THE MEANEST MAN ON TELEVISION
BILL O'REILLY, HOST OF THE
CABLE NEWS SHOW THE O'REILLY FACTOR, IS AN ARROGANT, CONTROLLING KNOW-IT-ALL. AND
THAT'S EXACTLY WHY HE'S SO POPULAR.
BY NEIL SWIDEY
In the late 1980s, Bill
O'Reilly was a second-tier correspondent at ABC News, scrapping to get air
time. He walked with the same swagger he has today, but back then no one took
it seriously. A good day was when Peter Jennings handed him the trifling task
of doing the 30-second afternoon news breaks.
So on October 16, when anchorman Jennings wrapped up his evening newscast and headed over to the Fox News Channel studios outside New York's Times Square to be interviewed by his former underling, it was yet another sign of how far O'Reilly has come.
Like so many of the guests on The O'Reilly Factor,
He quickly forced
"If you talk to Canadians - "
"I'm talking to you," O'Reilly interrupted.
When O'Reilly said the point of Jennings's visit was obviously to sell books, the newsman took offense. "It isn't about selling the book,"
O'Reilly smirked. "Yeah, but nobody cares whether you had a wonderful time doing the book."
Then O'Reilly moved to his burning line of questioning, which, of course, centered on him. "Here I am, not nearly as erudite as you or as experienced as you, shooting my mouth off every night, analyzing the news. . . . Doesn't it drive you crazy to sit there like a well-dressed robot and not be able to give your opinion?"
O'Reilly would ask the same question, with almost the same phrasing, four times. Three times,
"Do you mean does it frustrate me sometimes that I can't - "
"Yes!" O'Reilly thundered.
What is beyond debate is that O'Reilly has managed to mold his don't-B.S.-me-and-the-folks persona into a brand of Nike proportions. In addition to the top show on cable news (he dethroned King last year and continues to widen his lead), he has a new radio show that saw the fastest rollout in talk-radio history (he's now on 300 stations), two books that got comfortable atop the New York Times's bestseller list, a syndicated column, and a busy schedule as a highly paid speaker. A conservative estimate of his annual income is $7 million, but it may be closer to $10 million. Pretty good for a not particularly attractive 53-year-old broadcaster who spent most of his career hopping from one un re mark able assignment to the next, including stints on Boston's Channels 7 and 5 in the 1980s.
This year, the competition bankrolled big names to try to topple him - Connie Chung on CNN and Phil Donahue on MSNBC - but O'Reilly managed to crush them both. That's not surprising, since they represent the two flavors of cable hosts of the past: the issue-free personality and the predictable ideologue. O'Reilly's winning recipe is a canny blend: an opinion-driven show with the packaging touches of a traditional newscast, from short segments to over-the-shoulder graphics.
His critics say that, beneath all the bluster, O'Reilly succeeds because of what he pretends to be - a moderate, a populist - rather than what he really is - a right-winger, a shill for media mogul Rupert Murdoch. And they point out that his audience is but a tiny slice of the overall television pie.
To some extent, they're right. Taken together, his views are overwhelmingly conservative. It's hard to see how a true populist can favor the permanent elimination of the estate tax, a burden imposed solely on the wealthiest 2 percent of the nation, Murdoch and O'Reilly among them. And, yes, his show pulls in only about 2.5 million viewers, which is puny when compared with the 9 million that
But what that criticism misses is how O'Reilly's impact is bigger than both ideology and eyeballs.
He's not your standard-issue conservative. He opposes the death penalty and John Ashcroft, favors gay adoption and tougher environmental controls. Question the sincerity of those departures if you like. But there's no denying that those stances and other hops across the ideological divide make him more unpredictable than any of the left-vs.-right pundits sounding off up and down the dial. O'Reilly understands that no matter how loudly you shout, predictability is ultimately boring. O'Reilly is never boring.
At a time when the network newscasts continue to lose viewers and influence, and ABC is in talks to cut costs by merging its news division with CNN, O'Reilly is un ambiguously ascendant. Though smaller, his audience is more engaged, more motivated to enlist in his causes. When he railed against the American Red Cross's handling of September 11 donations, he commanded attention, and the Red Cross buckled. When he ranted about the outrage of Pepsi hiring "thug rapper" Ludacris to be its pitchman, and rallied his troops to barrage the soda suits with calls and e-mails, they complied, and so did Pepsi officials, firing Ludacris the next day. As O'Reilly says, "When was the last time you heard anyone talking about something they saw on World News Tonight?"
But what makes him most interesting is not his politics or his causes. It's his savvy as a broadcaster. The guy understands the medium better than just about anybody on the air today. Intuitively, he knows how to, as he says, "keep the folks engaged." He's willing to take chances. He's always working a different angle. When Dan Savage, the irrepressible syndicated sex columnist, sat across from him recently, O'Reilly didn't go after him for having called the Factor host a "moral scold." Instead, he pummeled the openly gay, live-and-let-live Savage for his argument that gay bathhouses should be closed. "I want to go to a gay bathhouse!" O'Reilly shouted several times. "Shouldn't I be free to do that, Mr. Savage?" In the end, Savage muttered, "You win." (Savage wrote later: "I didn't know what to say. . . . Picturing Bill O'Reilly in a gay bathhouse? That could put a gay guy off gay sex for the rest of his unnatural life." "O'Reilly's an iconoclastic, opinionated watcher of public affairs who loves skewering institutions and individuals," says Alex S. Jones, the director of Harvard's
A few days after his bruising interview with
O'Reilly just may be the future of broadcast news, if his scorched-earth approach doesn't burn him out first. "He's king of the hill right now," says Jones. "The question is, how long can he stay there?"
"YOU KNOW THE TERM 'WYSIWYG'? What you see is what you get," says John Blasi, who met O'Reilly in the first grade at St. Brigid School on New York's Long Island and has been a close friend ever since. "With Bill, what you see is what's always been."
William James O'Reilly was born in 1949 to a frugal, distant father and a saintly stay-at-home mother. From an early age, he figured out what he was good at (sports, fights, getting the other kids in the neighborhood to follow his lead) and what he had trouble with (taking direction from anyone). His fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Martin, made him sit in the "dumb row." Each time a student did something well, she put a check mark on a chart. Each month, the student with the most checks got a prize. O'Reilly never got any checks. One day during recess, he rearranged everyone else's, then watched from the back row as pandemonium ensued.
He went to
Remembering the fun he had causing trouble in print, he enrolled in a master's program in journalism at
Bigger markets beckoned. But in
O'REILLY WAS ON FIRE. HE WAS DISPATCHED TO
A few months later, he came back to
Behind the scenes, O'Reilly continued to be O'Reilly. Rzeppa says that while most "talent" live in fear of losing their jobs, "if a news director assigned Bill a story, and he thought it was a weak idea or didn't fit him, Bill didn't hesitate to suggest to the news director's face what he thought they could do with that idea."
Jeff Rosser, the news director, didn't like Rzeppa's wild antics, and he didn't like O'Reilly's attitude. In 1983, after failing to predict the Super Bowl winner, Rzeppa smashed an egg against his own face while the highlights were rolling. When the camera came back on Rzeppa, his face obscured by shell bits and runny yolk, O'Reilly handed him a towel. It wouldn't be long before Rosser did the same, firing Rzeppa and helping to drive O'Reilly out of the newsroom.
O'Reilly crossed over to Channel 7's programming side to host a new, softer show, New England Afternoon, that followed the soaps. It allowed him to showcase some of his personality, but otherwise it wasn't a great fit. It got clobbered by reruns of The Love Boat. It lasted six months.
He landed in the tiny TV market of
A year later, he was back in
"I really don't think he's changed his persona," Balboni says. "He's no doubt refined it, but he's not changed it."
His Channel 5 experience was a watershed in another way. For the first time in his career, he got along with management. It was the rest of the staff that couldn't abide him. "He desperately annoyed people, including the anchor people," says Emily Rooney, who was assistant news director at the time. "He was just unabashed about saying things like: 'I should really be the anchor here. No one's stronger than me.' "
It's no wonder his relationship with Natalie Jacobson was so frosty. "Natalie really didn't want me on the show," O'Reilly says, adding that, after a while, Rooney suggested he sit next to Chet Curtis instead. "I said fine, but just to tee off Natalie, every time Chet introduced me, I would go: 'You know, Chet, as you, me, and Natalie were talking before the show . . .' Of course, we were never talking about anything."
Rooney couldn't help but get a kick out of O'Reilly. When she sent the staff a memo outlining a new vacation policy, O'Reil ly shot back a note of his own: "Very nicely written memo." Says Rooney, "It was like he was grading me."
She says that her late husband, Channel 5 reporter Kirby Perkins, "used to say I had a character flaw for liking Bill O'Reilly." She's never regretted that flaw. On the anniversary of her husband's death, Rooney, who now hosts her own show on Channel 2, gets notes or calls from O'Reilly. (His friends say that's just like O'Reilly - crusty and bombastic on the outside but thoughtful and loyal underneath. As much as he enjoyed Channel 5, O'Reilly lasted just a year. He got an offer to be an ABCNews correspondent and jumped at the chance to redeem himself at the network level.
Blasi says his lifelong friend's herky-jerky career path reminds him of O'Reilly's chutzpah when he didn't make the Babe Ruth League as a kid. He knew he was the best, and he was convinced that he was getting screwed by the system. "So he went around the system," Blasi says, having his mother sign him up for the baseball league run by the parish in the next town.
If O'Reilly has been the same cocky, capable guy all along, you'd think he'd be appreciative now that people have finally caught on. You'd be wrong. The expression on his face screams: What the hell took you all so long?
It's on Columbus Day, and Bill O'Reilly is not pleased. He swivels in a desk chair as he stares at a big bulletin board crowded with pink and blue index cards - the road map to the next four weeks of The O'Reilly Factor. He is sitting in "the pod," the warren of desks where his dozen or so producers and assistants work, and even though the Fox News Channel newsroom is buzzing around them, inside the pod, everything is quiet while O'Reilly thinks. About the only sound you can hear is highlighters gliding across paper as staffers - arranged in a horseshoe around him - nervously review their notes.
"What's the gay ordinance thing?" O'Reilly snaps.
Senior producer David Brown, a portly 35-year-old with spiked hair, shuffles to the bulletin board and squints to see which producer is assigned to that segment. "Andrea, explain the gay ordinance to Bill!"
Andrea does her best, but the combination of her nervousness and her shaky handle on the story is pretty clear.
"I don't know what you're talking about," O'Reilly says. "Do you?"
He fires questions about other planned segments, decrees that several should be killed and others moved to different blocks in his fast-paced show, where most segments last just five minutes.
Then, after an inordinately long pause, O'Reilly says,
"This is a weak board, people. We can't have any weak segments."
He goes on a rant about the competition: "Larry King has collapsed. We've got a chance to nail him and Connie Chung all within the next five weeks. If they don't show any life between now and Thanksgiving, they're dead, and they're not coming back."
Satisfied smiles creep onto the faces of the staffers around him. They don't last long.
"We have a very, very important five weeks," he continues. "Nobody's to take off. Everybody's got to be here." Vacation days are noted on the bulletin board, and O'Reilly spots something. "Brown, you've got Halloween off? Why?"
During phase two of the meeting, each staffer sequentially steps out of the horseshoe and pitches ideas for future segments. The process is as harrowing as defending a doctoral thesis.
"Awright, what do you got?" O'Reilly asks Christine, the first producer in the firing line.
She begins talking about problems with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"Boring!" he interrupts. "Everybody knows the INS is chaos."
A few minutes later, he cuts off another producer: "These are not ratings-getting stories, Stacey. You got anything people are going to tune in to see?"
Stacey riffles her stack of highlight ed notes and then frowns. "I'll hold off," she says, stepping back into the horseshoe.
"Guys, if there's no headline to the story that's going to make people say, 'I'm going to spend five minutes watching this,' do not pitch it," O'Reilly huffs. "I would rather have no pitches. I'll fill the board. This is another excruciating, agonizing meeting."
A short guy with a buzz cut whom O'Reilly calls "Dangerous" steps forward. He talks about a woman outside
"That's the best story that's been pitched so far!" O'Reilly shouts, to a look of amazement on Dangerous's face. "Because that story is emotional!"
When the meeting breaks up, the staffers race back to their desks and begin making calls. No one seems particularly traumatized, but no one's smiling, either. Just another day at the Factor.
Though his demeanor during the meeting suggested otherwise, Brown insists that the pitch sessions no longer intimidate him. "That's part of the fun - whether or not the emperor is going to eat the food or throw it on the floor."
In 1989, O'Reilly left ABC to host the syndicated tabloid show Inside Edition. Everyone warned him against it, said it was journalistic suicide. But he knew he wasn't going to break out of the pack at the network. He wanted a national profile. He got it. High ratings and a fat salary, too. And a crash course in all the packaging tricks needed to "keep the folks engaged."
But a newsman can introduce only so many reports about Madonna's sex life before wondering if he's still a newsman. In 1993, when Susan Burke, his former co-anchor from Channel 7, came to visit, O'Reilly told her he had seen the future. As they walked in
Conservative radio-talk-show host Rush Limbaugh was a hot commodity then. O'Reilly didn't want to copy him. Limbaugh's strict ideology didn't breathe enough for O'Reilly's more idiosyncratic Irish Catholic conservatism. But the man was onto something with his entertaining "point of view" approach.
O'Reilly eventually pitched his concept for a new show, what he called a populist Nightline, to his bosses at King World, the syndicate that owns Inside Edition. They passed. He left the show. It was a messy exit.
O'Reilly came back to
In his books, O'Reilly dismisses Harvard as "Privilege World," full of pampered liberals jetting off for "winter skiing in Grindelwald," but in private he admits his time there was essential to his reincarnation. He had always been a loudmouth, ready to weigh in with the right answer. But, truth was, there was a lot he didn't know. Harvard exposed him to great books he would have never known about, great minds he would have never met. Most of all, it served as his sort of debate-team boot camp. He got a chance to go up against the brightest thinkers around. Over time, he learned how to anticipate their every move. Over time, he developed the confidence to challenge anyone.
"In some respects, he was foreshadowing his public persona in my class," recalls Martin Linsky, a Republican player who had O'Reilly in his course on the media, government, and society. "He was very outspoken, very provocative, very challenging of political correctness and conventional wisdom." As much as O'Reilly often dominated talk in class, Linsky says what he remembers most was O'Reilly's ability to listen well. "He can find the creases in the conversation. He knows how to ask a question that lays open the assumptions of the person who made the previous comment."
About Harvard, Bill O'Reilly still seems conflicted. "He's proud that he is a graduate of the
As Jones says, "He can say he didn't get infected by the diseases that people catch here." Still, Jones wonders if O'Reilly, as much as he played up his outsider status at Harvard, would have preferred otherwise. "He's a guy who found that getting into the club is not the same as being embraced by it."
Regardless, when Bill O'Reilly earned his master's in public administration from Harvard in the spring of 1996, his timing could not have been better. Rupert Murdoch had just hired Roger Ailes to start up the Fox News Channel. During an earlier stint running CNBC, Ailes had O'Reilly as a guest on a weekly program that he hosted. He remembered being impressed with O'Reilly's "willingness to hang himself out. He had a cantankerous-Irishman-in-a-bar quality."
When O'Reilly came knocking this time, Ailes was inclined to say yes. Many around Ailes warned him against it. "Some people said he had a history of work problems," Ailes recalls. "Others thought: 25 years in the business, and you're not a star already - there must be a problem."
As it turned out, McCaffrey had nothing to worry about. Nobody was watching the show. O'Reilly "was kind of appalled that it wasn't doing better," Ailes recalls.
Two years later, with a new time slot and a new name, The O'Reilly Factor was on the move, propelled by talk of impeachment. Bill Clinton's offenses became Bill O'Reilly's octane. O'Reilly picked up new steam in 2000, with the heated presidential race and O'Reilly's equally heated promotional push for his book with the same name as his show. After edging out Larry King, he never looked back.
Why did it take O'Reilly until he was almost 50 to find real success? Says Ailes, "It has to be the right time, right format, right management."
Balboni, who was his boss at Channel 5, says O'Reilly is now in perfect synch with his network. "The O'Reilly Factor is the distillation of everything the Fox channel represents. It's edgy, attitudy, and clearly more conservative." Most important, he says, "now Bill's the ringmaster. He has total control."
O'Reilly doesn't give it up for anyone. During a recent appearance, US Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, tried the trick of her trade - the filibuster - refusing to stop talking no matter how many times the champion interrupter tried to jump in. "I had to kill her mike," O'Reilly says.
There are more subtle ways to get him off balance. When Sacha Jenkins and Elliott Wilson, co authors of Ego Trip's Big Book of Racism, sat across from O'Reilly, he zeroed in on their contention that everyone is a racist. He asked the two young black men to explain how they are racist. They both admitted a tendency to mistrust whites, because so many whites have mistrusted them. Jenkins recalled a clerk who said on the loudspeaker, " 'Pennies' in aisle three" as they shopped in a convenience store, prompting a security guard to appear.
"But I don't think that's being a racist," O'Reilly assured them. "I have been in certain situations where people have said, 'The honky is over there' . . . but I wouldn't call myself a racist because I resented it."
"In what context did someone call you a honky?" Jenkins asked, fixing his stare on O'Reilly. "I'm fascinated by that."
O'Reilly tried to change the subject, but he never really regained control of the conversation. As Jenkins and Wilson walked into the green room after the taping,
O'Reilly loves the disco era, and Saturday Night Fever is one of his favorite movies. (His wife, Maureen, 36, says he can lose himself grooving with their 3-year-old daughter: "Madeline will be the only kid in kindergarten doing the hustle in show and tell.") As we exit the Fox building on a cold night in October and head down
Inside a dark Irish pub called the Pig 'n' Whistle, as he neatly cuts the shrimp in his seafood fettuccine Alfredo, O'Reilly differentiates his enterprise from the interview show that is most popular with other TV journalists. "We could do a Charlie Rose if we wanted to," O'Reilly says. "It's much easier to do that."
"Why does he get more respect?" I ask.
"The media elite."
"I don't care about them. Our audience is five times the size of his."
As with his Harvard experience, it's hard to tell how truthful O'Reilly is being when he insists he doesn't care what others think. Here's a guy who remembers every slight against him, in astonishing detail. Earlier in the day, when I mentioned Jeff Rosser, his news director at Channel 7, O'Reilly didn't even let me finish the sentence. "He's the devil!" he spat. He exhaustively recounted an incident in which Rosser sent his "hatchet woman" to retrieve a typewriter he accused O'Reilly of squirreling out of the newsroom. You might think the fact that Rosser now works in
O'Reilly has authored three books, and they are an unobstructed window into his mind. The O'Reilly Factor reads like a 212-page commencement address, featuring bromides ("Your parents were right"), autobiography ("So things worked out for me, despite my big ego and big mouth"), and lists of the good (Mike Wallace, Santa Claus), the bad (onion-flavored potato chips, abortion), and the completely ridiculous (Al Sharpton, skin piercing). The No Spin Zone offers transcripts from his favorite interviews and more autobiography.
Those both became bestsellers, but his first book, Those Who Trespass, is actually the most revealing. And it's fiction. Put the two male main characters together in this murder mystery set in the cutthroat world of TV news, and you get Bill O'Reilly. Every detail about them - height, looks, background, bombast - is ripped from his own past. Except one: The TV newsman character turns out to be a serial murderer. O'Reilly has never murdered anyone. Off camera.
Zip Rzeppa recalls that when O'Reilly was writing his novel, he boasted to him, "Big Z, I killed off Rosser." (The last murder victim is an arrogant news director.) O'Reilly makes no apologies for the numerous similarities between his novel and his life. "It's fiction, but it isn't," he says. He takes pleasure in the power the novel gave him to do what the laws of this great nation will not abide. "There is one woman who I kill in Those Who Trespass who still is in a position of power at ABC News," he says. "She is the most despicable person on the face of the earth, a rank informer, somebody who is there with no journalistic skills, only to inform on other people in the company. And if she doesn't like you, she'll make up stuff."
At the end of his show each night - when he declares, "The spin stops here!" - O'Reilly offers an exaggerated smile. In person, though he can often be hilarious, he rarely smiles. Inside, he may be having the last laugh.
Still, there's no guarantee his success will continue. There are mines buried all around him.
Will he be able to hang on to his cherished working-class sensibility as his bank account bulges ever more? It's a sensitive subject with him. During his last visit to
Will he become a caricature of himself? His former co-anchor Susan Burke found herself shaking her head recently as she watched O'Reilly eviscerate a defense lawyer who was just doing his job. "Come on, Bill," she said to herself. "I guess you have to do it at this stage of the game, but that's not the Bill I anchored with." Longtime talk-radio personality Don Imus said on his show recently: "I've known Bill O'Reilly for a long time, think a lot of him. But this constant bravado makes him almost unwatchable."
Worst of all: Will "the folks" just tire of him one day?
"I know people who cannot abide O'Reilly," Peter Jennings says. "Mention his name, and they come off the wall. But they find him very compelling." Then again,
Here's what O'Reilly still has going for him. On the night he battered
Neil Swidey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.