The Best of Enemies
I like the name of my column: Max’s View. I like that it’s cool sounding and I like that it’s honest. Every article I write is just my opinion on a topic. Nothing more. If I stumble across the truth sometimes, that’s nice. If I’m full of crap sometimes, that’s okay, too.
Not every newsman is as honest. I just read a good article on nytimes.com called “Tricked and Indebted on Land, Abused or Abandoned at Sea” by Ian Urbina. But his column isn’t called Ian’s View. It’s called The Outlaw Ocean. He’s claiming to be reporting the news instead of admitting to the fact that he published a one-sided attack piece against Singaporean marine employment agencies.
There are exactly two types of news columns: editorials and admitted editorials. The only difference is that the columnists on the front page try to hide their bias behind the smokescreen of news.
For the first two decades of television news, there was a conspiracy of feigned objectivity. David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite claimed to simply be presenting the facts. But they never admitted their biases of Democrats over Republicans. And establishment over dissent. And WASPs over ethnic and racial minorities. And north over south. And secularists over believers.
The country was ready for news that was presented by people who had the desire to entertain and the bravery to own up to their biases.
In 1968, ABC gave the people what they wanted and – according to the awesomely engrossing documentary “The Best of Enemies” – changed the face of broadcast news forever.
Instead of simply broadcasting the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, third-place network ABC News invited conservative magazine publisher William F. Buckley Jr. and liberal author Gore Vidal to debate the convention topics live every night.
The debates became must-see TV. Buckley and Vidal were more sophisticated and articulate than the usual talking heads. But they were far less civil.
Buckley thought that Vidal was a debauched dilettante who was destroying the moral fabric of America. Vidal thought Buckley was a blowhard bigot who only cared about keeping power in the hands of rich Christians at the expense of everybody else.
Buckley and Vidal hated each other and they didn’t try to hide it. The film shows us all of their debates. Each one is entertaining and uncomfortable.
Buckley scored points by observing that personal liberties were in mortal peril if we don’t fight to preserve them and Vidal wisely observed that the wealth gap between the rich and the poor was troublesome and getting worse.
In the most tumultuous year of the 20th Century, Buckley rightly predicted that Americans would choose law, order, and normalcy while Vidal sounds hysterical with his prediction of imminent revolution and all-out race war.
Buckley sounds like a pig-headed cold warrior when he defends the War in Vietnam. While Vidal sounds like a sage as he predicts a future where the militaristic American Empire costs us unsustainable amounts of money and prestige.
The usual liberal agenda is to paint conservatives as stupid and uneducated. This tactic wasn’t going to work with Buckley, so Vidal tried to bait the intellectual conservative with constant interruptions and personal attacks.
Vidal finally got under Buckley’s skin by calling him a Nazi. “Now listen, you queer,” Buckley said on live TV, “stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face. And you’ll stay plastered!”
Buckley was ashamed of his outburst. But it was provocative television. It was clearly more exciting than another bland Brinkley broadcast. It was only a matter of time before Americans clamored to get their news from colorful pundits rather than boring stuffed-shirts claiming to be objective journalists.
For the record, I don’t like Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow or Glen Beck or Chris Matthews. But at least they don’t claim to be unbiased newsmen.