Fear Factor: Bill O’Reilly’s baroque period.
by NICHOLAS LEMANN
The New Yorker/March 27, 2006
During what you could call Bill O’Reilly’s classical period, the first few years of “The O’Reilly Factor”—which débuted in 1996, at the same time as Fox News—O’Reilly seemed to be a recognizable member of the conservative-talk-show-host species, like his Fox stablemate Sean Hannity, or like Joe Scarborough, on MSNBC. He attacked Bill Clinton and Al Gore relentlessly; the Monica Lewinsky scandal was his signature subject. Now, ten years later, O’Reilly has become baroque, and “The O’Reilly Factor” is a complex affair, dense with self-references, obsessions, and elaborations, even though it still delivers a satisfying punch.
O’Reilly is the most popular host on cable news; his average nightly audience is about two million people, while Larry King, on CNN, has an audience about half that size. O’Reilly is most successful in attracting attention when he feuds with other media figures, which happens, in part, because they attack him and he is not one to turn the other cheek. He has started a petition campaign calling on MSNBC to replace Keith Olbermann, one of its prime-time hosts, with, oddly, the paleo-liberal Phil Donahue; he recently threatened a caller to his radio show—someone who mentioned Olbermann’s name—with “a little visit” from “Fox security.” Olbermann has repeatedly conferred on O’Reilly the top place in a “Worst Person in the World” competition, and, probably more to the point, when discussing O’Reilly he often finds ways to work in the word “falafel.” That is a reference to a sexual-harassment suit that a former Fox News producer named Andrea Mackris filed against O’Reilly a couple of years ago. (The case was settled out of court, but not before it got extensive press attention.) Mackris produced what she said were quotes of O’Reilly on the phone discussing things that he imagined they might enjoy doing together. The most notorious of these was a scenario in which they would be in the shower and he would massage her with a loofah, a scrubby sponge—but then, as he went on talking, he slipped up and referred to it as “the falafel thing,” which is funny not only because the picture of smearing wet mashed chickpeas on someone’s body is profoundly unerotic but also because the mistake seems to be a peculiar by-product of O’Reilly’s suspicion of things non-American. That’s why, for O’Reilly, “falafel” is a fighting word.
O’Reilly often proclaims, with glee, the coming demise of Al Franken’s “Air America,” which he says may be dropped by its New York flagship station, WLIB. (Several years ago, Fox News filed—and then dropped—a lawsuit against Franken’s publisher in connection with his book “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them,” much of which was devoted to O’Reilly.) He had a testy on-air exchange with David Letterman a couple of months ago, which has not risen to the status of an ongoing feud but may yet. He has said that if the Times continues to publish “personal attacks” on President Bush, especially in Frank Rich’s column, “we’ll just have to get into their lives,” referring to Rich and the newspaper’s editor, Bill Keller. He has called on his audience to shun several news organizations, including The New Yorker—whose specific sin was questioning the assertion, repeated frequently on “The O’Reilly Factor” during December, that the country is in the grip of a “war on Christmas.”
A long time ago, the distilled essence of cable news seemed to be CNN’s high-energy, low-production-value coverage of the first Gulf War. Today, the essence is O’Reilly, who is firmly planted in his studio, and who begins his show each night by leaning into a camera that is tightly focussed on his upper body, and almost projecting himself out of the television set with the force of his personality.
Another baroque aspect of this moment in O’Reilly’s career is that “The Colbert Report,” on Comedy Central, broadcasts what is essentially a full-dress parody of “The O’Reilly Factor.” Stephen Colbert has obviously made a close study of O’Reilly’s mannerisms and opinions, just as Colbert’s producers have made a close study of the overblown red-white-and-blue swirled graphics that open “The O’Reilly Factor.” (Colbert adds eagles and flags.) But Colbert is too young and too thin to mimic the physical presence of the six-foot-four O’Reilly, and he appears to realize this. So he delivers O’Reilly’s brusque, jabbing hand gestures, and his primary-colored opinions, with a goofy half-smile, as if he were a kid playing dress-up in his dad’s clothes. Like O’Reilly, Colbert has guests, but he often uses his fake right-wing persona to score points for the left, as he did last week when he pretended to grill Keith Olbermann for his attacks on O’Reilly.
O’Reilly has been playing O’Reilly so successfully for so long, and has developed such a substantial library of hooks, tics, and subplots, that he sometimes seems to be parodying himself, or parodying Colbert’s parody of him; “The O’Reilly Factor” and “The Colbert Report” are a matched pair. Both shows air twice most weeknights—the rebroadcast of the previous night’s “Colbert Report” is on during the broadcast of “The O’Reilly Factor,” and the broadcast of “The Colbert Report” is on during the rebroadcast of “The O’Reilly Factor.” With those hours, plus the regular anti-O’Reilly sallies of Olbermann and other hosts, and the relentless promotion of O’Reilly on other Fox shows, O’Reilly dominates cable news as much as Walter Cronkite dominated network news during his heyday, if not more so.
Every journalistic medium produces a characteristic set of forms and attitudes; network news is—even now—about authority, and cable news, increasingly, is about itself. Back in the classical period, liberal media-watchers did a brisk trade in pointing out that Fox News was not actually “Fair & Balanced,” as its slogan claimed. That was not an earth-shattering revelation; “Fair & Balanced” had always been a code whose meaning—here’s news that gives you the world as you already see it—was perfectly understood by the Fox audience. But Fox’s conservatism has acquired a lot of curlicues. Conservatives control the White House, the House, the Senate, and, perhaps, the Supreme Court. Internecine battles are much more important than they were ten years ago, and it is harder to be simply “conservative.” O’Reilly insists (implausibly, but he does take the trouble) that he is ideologically unclassifiable. His attitude toward President Bush is less than completely worshipful. “Summing up, I believe George W. Bush is personally honest but is also a charter member of the power-establishment club that plays by its own rules,” O’Reilly wrote in his 2003 book, “Who’s Looking Out for You?” He has a few “liberal” positions—he’s anti-death penalty, pro-gay civil union, pro-gun control, and not entirely anti-abortion—although, if you look carefully, where he is on each of these issues is not where you are going to find Nancy Pelosi or Howard Dean. He has almost nothing in common with libertarians, except that he thinks taxes are too high. He is not a big fan of the Iraq war, or of the kind of maximalist, world-saving foreign policy that the war was meant to exemplify. Mainly, O’Reilly, like every political talk-show host with a big following, is a populist, who, in his beyond-irony way, is a rich, middle-aged white guy aligned with the ruling party, and who has the guts to stand up to the élitists who run (but also hate) this country. To say that that doesn’t make any sense is to deny oneself the pleasure that a close study of O’Reilly affords.
Class—that is, class resentment—is where, for O’Reilly, politics, and everything else, begins. His first best-seller, “The O’Reilly Factor,” published in 2000, asserts, “Whatever I have done or will do in this life, I’m working-class Irish American Bill O’Reilly.” (Another of O’Reilly’s feuds is with the columnist Michael Kinsley, who several years ago suggested that O’Reilly is actually from a middle-class background; last year, on the radio, O’Reilly objected to a call by the Los Angeles Times editorial page, then edited by Kinsley, for legal representation of detainees at Guantánamo Bay. “They’ll never get it,” O’Reilly said, “until they grab Michael Kinsley out of his little house and they cut his head off. And maybe when the blade sinks in, he’ll go, ‘Perhaps O’Reilly was right.’ ”) In the book, O’Reilly goes on, “No one ever told me or my sister that we were pretty far down the social totem pole while we were growing up in 1960s America. We took for granted that it was normal to buy cars only when they were secondhand, that every family clipped coupons to save money, and that luncheon meats were the special of the day.” And so on: “When our family went out to eat, a rare treat, we didn’t waste money on appetizers, if only because we didn’t go to the kind of restaurants that offered appetizers. Typically the pasta dish was spaghetti, and that was it. No linguine, fettuccine, rigatoni, etceterini, etceterini, to confuse the issue.”
I never saw Nassau County, Long Island, where O’Reilly, who is fifty-six, grew up, in the nineteen-sixties, but I’m guessing that restaurants so unpretentious that they wouldn’t serve a soup-of-the-day didn’t actually exist. Still, the idea of such a restaurant captures O’Reilly’s idea of himself. As soon as he left home—to go to Marist College, in Poughkeepsie, New York—O’Reilly had occasional encounters with members of the fortunate classes, in which, inevitably, he was put down. At Marist, he longed for the girls from nearby Vassar, but “the Ivy Leaguers up from Princeton or down from Cornell got the dates; we were treated like hired help.” By O’Reilly’s account, wealth and fame have not changed the pattern. Even now, when he wanders within range of the “swells,” which he does surprisingly often for a guy who despises them, they sneer at him, just as they would sneer at any ordinary American.
Unlike some conservative talk-show hosts, O’Reilly hasn’t had a career in politics or government; he has never been based in Washington. Long Island notwithstanding, he really comes from a place called television news. After college, he taught high school in Florida, then got a degree in broadcast journalism and worked his way around the country’s media markets, starting as a consumer reporter in Scranton, Pennsylvania. In the early eighties, he landed at CBS News, as a correspondent for the “Evening News.” It should have been his big break, but it didn’t work out. Although he had a happier time at another network, ABC, before joining the syndicated show “Inside Edition,” in 1989, and then Fox, the CBS episode has stayed with him. It hurt—it still hurts. No matter how big a star he becomes, he’s eternally the guy who was banished from the charmed circle.
O’Reilly’s account of what went wrong at CBS has him, as always, pissing off powerful people because he won’t play their phony games. The key moment seems to have come when, during the Falkland Islands War, O’Reilly and his crew got some exclusive footage of a riot in the streets of Buenos Aires and it wound up being incorporated into a report from the veteran correspondent Bob Schieffer, which failed to mention O’Reilly’s contribution. O’Reilly was furious, and after that, by his account, he was in career Siberia at CBS. During this period of forced inaction, he later wrote, “on a visit to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, I stumbled upon an amazing story. The tiny fishing village of Provincetown had become a gay mecca!” O’Reilly took a cameraman there and did a piece on the dangers this posed to local kids, but the network wouldn’t air it. Not long after that, he left.
In 1998, after the launch of “The O’Reilly Factor,” but before superstardom, he published a thriller called “Those Who Trespass,” which is his most ambitious and deeply felt piece of writing. “Those Who Trespass” is a revenge fantasy, and it displays extraordinarily violent impulses. A tall, b.s.-intolerant television journalist named Shannon Michaels, the “product of two Celtic parents,” is pushed out by Global News Network after an incident during the Falkland Islands War, and then by a local station, and he systematically murders the people who ruined his career. He starts with Ron Costello, the veteran correspondent who stole his Falkland story:
The assailant’s right hand, now holding the oval base of the spoon, rocketed upward, jamming the stainless stem through the roof of Ron Costello’s mouth. The soft tissue gave way quickly and the steel penetrated the correspondent’s brain stem. Ron Costello was clinically dead in four seconds.
Michaels stalks the woman who forced his resignation from the network and throws her off a balcony. He next murders a television research consultant who had advised the local station to dismiss him: he buries the guy in beach sand up to his neck and lets him slowly drown. Finally, during a break in the Radio and Television News Directors Association convention, he slits the throat of the station manager. O’Reilly describes each of these killings—the careful planning, the suffering of the victim, the act itself—in loving detail.
In the novel, O’Reilly splits his alter ego in two, by creating a second tall, b.s.-intolerant Irish-American, a New York City homicide detective named Tommy O’Malley. O’Malley is charged with solving the murders that Michaels has committed, while competing with Michaels for the heart of Ashley Van Buren, a blond, busty aristocrat turned b.s.-intolerant crime columnist. Michaels, a possibly once good man driven mad by broadcast journalism, tells Ashley, “Journalism, as you know, is a profession that requires its participants to be aggressive, skeptical, and persistent in pursuit of the truth. Yet, the moment you enter your own newsroom, you’ve got to drop all that. The managers want total conformity. They want you to play the game, to do what you’re told to do.” And, later, “It’s a self-obsessed business. ‘How are things going to impact on me? Is this person my friend or my enemy? I’ll get him before he gets me.’ That kind of thing. It’s a brutal way to live.” Again and again, O’Reilly’s characters remind us that on-air broadcasters are among the most powerful and glamorous people in America, and so the stakes in television newsroom politics could not be higher.
Tommy O’Malley, too, has a lot of ambition and rage, but he channels it into bringing bad guys (not just Michaels but a collection of urban ethnic street punks out of the old “Dirty Harry” or “Death Wish” movies) to justice. Michaels, though rejected by the suits, the swells, and the phonies, is not entirely immune to their values. He lives in a mansion, eats filet mignon, dresses stylishly, and can’t dismiss the A-listers from his consciousness. He is drawn to places like Malibu, Martha’s Vineyard, and the Upper West Side, partly to carry out his murders and partly because a kind of psychological undertow pulls him there. O’Malley seems not to know that they exist; he is broke and not stylish. He is morally redeemed by the police mission, just as Michaels is morally damned by television.
O’Reilly begins each program with an editorial called “Talking Points Memo,” which is often about the news of the day. When the subject is the Bush Administration, O’Reilly is supportive, if not in the respectful manner of most of Fox’s personalities. He seems like a guy who was initially skeptical but had a few candid, head-clearing conversations with people in the Administration and eventually came around. In the case of the Dubai port deal, which most other talk-show hosts objected to strenuously, O’Reilly stated, on “Talking Points,” that the deal’s collapse was harmful to our diplomatic relationships in the Arab world.
Still, politics gets no more airtime from O’Reilly than media-bashing. If what you know about “The O’Reilly Factor” comes mainly from its opponents on the left—from movies like “Outfoxed” and Web sites like Media Matters—and you watch it regularly for a while, you’ll be surprised by how little of the content these days is political. “The O’Reilly Factor” is, increasingly, not a conservative show but a cop show—“O’Reilly: Special Victims Unit,” perhaps—devoted particularly to sex offenders; the host, in effect, is Shannon Michaels playing Tommy O’Malley. Once, when Howard Stern was asked to explain his success, he said that he owed it to lesbians. O’Reilly owes his to child molesters.
Faithful watchers of “The O’Reilly Factor” are familiar with a cast of characters whose names rarely appear in the mainstream press but whom the show treats as major figures, because they serve so well as emblems of what’s wrong with America. They’re either sex offenders, or people insufficiently tough on sex offenders, or people with lesser moral failings, or America-haters: people like Jay Bennish, a Colorado high-school teacher who was placed on leave after one of his students taped him blasting President Bush in class (he has since been reinstated); Shawn Strawser, a Florida twenty-year-old who induced four preteen girls to perform oral sex on him; Edward Cashman, a Vermont judge who sentenced the convicted molester of a six-year-old girl to a minimum of sixty days in prison (Cashman later increased the minimum sentence to three years); and Matt Dubay, a twenty-five-year-old Michigan man who is trying to avoid paying his former girlfriend child support because he didn’t want the child that he fathered and she bore.
“Parents today are rightfully worried about their children being abducted or abused, even in their own neighborhoods,” O’Reilly writes in “The No Spin Zone,” his 2001 book. “But why is that? Are there more child molesters in the United States now than in my childhood years in the fifties and sixties? Are they bolder for some reason? Is it possible they are being encouraged?” O’Reilly struggles for half a paragraph to support what he and his viewers are sure of—that sexual molestation is alarmingly on the rise—and finds scant data, but plows ahead anyway: “There is also something else in play in this country that is much subtler: the gradual contagion of nonjudgmental acceptance. The result of this contagion is that behavior that would have been roundly condemned forty years ago is now ‘understood’ or in some cases even accepted.”
“The O’Reilly Factor” ’s best foils are not so much child molesters as people who, in O’Reilly’s view, are standing in the way of molesters’ being locked up for a long, long time. The North American Man/Boy Love Association is almost too obvious a target, and, anyway, there aren’t enough other overt defenders of child molesting to provide guests night after night. O’Reilly’s steady diet is civil libertarians and defense lawyers; the emotional chord he strikes, even if he doesn’t state his position, is that scum don’t deserve liberties and shouldn’t have lawyers. Here’s O’Reilly interviewing Richard Rosenbaum, the lawyer for Lionel Tate, a Florida boy whose conviction for killing a six-year-old girl when he was twelve years old was overturned by a higher court:
O’REILLY: Well, wait a minute, now, he killed a six-year-old girl.
ROSENBAUM: Yes, he did.
O’REILLY: And it’s a human being. And you’re telling me that I should feel sorry for this guy, Tate. And now, with all of the counselling and all of the attention, he runs around with a knife? Come on.
ROSENBAUM: Well, he didn’t have a knife. And first of all, it was a pocketknife. And in Florida, anything under four inches doesn’t count as a weapon. Also . . .
O’REILLY: Well, it was a four-inch blade, was it not?
ROSENBAUM: It was a four-inch blade. It was thrown on the ground, we think, by his cousin, who was with him. The whole thing was prompted by a verbal altercation that Lionel had with his mom. Lionel walked away from the house in the middle of the night. He was on his way back home. He was just out for a walk. He shouldn’t have done it. But he’s still a child. We must keep in mind, he’s only seventeen. He’s under a lot of pressure. He sits in the house all day long, every single day, and it’s difficult on him. He only has three months left to do, and we still think that he can be a beneficial person to society.
O’REILLY: You know, I just can’t take the chance. I just can’t take the chance that he’s a beneficial person to society.
ROSENBAUM: What are you going to do, lock up every kid and just throw away the key?
O’REILLY: Yeah, I’m going to lock up everybody who kills a six-year-old girl.
O’Reilly belongs to the tradition of Joe Pyne, Morton Downey, Jr., and Bob Grant—pugilistic conservative talk-show hosts who required a liberal foil. In the upside-down calculus of “The O’Reilly Factor,” where attacking is the brand and, therefore, your worst enemy is your best friend, there is no more essential organization than the American Civil Liberties Union. Also welcome, when O’Reilly’s bookers can lure them into the studio, are those who, citing civil liberties, oppose strict efforts to crack down on sex offenders—efforts such as Jessica’s Law, which would require someone who finishes a jail term for child molesting to wear a G.P.S. tracking device for life, and would prohibit him or her from living within two thousand feet of any school or park. Then, there are academics and intellectuals who, though they usually aren’t willing to defend the rights of child molesters, may be prepared to argue that a culture of moral relativism is not sweeping the country. Sometimes somebody will come on the show who is even, by O’Reilly’s lights, willing to attack America itself.
O’Reilly sparring with a guest is like a big jungle cat playing with its prey. He begins by cordially greeting the person, and then, all business, and with a pleasant official smile, he asks a question or two. Viewers know where O’Reilly stands, so they can tell what his reaction will be—and he helps us, with a disapproving squint or a set of his square jaw or a flash of astonishment. Very rarely, the drama will be one of happy surprise, if the guest turns out to be more reasonable than expected—let’s say, a single mom who is willing to admit that growing up with two parents is better for a child—and O’Reilly will soften and allow himself a fond smile. More often, the guest will venture into an area that makes O’Reilly mad, and he’ll have no choice but to pounce, and defend this country’s values and its children. Part of the pleasure of “The O’Reilly Factor” is knowing that O’Reilly is a guy with a temper, and he might lose it. He reddens, sits up, and presses the guest, who may begin to stammer helplessly (in which case O’Reilly usually pulls back), or to backpedal and make excuses, in the manner of Richard Rosenbaum (in which case O’Reilly keeps boring in), or to insult O’Reilly (in which case O’Reilly may begin yelling—the big payoff). He’s the beat cop for the American neighborhood, who may have been a little excessive at times, may occasionally have run afoul of Internal Affairs, but law-abiding folks trust him because they know he’s on their side. His liberal guests are like suspects he’s pulled over: in the end, he’s probably just going to frisk them and let them go with a genial warning, but if they try anything, well, he carries a nightstick for a reason.
The connection between the scourge of child sex abuse and liberals whom O’Reilly doesn’t like—a long list that includes George Clooney, Hillary Clinton, Paul Krugman, and Alec Baldwin—may not be obvious, but, to O’Reilly’s way of thinking, both are part of a national climate of permissiveness and relativism. This is manifested in the unprovable, but no doubt painful, loss of the norms that O’Reilly and his audience remember growing up with. The implied connection, anyway, gives O’Reilly a good pretext for the odd but compelling mixture of subjects on “The O’Reilly Factor,” with foreign policy one minute, a lurid (one might even say titillating) sex crime the next, and the Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof’s latest unfair attack on O’Reilly the next. (O’Reilly is feuding with Kristof, who has assembled from readers’ pledges a notional fund to send O’Reilly on a reporting trip to Darfur. O’Reilly recently parried by saying that the Times “continues to ignore the child predator situation here in the U.S.A.”) It would be useless to accuse O’Reilly of trafficking in cultural symbols and not substance, because to him cultural symbols are substance. Like every artist, he has created a territory that is distinctively his, and under anyone else’s supervision would not cohere.
In earlier times, O’Reilly’s bookers were more successful in attracting big-name liberals into the “No Spin Zone.” It gave O’Reilly the opportunity to confront, say, Sean Combs with the feeling that he was speaking truth to power (“People are under the impression that rap music and this rap world is a violent gangster-ridden corrupt enterprise”), and to get a lot of mileage out of the failure of, say, Hillary Clinton to appear as a guest. Lately, the guests on the left who make “The O’Reilly Factor” fun have been lesser figures—such as Mel Feit, of the National Center for Men—for whom an on-air confrontation with O’Reilly is a journey to the big time. O’Reilly is not only bigger than these people; he’s usually also smarter, handsomer, better spoken, better groomed, and more sophisticated. O’Reilly imagines himself to be the underdog in a confrontation with any liberal, but, when he goes after one, it can come across as the television equivalent of police brutality—bullying undertaken for the sheer joy of bullying. Probably the most notorious example, featured prominently in “Outfoxed,” was his 2003 interview with Jeremy Glick, the left-wing son of a September 11th victim, who had signed a newspaper advertisement opposing the invasion of Afghanistan:
GLICK: Let me finish. You evoke 9/11 to rationalize everything from domestic plunder to imperialistic aggression worldwide.
O’REILLY: O.K. That’s a bunch . . .
GLICK: You evoke sympathy with the 9/11 families.
O’REILLY: That’s a bunch of crap. I’ve done more for the 9/11 families by their own admission—I’ve done more for them than you will ever hope to do.
O’REILLY: So you keep your mouth shut when you sit here exploiting those people.
GLICK: Well, you’re not representing me. You’re not representing me.
O’REILLY: And I’d never represent you. You know why?
O’REILLY: Because you have a warped view of this world and a warped view of this country.
No television host’s career lasts forever, and it may be that O’Reilly is too hot, too close to entertainment, to maintain his position as long as a network anchorman might. O’Reilly has been able to reach the top of the cable-news ratings and stay there—and to turn the deep and determined enmity of the left to his advantage—by relentlessly reminding his audience of how much the left hates him. This baroque period of O’Reilly’s is partly circumstantial: it’s hard to be straight-ahead if you’re essentially oppositional and the people you like are in power, if the guests you most want will not appear on your show, and if it’s nearly impossible to demonstrate the existence of the trends you have made it your mission to oppose. O’Reilly is an amazingly nimble talent, and part of his skill is how persuasively he communicates that he is completely uncensored and incapable of guile or calculation.
When O’Reilly’s day has passed, though, he certainly will have left a lasting stamp on cable news, which is increasingly a medium of outsize, super-opinionated franchise personalities. It is hard to remember, without taking a minute to think about it, who delivers the morning and evening news on the cable networks, or who the main reporters are. Cable is not a medium for providing information, and it is not going to become one anytime soon. Cable is the world that Bill O’Reilly made. National politics will change long before that does.