Bruce Fretts
November 17, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

Ted Koppel, Bill O’Reilly, and Larry King

Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation and Peter Jennings’s The Century became huge best-sellers in part because the NBC and ABC anchormen’s omniscient personas translated naturally to the pages of history books. ABC’s Ted Koppel, Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly, and CNN’s Larry King personify a different kind of TV journalist. As hosts of interview shows, their strength lies in questioning guests — which makes their attempts to go solo with collections of topical musings trickier propositions.

With Off Camera: Private Thoughts Made Public, Nightline interrogator Koppel publishes his 1999 journal, promising to reveal ”opinions I would never express on the air.” On that count, he delivers. The jaw-droppingly blunt observations begin on Jan. 1, when he predicts Clintonites will ”ram the rockets’ red glare up the asses of the right-wing fanatics” trying to impeach the President. He’s equally withering in his criticism of Clinton, whom he terms a ”horny philanderer” who dragged the country through a ”trashy spectacle.”

Whether or not a normally cool-headed journalist should be making such inflammatory statements is a question for the Brill’s Content crowd, but they’re undeniably titillating peeks beneath Koppel’s famously bad coif. If only more of Off Camera were this entertaining. Many of the entries deal with such mundane matters as grocery shopping (”The Giant has a sale on Cap’n Crunch cereal today”) and shoddy airline and phone-company service.

Worse, he obsessively wrings his hands over Americans’ lack of concern for foreign issues, droning on for days on end about far-flung conflicts (he spends much of April and May overanalyzing the U.S.’ role in Kosovo). After the networks fail to provide live prime-time coverage of an earthquake in Turkey, he grouses that ”neither Princess Di nor JFK Jr. was among the dead or injured, so I suppose the two thousand or more dead Turks are of insufficient interest.” It’s a fair point but one he runs into the ground. Koppel offers his own most accurate critique when he writes, ”I’m beginning to sink into old-fartism.”

Still, I’ll take an old fart over a ”pain in the rear,” which is how Bill O’Reilly aptly describes himself in the surprise best-seller The O’Reilly Factor: The Good, the Bad, and the Completely Ridiculous in American Life. This ”cocky bastard” (again, his words) claims that unlike his Fox News show, his book will have no commercials, yet he’s constantly interrupting this choppy compendium of random rants with plugs for himself. He takes credit for creating the TV newsmag genre with his stint as anchor of the syndicated tabloid show Inside Edition: ”Following the television rule that a successful program inspires ten clones, the networks jumped in with Dateline, 48 Hours, and so forth.” What he fails to mention is that 48 Hours — not to mention 60 Minutes, 20/20, and A Current Affair — predated Edition.

O’Reilly correctly promotes himself as an equal-opportunity attack dog; he rips into the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Sen. Jesse Helms with similar abrasiveness. But for every smart remark (he decries the proliferation of ”silly gas-guzzling SUVs”), he makes another stupid one (”the women who drive them are especially crazed”). And the same guy who foists his fantasies about Sarah Michelle Gellar, Tyra Banks, and Connie Chung upon us lectures gays to keep their sexuality to themselves (”Dykes on bikes? Take a hike!”). No wonder Dr. Laura gave this jerk a blurb.

The anti-O’Reilly, Larry King often gets bashed for tossing softball questions, but it becomes clear that all of his sucking up gets guests to let their guard down in Anything Goes! What I’ve Learned from Pundits, Politicians, and Presidents. The CNN schmoozer shares a number of telling anecdotes about his encounters with Clinton. During a 1995 commercial break, the Prez quizzed King about his dating life. Informed that he was seeing several women (including Regis’ ex-cohost Cindy Garvey and Marcia Clark’s assistant Suzanne Chiles), the Big Creep admits, ”I admire your flexibility.”

King also sheds light on John F. Kennedy (who forgave him for a 1958 fender bender in exchange for his 1960 vote), George W. Bush and John McCain (after moderating a chilly debate between the GOP candidates, King concludes, ”These guys didn’t like each other”), and Marlon Brando, who notoriously kissed King on the lips after a 1994 interview (”I’ve never done that with a man on the first date,” King quips). As he does on Larry King Live, the Suspendered One keeps the focus squarely on the guests in Anything Goes! And in the end, isn’t that what makes a good host?

Off Camera: B-
The O’Reilly Factor: C-
Anything Goes!: B+

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