Some celebrities seem born with a natural star power that radiates from them like an angelic halo. Alcibiades had this kind of “charisma” that made him adored even by people who disliked him. To be a celebrity, as Willy Loman would say, it is not enough to be liked: You must be well liked. Musicians like Liszt or Paganini had this effect on people; however, since the bland culture of North America cannot produce virtuosi but only technicians, booking agents and record producers have to manufacture the celebrity that is apparently not native to the soil. The nearest thing to a North American star pianist was probably the Canadian Glen Gould, whose sole charm—apart from technical competence was the fact that he was so amazingly mad that he managed to turn being finicky—the only merit of most American pianists —into an obsession. Back in the 70’s, an effort was made to turn the unexceptional pianist Gary Grafman into a star, but from all that I could gather, Mr. Grafman was an exemplary product of the exclusively technical education provided by music schools. Not to worry: The p.r. boys interviewed him and discovered he had hobbies and interests. From a collection of straw baskets or an enthusiasm for jasmine tea, these clones of Col. Tom Parker can create (if only temporarily, in Mr. Grafman’s case) the illusion of celebrity.

Journalists are rarely natural-born celebrities; if they were, they would go into politics or professional wrestling. Some journalists may turn adventurer, like Stanley, while others (like Hunter S. Thompson) simply drink themselves into the delusion that they are original when they are only incoherent, making irresponsibility stand in for independence. Among American journalists, the only genuinely interesting character who achieved celebrity may be H.L. Mencken. When he played the village atheist, as he did at the Scopes Trial, Mencken could be as stupidly predictable as Hunter Thompson; but unlike the conservatives, who borrow his suspenders and cigars or mimic his stylistic eccentricities, Mencken could write well, some times very well, and he could surprise his readers by saying something kind about a political crook or by disclosing an affection for the Southern bourbons in Baltimore politics.

There are no Menckens around, if only because none of the would-be Menckens can take the trouble to read a book more serious than a celebrity biography. Some of Mencken’s gruff independence (though not his brilliance or erudition) could be glimpsed from time to time in the off-the-cuff utterances of Jack Germond, recently retired from the Baltimore Sun. In most respects a liberal whose knee had jerked so often in the same direction that it had frozen in a 90-degree angle to the left, Germond was frequently unreliable in his judgments of Democratic political leaders, to whose scams he had an irritating habit of drawing attention. Appearing on the talking-head shows, as he frequently did in the 1980’s and early 90’s, Germond rarely looked into the camera, slouching to the side—perhaps to ease the pressure from his massive belly—and gesturing impatiently and dismissively with his fingers as if the time spent listening to Eleanor Clift batting her gums were a thousand years in purgatory. He never smiled except when he found something funny, which made him seem endearingly un-American beside such accomplished grinners as Morton Kondracke.

Germond’s worthy counterpart on the right was Robert Novak, who is still going strong. Although Mr. Novak is a solid 90 percent-pure conservative Republican, he has never hesitated to ridicule the GOP leadership when it veers left. His disconcerting habit of blurting out bits of solid information or expressing his own opinion—the very qualities that make him so revolting to the old reliables like Al Hunt and Mark Shields—make him the best prognosticator on cable TV.

The late 80’s and early 90’s seem like a Golden Age: Bob Novak and Jack Germond and, when he was between political careers, Pat Buchanan. In retrospect, even Michael Kinsley seems like the real thing. Although “Mike” Kinsley (as they started calling him on Crossfire, in the hilarious pretense that he was a red-blooded American male) despises everyone to the right of William F. Buckley, Jr. (and that covers a great deal of territory), he takes the trouble to inform himself on the details. When the usual people were sniffing out Mr. Buchanan’s “antisemitism,” Kinsley told his debriefers that Pat’s insensitivity had occasionally offended his Jewish sensibilities, but he had never detected any hostility toward Jews. Wrong answer.

Apart from Bob Novak—a specimen of antediluvian journalism who belongs in a museum next to poets who know how to rhyme and women who know how to cook—there are few talking heads left on television who are capable of giving such wrong answers. Most shows are dominated by party flacks who long ago gave up even the pretense to independence. To see Bill Press pretend to spar with Mary Matalin or Tucker Carlson is a little like watching two rasslers trash-talking each other before the match.

The party badge seems to have been pinned a little less securely on Chris Matthews, whose Jesuit schooldays did not allow him to stomach Bill Clinton’s lying (though one would have thought the Jesuits would have taught him how to argue his way around perjury), but once the Lewinsky affair was over, Matthews obediently trotted back to the corral that Tip O’Neill had put him in so many years ago. At his most docile, though, Mr. Matthews exudes an urban Mick grittiness that seems out of place among the pretty boys of celeb TV—people like, say, Tucker Carlson, renowned (according to the misnamed FOX News webpage “Men Behind the Spin Room”) for his bow tie and his wit. We have all seen the bow tie.

Carlson is never memorable, and his allegiance to the GOP orthodoxy does not allow him to rise even to an originally bad idea. He is to journalism what Leonardo di Caprio is to acting, and his adolescent voice and soft-as-a-spaniel’s hair would make him perfect—if he could sing opera—to play Gluck’s Orfeo.

Not to be confused with anyone who has ever been to an opera is Bill O’Reilly. A veteran of tabloid television (he spent years on ABC’s Inside Edition), O’Reilly is now the hottest celebrity of talking-head television, beating out Larry King in the ratings. O’Reilly works hard at his job and is a skillful interviewer who can pulverize a Democrat’s stone wall as effectively as a pneumatic drill.

Though Brit Hume and Fred Barnes wear more impressive neckties (which goes a long way with me), O’Reilly has earned his ranking as dean of broadcast news at FOX. Unfortunately, he seems to have fallen for his own conceit that he is above left and right, a simple man using common sense to defend your average working guy, because he’s not about ideology, etc., etc.

Translated, this really means: “Because real TV celebrities have better things to do than to make up their minds about right and wrong, I prefer to pick and choose my positions from both sides of the Chinese menu of Republican-Democratic politics.” Cautiously steering his way among the barges in the mainstream, O’Reilly attacks Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson for being crooks but would not dream of questioning their basic principles, most of which he seems to share. He wants to take away your guns and SUV but probably would not want to raise your taxes to pay for the regulations.

O’Reilly shares this inability to think through an issue with virtually every other talking head. TV is a place where you can see Bill Kristol or—get this—David Gergen representing the conservative side, but not Sam Francis, Joe Sobran, or Tom Bethell; the left gets represented not by Alex Cockburn but by the Nation‘s editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, who can barely win an argument with Rich Lowry. In a medium where Christopher Hitchens comes across as a dangerous extremist and David Brooks is too intellectual, Francis and Cockburn would scare the bejesus out of the producers, and either one could have Bill Press and Fred Barnes for breakfast without killing his appetite.

O’Reilly, though he may be almost as ignorant, is far smarter than his competitors, and he reveals his intelligence by not making the show about news or controversies (and certainly not ideology). What exactly is the factor in The O’Reilly Factor? Answer: The O’Reilly, a character loosely based on one William O’Reilly who grew up in Levittown and kicked around local and network newsrooms for many years. Part of the attraction of the Bill O’Reilly character is the combination of cockiness—he’s another smart Mick from the streets—and humility. He has (so far) managed to avoid the Rush Limbaugh trap of suggesting to his fans that they are envious losers leading drab little lives while El Rushbo is a celebrity among celebrities. To accomplish this feat, he has to remind his viewers constantly that he is just an average guy like them, someone who does not want to get bogged down in the “minutiae” (one of his anti-elitist code words) of a question. He even brings in someone less educated than him—the mysterious Arthell—to chastise him for arrogance and bad manners. It is as if Henry II went on a campaign to attack die Church but had to travel around with a group of monks to scourge him publicly every week for the murder of Thomas a Becket. Of course, if O’Reilly were really humble, he would bring on a serious antagonist, but I do not expect to see Taki in Arthell’s chair any time soon.

So long as O’Reilly is interviewing other celebrities, his performance as Bill O’Reilly is almost letter-perfect, but as soon as he begins to read off the teleprompter for one of his “Talking Points” editorials, he sounds like a local TV news anchor doing Charley’s Aunt at a dinner theater. Arthell ought to tell him that sitting and reading a script is not the O’Reilly thing at all: He should switch to a stand-up monologue with a live audience.

Conservatives, with that wonderfully naive optimism they always display in the face of their unbroken string of defeats and failures, take heart from the success of such media editorialists as Rush Limbaugh, Tony Snow, and The O’Reilly. In the meantime, the leftist news industry goes on, day after day, manufacturing non-information, inflating non-events (like airline crashes) into headline stories, and misreporting even the most trivial details of everyday life until these anti-facts can be assembled into a major piece of propaganda like church arsons, violence against homosexuals, father-daughter incest, the risks of second-hand smoke, and that stolen vote in Florida about which we hear so little now—even by the wildest stretch of the Miami Herald‘s imagination—Mr. Gore did not win the state. As the late Mel Bradford remarked the first time I met him (over 30 years ago), it does not matter who controls the editorial page of a newspaper. Only the news editors count.

But news editors and producers and writers are rarely celebrities; they are the grey little beetles scuttling under rocks, doing their job out of the limelight (or even the sunlight). They are not as cute as Tucker Carlson, and they do not have the signature neckties, suspenders, haircuts, or cigars affected by the ethereal Eloi in the bright light. But down beneath the surface where no one can see them, the hardworking Morlocks of the New York Times and Washington Times and CNN are writing the script that everyone in public life is reading.