I just caught a minute of O'Reilly talking about the following article on the opinion page of USA Today. Keep in mind the writer of the article never called O'Reilly to let him offer a differing opinon. usatoday Why do mean-spirited TV shows lure Americans? By Bruce Kluger Your parents lied to you: Sometimes the bad guys do win. Now that the Fox News Channel has won the battle for cable news supremacy by breezing past MSNBC and CNN in the ratings, it's time to review how it made such a remarkable leap. To do so sheds new light on the state of cable news -- which isn't good. For several years, the industry has toyed with abandoning newscasts in favor of nightly lineups crammed with clamorous political crossfire and sleepy-eyed sit-downs with stars. Not surprisingly, none of this seems to bother viewers. Who cares how many nukes the North Koreans have when Larry King can land Liza Minnelli for an entire hour, or Chris Matthews can (once again) scream at political guru Pat Caddell? Fox has found its niche in this disturbing transformation, capitalizing on the very real notion that Americans embrace acrimony over civility and conflict over resolution. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the yin-yang styles of Bill O'Reilly and Phil Donahue. First O'Reilly. Perched high on the bully pulpit of his nightly Fox fight-fest, The O'Reilly Factor, the staunchly right-wing host invites onto his program a vast array of ideological adversaries whom he usually decimates -- not by relying on the deft maneuvers of substantiated debate, but by the sneaky craft of chronic interruption and well-placed commercial cutaways. Yet his attack-dog style has earned him the status of the most-watched talk show host in all of cable news, spawning a spate of ill-tempered imitators, mostly on Fox. Viewers want clatter, not quality Simply put, O'Reilly has done for chat TV what Rush Limbaugh did for talk radio -- namely, help transform the constructive buzz of the public square into a noisy, messy melee. To wit: Right after the 9/11 attacks, while other shows tried to extract order from chaos -- cautioning against speculation, sticking to facts -- O'Reilly devoted a series of programs to who was cheating whom out of relief money. On one, he mocked Americans seeking psychological help in 9/11's wake, calling them ''weak.'' His ratings soared. Meanwhile, just a few remote clicks away at MSNBC stands Phil Donahue, the godfather of talk TV. Donahue turns down the piercing volume of the O'Reilly-type mob and turns up the intelligence, selecting panelists for what they have to say instead of how effectively he can belittle them. On one program, he tackled the Israeli-Palestinian debate by presiding over a wrenching discussion between two Jewish men -- one favoring a Palestinian state, one opposed -- both of whom had lost a child in the conflict. Which is not to say Donahue plays it safe. The only full-throttled liberal on talk television today, he was among the first of the talk show hosts to denounce a war on Iraq. Donahue is the Obi-Wan Kenobi of conversation: genuine, affable, well mannered and well informed. But the magic ain't working this time. By year's end, his audience of 379,000 was about one-sixth of O'Reilly's 2.4 million on Fox. Therein lies the problem: Donahue has not lost one bit of smarts since his heyday. American TV has. Follow Tinseltown's example Twenty-five years ago, viewers were enchanted with Donahue's brand of audience-roaming, mike-waving, levelheaded give-and-take. But that format mutated into the dirty-laundry-airing chaos of Jerry Springer and Sally Jessy Raphael. Columnists and politicians denounced these programs, and many of them disappeared. But the gratuitous mean-spiritedness -- and American viewers' obsession with it -- has crept over into network TV, where audience hits such as Survivor, Fear Factor and Joe Millionaire rely on generous doses of embarrassment, failure, duplicity and shame. Will the Phil vs. Bill paradigm reverse anytime soon? Are you kidding? The chances of any TV executive pulling the plug on a ratings champ -- or keeping a runner-up on the air -- are about as likely as Greta Van Susteren's old face suddenly reappearing. Then again, one can hope. Since 9/11, Hollywood has done some soul-searching, wondering out loud whether it can churn out blockbusters that don't rely on stars wielding Uzis. Perhaps the cable news industry can do the same by examining the violence that thrives in the words of Bill O'Reilly. Bruce Kluger also writes for National Public Radio. ------------------------------------------------ Donahue is the Obi Wan Kenobi of talk shows!