger (The Thumb) Ebert vs. Bill (The Mouth) O'Reilly

April 9, 2009 |  4:27 pm

Is America a great country or what? After all, what nation allows its citizens a better chance of reinventing themselves than the good old USA. Thanks to our openness to upward mobility, Roger Ebert has moved beyond his perch as America's best-known film critic and launched a new career as a political gadfly, just as Bill O'Reilly, once the host of the tacky showbiz gossip program "Inside Edition," has reinvented himself as the leading political commentator on Fox News.

And now, being authentic American individualists ... they're having a blood feud!

Oreilly Although O'Reilly landed the first punch, he was, in fairness, not going after Ebert, but Ebert's newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, which recently found itself in O'Reilly's Hall of Shame. According to O'Reilly, a host of media outlets are in the penalty box for trafficking in defamation -- more precisely, "distributing defamatory, false or non-newsworthy information supplied by far left websites." (The Sun-Times is joined by such respectable publications as the New Yorker, US News and World Report and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

Try as I might, searching O'Reilly's website, I couldn't find any information about what heinous information these publications endorsed or linked to, so if any O'Reilly fans can help me out here, I'd appreciate it. It sounds like a pretty broad net to me. I mean, if the Sun-Times was linking to a far-left website advocating giving nuclear weapons to North Korea, I'd be pretty mad too. But if the far-left site was simply -- and this is obviously a hypothetical example -- claiming that Fox News has indulged in a lot of Obama bashing lately, then I'm not sure I'd be willing to nuke 'em, at least not just yet.

Anyway, Ebert, in his newfound role as political commentator, blasted right back at O'Reilly, saying in a new post that "to be in an O'Reilly Hall of Fame would be a cruel blow for any newspaper. It would place us in the favor of a man who turns red and starts screaming when anyone disagrees with him. My grade-school teacher, wise Sister Nathan, would have called in your parents and recommended counseling with Father Hogben." (Geez, coming right on the eve of Easter Sunday, this is starting to sound like a feud between two fifth-graders at St. Paul's.)

Ebert claims that O'Reilly is really upset with the Sun-Times because the paper, ahem, recently dropped his syndicated column, adding that his editor informed him that "very few" readers complained about the column's disappearance, especially compared to the amount of negative reaction the paper got after dropping the "Nancy" comic strip. Ebert ends his essay with a hilarious anecdote about Squeaky the Chicago Mouse that has the sound of a joke often told at the old Chicago newspaper hangout the Billy Goat Tavern, but is too risque to be printed in this blog. (You'll have to read it here.)

I'm not taking sides in this skirmish. I don't always agree with Ebert's taste in movies (Roger, did you really give two thumbs up to "Watchmen"?), but no one is a better essayist, raconteur and storyteller. I don't always admire O'Reilly's blustery commentaries, but I'd be the first to advise most of the MSNBC crowd -- starting with the irritatingly self-satisfied Keith Olbermann -- that they could learn a lot about TV craft and showmanship from O'Reilly. As for now, I think the ball is in O'Reilly's court, so let the best man win. 

Photo of Bill O'Reilly from Fox News Channel