Whenever I watch the Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor — the highest-rated prime-time show in the cable-news universe — one question strikes me right away. Why do people who disagree with Bill O’Reilly — liberals, usually — go on the show? What masochistic urge coaxes them into battle with the guy who’s controlling the weaponry?
Physically imposing, stratospherically self-confident, always wrapped in the mantle of patriotism, decency, and honor, and well trained in TV tactics by his experience as everything from Inside Edition anchor to ABC News correspondent, O’Reilly is a master of manipulating the microphone and dominating the action. Many well-intentioned guests simply end up befuddled and battered after entering a world in which O’Reilly shrewdly selects his targets and then carpet-bombs them.
Take, for example, the January 11 edition ofFactor.
O’Reilly starts off by drumming up a campaign to remove a Vermont judge who gave out a lenient sentence in a rape case involving a young girl. From there, he takes on Iran’s nuclear threat, fretting that the obstructionist “US press and the hard-core left” will block meaningful military action, even as his two guest experts inform him that the country has no good military option at this point.
Then O’Reilly starts shooting fish in a barrel. He criticizes AARP (the American Association of Retired Persons) for having “drifted sharply to the left” after its magazine honored “notorious far-left bomb thrower” Harry Belafonte — who recently called President George W. Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world.” That’s followed by an attack on BET (Black Entertainment Television) after voters on its Web site named Louis Farrakhan person of the year.
“Condoleezza Rice wasn’t on your ballot,” says O’Reilly, scolding the game-but-outgunned BET representative.
After that, it’s the local contingent’s turn. Civil libertarian, lawyer, and Phoenix contributor Harvey Silverglate is on to talk about the Bush administration’s warrantless-spying campaign revealed by the New York Times. Like O’Reilly, Silverglate thinks the Times faces legal vulnerability. But unlike O’Reilly, who sees the story “undermining” our 24/7 war on terror, Silverglate does not want the paper prosecuted for revealing what he says are administration misdeeds. A good guest can agree with O’Reilly on some issues, but still arrive at a different bottom line. And a well-prepped Silverglate manages to hold his own.
It’s a bumpier ride, however, for Alex Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, who tries to fend off an O’Reilly outraged by what he insists is the center’s domination by lefties and steamed that his nemesis — liberal comedian and talk-show host Al Franken — was once given a Shorenstein fellowship that supported his research on Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Continuing the assault, O’Reilly declares that John Carroll — the highly respected former Los Angeles Times editor just brought on as a Shorenstein visiting lecturer — is a “left-wing editor” fired by the Times because “he moved it as far left as it’s been in its history.” (Actually, Carroll, in what was viewed as an act of professional integrity, resigned amid disagreements over Times owner the Tribune Company’s fiscal priorities.)
In a heated exchange, Jones tries hard to defend Carroll. But facts aren’t much use on Factor, as O’Reilly demands to know, “Who do you have on the right to counter John Carroll?”
“I’m a watchdog,” O’Reilly declares triumphantly before abruptly ending the segment.
In an interview after that encounter, Jones explains that “Bill has a deep-seated anger at me personally because I gave Al Franken a fellowship.”
“Bill is Bill,” he adds, philosophically. “I know going on this show I’m going to be accused and yelled at. I think on his program, it’s important to accuse and yell back.”
Facing down Factor
There is, of course, plenty of debate about whether O’Reilly’s arched eyebrows, wagging finger, and moral certitude are a shrewdly concocted act or the real deal. But maybe it doesn’t even matter.
“People believe what I’m saying is true,” asserted the self-proclaimed populist in an interview a few years ago. “And I trust the folks.” (A spokeswoman for the show declined to comment for this story.)
O’Reilly’s infamous bullying tactics were memorably captured in Robert Greenwald’s 2004 documentary Outfoxed, in which he is seen berating and silencing guests who take issue with him. Perhaps the most famous encounter of that kind was a nasty and insulting February 2003 interview with Jeremy Glick — an anti-war activist and son of a 9/11 victim — in which O’Reilly informed his guest that his late father would disapprove of his actions, told him to “shut up,” and then declared it was time to “cut his mike.”