Fort Worth Star-Telegram Columnist
Secretary, National Society of Newspaper Columnists Education Foundation
By Dave Lieber[Editor’s Note: Dave Lieber’s longstanding “Really Bad Column” is changing its name to “you, the columnist.” In a reflection of changes in our industry, the old title was a mirror image of the author’s own definition of his work, which, in retrospect, seems so egocentric and quaint in a 20th century sort of way. Now, as newspapers shift emphasis from the needs of its writers to the needs of you, the reader, this column will, henceforth, serve only one interest: you, the columnist.]
Maybe because I’m a columnist in the Wild West, I surely believe that a columnist who criticizes a man or a woman ought to do it to their face before publication. Either meet them or call them, but definitely tell them what you plan to write about them.
Don’t take potshots from the peanut gallery. Be brave. Give your subject an opportunity to “categorically deny” (don’t you hate that phrase?) that you are wrong in your findings. At the very least, though, face your folks straight away on Main Street.
One reason I got into this business is the chance to stand toe-to-toe with bullies. Criminals. School administrators. Corporations. Police. Fellow journalists. I don’t care who the bully is, I want to research the hell out of his or her life and this particular story, then look them clearly in the eye and ask them everything I can.
In my job as “The Watchdog” columnist, I do this all the time. Half the time, people admit they did what you think they did. The other half of the time? Well, it gets interesting.
Here are three techniques you can use to expose the life and techniques used by bullies and, ultimately, undermine their power to terrorize various groups of people:
1. Your main objective is to talk to the bully. Get the bully’s side of the story. Get the bully to reveal himself in his own words.
2. Tell the bully everything you are going to write about him and carefully record his responses and reactions. If you get lucky and the bully decides to bully you, bless your good fortune. Share this with readers as an example of the traits you are describing.
3. Take your column to the next level by coming up with a storytelling strategy that uses the bully’s own techniques against him to create a fascinating portrait that readers will remember.
* * *
Which leads me to Bill O’Reilly, the best and worst bully I know.
Here I am, weeks after the fact, writing about O’Reilly’s appearance before the National Society of Newspaper Columnists in Philadelphia in June 2007. If this were a real column, how would I make it fresh? How do I advance the story after so many other clever Bill-O columns already appeared: former NSNC President Mike Leonard’s defense against O’Reilly’s pull-it-out-of-your-pocket pit bull routine against a Leonard column about him and Pittsburgher Tony Norman’s memorable headline, “Bill, please read this.”
Remember #1. Talk to the bully. So I was second in line for his post-speech Q&A (first is too soon, but third is too late) to ask Bill-O questions for this column. Here, according to my trusty Olympus Digital Voice Recorder, is how our brief exchange went. (I’m in italics):
I listen to your show about three or four times a week. I want to ask you about your style. At my paper, I’m a columnist, and they teach me that when I criticize somebody and then they come back and attack me, to leave it alone. They say, “You’re bigger than that. Don’t get involved.”
I’m not bigger than that. (Laughter.)
That’s what I want to talk to you about. Another thing they teach me is they say “don’t pick on people below you, pick on people above you.”
Well, I usually do that.
But you’ve got a very strong bullying style.
Well, that’s your opinion.
Yes, it is.
I’m confrontational. But we don’t go in for the weaklings. We go for the big people.
Well, I remember when you picked on this columnist for the Dallas Morning News, my competition. She had probably been writing for three or four months.
Yeah, she called me a racist.
So, nobody calls me a racist and gets away with it. That’s it. I don’t know who she is. I never met her. You call me a racist, you’re going to get it.
You’ve been compared to Father Coughlin in the 1930’s, and I wondered what you think about that.
That’s an absurd question.
You really have a style that no one else uses. And it’s tough. It’s abrupt. It’s abrasive. And sometimes I think it’s overkill.
Look, the only people who compare me to those extremists are extremists themselves. My audience is enormous. So either Americans are stupid for liking or thinking that I have some of these values. Or those descriptions are wrong. Somebody calls me a racist, they’re going to get it. You know, somebody on the Dallas Morning News. If it’s some weekly paper in Provo, Utah, I don’t care. Dallas Morning News? You better back that up.
In two minutes, I packed in everything I could, knowing at any time I could get the hook or he would walk out (as he did on Terry Gross’ Fresh Air radio show). But I had my answers.
I also handled #2: Tell the bully everything you are going to write about him.
What I didn’t do but wish I did: Have a copy of Macarena Hernández’ Dallas Morning News column in my pocket, and pull it out, the way he pulled out Mike Leonard’s column. Wish I had asked him to show where she calls him a racist. I can’t find it.
That leaves #3 – a novel strategy to advance the story.
Here’s what I would do: Use the methods in the Indiana University study (one that got Mike L. in trouble) that found that O’Reilly called a person or group a derogatory name once every 6.8 seconds, on average, or nearly nine times every minute during the editorials that open his program each night.
If I had space, I’d run a check on his entire 36-minute appearance so I could show:
His own words.
And how he uses them.
That’s how a David stops a Goliath with a slingshot.