America’s Greatest Film Critic Is One Of Its Weaker Pundits

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This piece was co-authored by Chris Yogerst and David Swindle for www.Parcbench.com.

For decades one film critic has been synonymous with the occupation: the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert. The Pulitzer-prize winning writer, perhaps best known as half of the famous duo Siskel & Ebert, has helped millions of Americans better appreciate the cinema. He’s also served as an example for young critics like us, showing how to make intellectual ideas about film accessible to the masses.

In his reviews over the years Ebert hasn’t hesitated to reveal his political positions – which is fine. (And his expressed views usually put him in the left wing of the Democratic Party.) Critics shouldn’t be afraid to express their political or philosophical ideas in their reviews – we all certainly do from time to time. It makes film criticism more interesting to consider movies in a political context.

Now, in the age of internet blogging, Ebert has an easier forum to voice his political opinions. In a recent entry titled “The O’Reilly Procedure” Ebert decided to turn his critical eye on Fox News’ star anchor Bill O’Reilly:

I am not interested in discussing O’Reilly’s politics here. That would open a hornet’s nest. I am more concerned about the danger he and others like him represent to a civil and peaceful society. He sets a harmful example of acceptable public behavior. He has been an influence on the most worrying trend in the field of news: The polarization of opinion, the elevation of emotional temperature, the predictability of two of the leading cable news channels. A majority of cable news viewers now get their news slanted one way or the other by angry men. O’Reilly is not the worst offender.  That would be Glenn Beck.  Keith Olbermann is gaining ground. Rachel Maddow provides an admirable example for the boys of firm, passionate outrage, and is more effective for nogt shouting.

Ebert claims he’s not critiquing O’Reilly’s political opinions. That’s not really true, though. He claims to be challenging O’Reilly’s bullying and name-calling style. If that were the case, though, then his essay would target O’Reilly and Olbermann equally – instead of just name-dropping Olbermann once in an obvious attempt to cover his ass. He’d also throw in Beck from the Right and Michael Moore from the Left. And he’d have a “fair and balanced” critique.

And if he did that then that would be fine. We’d applaud him. The trend he’s highlighting – the angry demagogue politio — is one worthy of condemnation. O’Reilly and Olbermann might be entertaining to the True Believers of their ideological religions but they both sell intellectual junk food which only brings down the standard of discourse.

According to Ebert, the nation has cut back on reading and “most eighth graders can’t read a newspaper.”  First of all, some facts would be nice.  Second, there is a new generation that was brought up with new technology.  Newspapers are outdated in the age of the World Wide Web.

There is no question that Ebert has a level of contempt for today’s society.  He feels that people are more stupid than they were back in his day when more people read and trusted the New York Times. This is absurd. Yes, pop culture has grown tenfold over the last few decades and accessibility to it has grown even faster.  However, accessibility to news has also grown.  There are simply more outlets and avenues to choose from now.  Just because people get their news from sources other than their morning paper doesn’t mean they’re idiots.

Ebert also subscribes to the idea that O’Reilly’s coverage of Dr. George Tiller aided in the abortion doctor’s assassination last May.  Calling O’Reilly a bully who would “like to force others to do their will, while they can stand back and protest their innocence,” Ebert shows us how delusional he is by even entertaining the idea that O’Reilly condones murder.

Ebert comes crashing down when he gets to the real meat of his blog post: comparing O’reilly to the fascist, pro-Hitler, anti-Semitic radio broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin. Would O’Reilly compare Olbermann and Moore to such a figure?

In making the comparison Ebert becomes what he seeks to condemn. He seeks to slap one of his ideological enemies with an intolerable image – that of a fascist radio broadcaster of the 1930s. This is something that O’Reilly and Olbermann do all the time – compare their ideological rivals to Nazis. Ebert’s principle subject in college was English. Surely he can recognize when a metaphor overpowers its subject and distracts more than it helps.

It is clear that Ebert might want to stick to his roots in film criticism.  That is where he is well known and widely respected.  However, if he wants to give his political opinion then fine – that’s why blogs exist. If he’s going to attack O’Reilly then he shouldn’t take a page from the O’Reilly playbook. He should provide the same reasoned, creative analysis that we’ve come to love from his decades as America’s most trusted film critic.

  • Erin Payton

    I’m totally with you. I don’t disagree with the fact that O’Reilly is a political demagogue–he loves the shouting/name-calling/over-emotional discourse…but then you can’t completely ignore your own side’s demagoguery, of which KO is the worst (and Michael Moore too). You can make perfectly sane commentary that we’re a coarser nation because of this type of “debate,” but not without being “fair and balanced” from both sides. I’m unimpressed by just how nasty and political some of Ebert’s reviews have gotten. If he can tie something to Bush, he will, even if he’s reviewing “Must Love Dogs” or some crap. I don’t think his quality of reviewing has been nearly what it was in years past, and it’s disappointing.

  • Erin Payton

    I’m totally with you. I don’t disagree with the fact that O’Reilly is a political demagogue–he loves the shouting/name-calling/over-emotional discourse…but then you can’t completely ignore your own side’s demagoguery, of which KO is the worst (and Michael Moore too). You can make perfectly sane commentary that we’re a coarser nation because of this type of “debate,” but not without being “fair and balanced” from both sides. I’m unimpressed by just how nasty and political some of Ebert’s reviews have gotten. If he can tie something to Bush, he will, even if he’s reviewing “Must Love Dogs” or some crap. I don’t think his quality of reviewing has been nearly what it was in years past, and it’s disappointing.

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