To no one's surprise, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly managed to find four guests who completely agreed that he bore absolutely no responsibility for the murder of Dr. George Tiller – the Kansas doctor who performed late-term abortions – to open Monday's "The O'Reilly Factor."
To no one's surprise, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann devoted a sizable portion of his own "Countdown" program to leveling precisely that charge, showing video of O'Reilly saying in regard to Tiller, "There's got to be a special place in Hell for this guy."
O'Reilly said any criticism of his attacks on Tiller were being mounted by his enemies – Fox News "haters" and "vicious individuals" on "the far left" — implying that no rational person could find the heated and repeated rhetoric emanating from the channel toward a private citizen troubling.
Saying that viewer and advertiser boycotts would be ineffective, Olbermann suggested a "quarantine" of Fox News Channel, saying that O'Reilly's verbal attacks against Tiller were "blindly irresponsible" and "set the stage for his assassination."
Flipping back and forth between the two programs, I kept thinking that these kind of charges and counter-charges are too serious to be thrown around blithely as part of a cable-TV feud, and that maybe it's time for self-reflection — for both sides to take a deep breath. Perhaps more than anything, it's time for the bosses at each of these networks to sit down their star talent and calm them down — for management to actually try managing these mercurial personalities. What a novel thought.
On Tuesday, O'Reilly was back at it, urging an email campaign to GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt. Seriously, does anybody at Fox think this childish finger-pointing benefits anyone? Sure, conflict sells, but someone needs to say that with these platforms comes a need for at least a measure of restraint.
This all started with Olbermann jabbing up at his rival, and O'Reilly has taken the bait more fabulously than the MSNBC host ever could have hoped. But now it has gotten to the point of absurdity, and you get the feeling — a bit like the HBO movie "Weapons of Mass Distraction" — that it's going to continue until somebody gets hurt. At that point, even "The Daily Show" won't be able to make this electronic-age Punch and Judy show amusing.
Like I said, a deep breath is in order on both sides. But based on past performance, I won't hold my breath waiting for that to happen.