"Boy, I'm going to miss attacking her," quipped MSNBC's Tucker Carlson after Rosie O'Donnell announced that she will leave The View in June over a contract dispute with ABC.
Carlson isn't the only journalist who will miss the woman who served as conservative cable news hosts' favorite punching bag for the past year. "I could always count on Rosie O'Donnell saying something completely out of her mind insane every day," Glenn Beck, CNN's resident anti-Rosie ranter, mused, "And for a guy who does three hours of radio every day, do you know how much money I've made off of that?"
Indeed, Beck and his bombastic broadcast buddies have spent the last year bashing the mouthy talk show host all the way to the bank. During her eight-month tenure on The View, a Nexis search shows O'Donnell was berated 186 times by Bill O'Reilly, 71 times by MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, 41 times by the now-wistful Carlson, and 91 times by FOX's Sean Hannity, who once called her a "fat, ugly, bully, pimp, loser, ignorant, terrible person, animal. Did I say fat?"
If that's not bad enough, a whopping 2,911 local, national network and cable news stories have quoted Donald Trump trash-talking O'Donnell, calling her "disgusting," "crude," "arrogant," "pushy," "self-destructive," "a degenerate," "a stone-cold loser" and so hideous that her wife must be grossed out "having to kiss that every night."
Considering this collective vendetta, it's no surprise that O'Donnell turned down a reported $30 million rather than commit to three more years of this treatment -- nor that the news of her departure was greeted with a rousing chorus of "Ding dong, the witch is dead." But while the rumor mill is buzzing about why she's moving on, the more compelling question is why she aroused such agita in the zeitgeist from the moment she began offering her uncompromising views.
It's tempting to write off the media's ridiculously vehement reaction to O'Donnell as solely the result of good old-fashioned sexism on the part of arrogant boys who aren't accustomed to sharing their celluloid sandbox with a girl -- especially a non-girlie girl who cares more about what comes out of her mouth than what color lip-gloss adorns it. That bias has absolutely been in play -- but there's more beneath the rage of her detractors than simple macho hazing.
The anti-Rosie backlash is indicative of nothing so much as the stiflingly limited range of debate allowed within the corporate media, whose gatekeepers want to erase true leftist dissent in America. Over the past year, O'Donnell has brought a consistently progressive, feminist voice to ABC's kaffeeklatsch and, in doing so, allowed daily television viewers entree into discussions wholly missing from the mainstream media lineup. She burst onto the public stage like a lefty tornado, loud and insistent, using her daytime post like a bullhorn at a peace march. (Who else on network television would have allowed actress Olympia Dukakis to declare that "The world can't wait to drive out the Bush regime" during an interview about her latest romantic comedy?)
O'Donnell has regularly denounced the Iraq war, blasted government-sanctioned torture, and spoken out adamantly against the president not only for the war but for what she considers his racist failure during Hurricane Katrina, his corrupt ties to corporate string-pullers, and his stoking of anti-Americanism abroad. And she says this at a time when opponents of the Bush administration are still being branded "un-American." Indeed, on Scarborough Country last month, guest Danny Bonaduce actually suggested that, "If anybody had a rope thick enough, I think that Rosie should be strung up for treason."
But unlike MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, whose ballyhooed liberal ire is mostly targeted at Bush's war, O'Donnell has also been an outspoken advocate for women's reproductive freedom, gay rights, gun control, mental health care, and a variety of other issues rarely discussed on TV from a feminist perspective. Besides, have you ever heard a prominent media figure declare, "I'm fat and I'm gay" in the same blithe manner as she trades parenting tips or ponders who should be booted off American Idol?
O'Donnell was an instantly controversial figure because she dared to upset the traditional TV balance of fiery conservatives debating centrists and, occasionally, tepid liberals (think The McLaughlin Group, or actually, the pre-Rosie View). In this climate, the talking heads treated O'Donnell's daily ruminations as if she was speaking in some sort of Martian code, rather than recognizing her simply as a passionate progressive woman who advocates her beliefs with the same vociferous zeal as do right-leaning O'Reilly, Scarborough, Hannity, Beck, Carlson, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and many other network news show hosts and pundits every single day.
Despite their dominance over the journalistic landscape, the overwhelmingly male punditocracy were so threatened by intellectual competition that they began gunning for O'Donnell's job shortly after her View debut. Back in September -- her second week on the air -- two Scarborough Country episodes encouraged ABC to censor or even fire her for saying that radical Christianity is as dangerous as radical Islam. Guests like GOP strategist Jack Burkman called O'Donnell's comment "one of the most mindless and terrible things ever said on American television! I think this is so serious, I'm shocked that she's still on the air." MSNBC's faux-liberal media analyst, Steve Adubato, insisted that O'Donnell "cannot be allowed to get away with saying that... she has to be held accountable," while Scarborough echoed: "if she does not back off of her statement, she needs to be forced from The View. That is not free speech. That is lunacy. And it is dangerous and it spreads hatred."
Their overwrought reaction lays bare the hollow yet persistent myth that the media are liberal. Put one actual feminist on TV -- even on a women's chat show -- and all the blustering boob tube boys line up to run off the radical interloper. If O'Donnell had a modicum of political company anywhere in mainstream corporate news programming, the reception to her would never have been so extreme.
Nor would such double standards have abounded. I was a recent guest on Fox's Hannity & Colmes to discuss O'Donnell's right to talk about gun control in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings. The segment opened with Sean Hannity saying that O'Donnell's "immediate rush to politicize something for an agenda is so offensive to me." What viewers couldn't have known was that I initially declined the appearance, offering to connect producers with gun control experts who could offer insights into reducing violent crime in America, but all they wanted to discuss was Rosie. Who, would you say, was pushing their agenda?
The hypocrisy here is laughable. The name of O'Donnell's show explicitly delineates her views as subjective. She's an entertainer, albeit a politically-minded one, with a very different mandate than the responsibilities of journalists to present the news-viewing public with factual information and well-researched opinion. Yet the same news wonks who have ranted about the "hateful," "irresponsible" and "inaccurate" opinions O'Donnell expressed on The View have been guilty of far worse under the guise of informed journalism. Bill O'Reilly, of all people, complained that she "does not feel the responsibility to back up her statements with facts, and she feels personal attacks on people are fine" -- this from a guy who misled his viewers about non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, called Katrina victims "drug-addicted... thugs," and blamed an 18-year-old girl who was raped and murdered for being "moronic" and inciting her killer by wearing a miniskirt. Joe Scarborough lambasted O'Donnell for being mean-spirited and misrepresentative, yet he devoted an entire segment to the housekeeping skills of Sen. Hillary Clinton and once used his show to allow Arnold Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial campaign to smear a woman who accused him of sexual assault, falsely claiming she had a record for prostitution and narcotics. And where does Glenn Beck -- who has called Hillary Clinton a "bitch," Katrina survivors "scumbags," and suggested that "good Muslims" should "shoot the bad Muslims in the head" -- get off critiquing anyone's on-air behavior?
Yet Rosie O'Donnell has uttered "the most mindless and terrible things ever said on American television."
I didn't always agree with O'Donnell (all feminists don't all think alike, after all). I was certainly disappointed by her over-the-top 9/11 conspiracy theories, and her indefensible, racist mocking ("ching chong, ching chong") of Asian accents. I was also surprised that she defended Don Imus in the wake his "nappy-headed hos" controversy. Sure, comedians tend to stick together, but Imus hasn't been spewing "humorous" hate speech in some dank basement with a two-drink minimum -- this was a guy who admitted hiring a producer to do "nigger jokes" on a show featuring political and journalistic bigwigs.
But I greatly appreciated O'Donnell's fearlessness. I was often pleasantly surprised to find her far more well-informed than I expected a celebrity comic to be. Though she isn't a journalist or a scholar, she took her platform seriously and turned a fluffy morning show without much information, interest, or disagreement into a real forum for hard-hitting discussion about the pressing issues of the day... at least, as hard-hitting as one can expect in between segments about where to buy the latest product-placement Capri pants. That's why women loved watching her -- because she spoke her mind, and because she treated her female viewers as if they had more than three brain cells to rub together at any given point.
This is all very confusing to the beltway boys. On the night she announced her departure, I appeared on Scarborough Country, the only woman among four men scratching their heads about why O'Donnell was so popular in the first place. How was she able to bring up "very, very heavy issues" on "a women's talk show, a gabfest," Scarborough asked. MSNBC's Steve Adubato, Newsweek's Richard Wolffe, and Los Angeles Times online columnist Tom O'Neil joined him in wondering why O'Donnell had been able to bring "a pretty tough brand of political dogma" about such serious topics to daytime television. They never did come up with an answer.
Scarborough wouldn't let me into that part of the conversation (why ask the woman about what women watch?), but I was dying to expose the elephant in the room: Daytime audiences are predominately female, while cable news commentators are predominately male. If certain media men don't understand O'Donnell's popularity, it's not just because they're out of touch with millions of liberal and progressive Americans -- it's also because they thoroughly underestimate the intelligence of the female viewing public. Underneath their bewilderment is the ugly belief that women who watch daytime television are mostly stupid, concerned only with the latest fashions, celebrity gossip, and sex tips, while men are interested in the "hard news" of politics, economics, labor, science, and world events.
In fact, female daytime viewers are just as concerned about most of the same issues as nighttime (assumed to be male) viewers. More women than men report to pollsters their desire for peace and an end to the Iraq war -- and issues such as gun control, abortion, health care and the environment resonate extremely strongly for women. So it was hardly a surprise that The View's ratings skyrocketed when O'Donnell elevated the discussion with real content. As I told Scarborough, we should seek to foster more debate, not less. O'Donnell's departure will leave a gaping hole, as discussions she initiated during the day often sparked nightly news stories about progressive topics otherwise marginalized on in corporate media. Without her, next year's TV news lineup promises to be extremely boring -- at all times of the day.
Jennifer L. Pozner is founder and executive director of Women In Media & News, a women's media analysis, education and advocacy group, and manages WIMN's Voices, a women's media monitoring group blog. She lectures on women and the media at colleges and communities across the country, and is working on a book about reality TV as cultural backlash against women.
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