Jul
01
2001

Bill O'Reilly's Sheer O'Reillyness

Don't call him conservative-- but he is

Fox News Channel's star performer is undoubtedly Bill O'Reilly. Host of the nightly talk-show The O'Reilly Factor and author of the best-selling book of the same name, O'Reilly epitomizes Fox's in-your-face style.

A former anchor for the tabloid Inside Edition whose upcoming contract is reportedly worth $20 million (Boston Globe, 3/14/01), O'Reilly poses nightly as an outraged common man speaking out against the corruption of the liberal elites who run the country from Hollywood and Washington. "We're the only show from a working-class point of view," he once told the Washington Post (12/13/00). "I understand working-class Americans. I'm as lower-middle-class as they come."

Despite assailing Hollywood liberals and Hillary Clinton night after night -- he reportedly has an image of Hillary Clinton's face on his office doormat (Washington Post, 12/13/00) -- O'Reilly is forced to maintain simultaneously that his views aren't conservative at all. He frequently proclaims his independence from all partisan agendas, as he wrote in his book: "See, I don't want to fit any of those labels, because I believe that the truth doesn't have labels." On his show, he often angrily denies accusations of a conservative bent.

There are two major reasons why O'Reilly denies holding conservative views. First, admitting his point of view would destroy the show's premise of being TV's "no-spin zone," an oasis of straight-talk where slick ideologues are held to account.

And it would make it much harder for Fox to maintain that the network's lineup has no particular ideology, since O'Reilly is regularly presented as an equal-opportunity gadfly, a populist who rails indiscriminately at the left and the right. When Fox News chief Roger Ailes told the Washington Post (2/5/01) that "our prime time is just down the middle," he cited the fact that O'Reilly "hammers everyone."

"No Spin Zone"

In practice, however, it's almost always "liberals" and their friends who get hammered:

"Now for the top story tonight: Is Al Gore running for president on a quasi-socialistic platform--in this case, socialism being defined as work and production being supervised by the government?" (6/7/00)

"Nobody should begrudge any American the right to an opinion, but, hey, Rosie [O'Donnell], come on, let's think out your flaky liberal agenda a little. Are you making sense, or are you spouting propaganda? I mean, a guy named Joseph Goebbels did the same thing on the far right during World War II." (book, p. 184)

"That's my advice to all homosexuals, whether they're in the Boy Scouts, or in the Army or in high school: Shut up, don't tell anybody what you do, your life will be a lot easier." (7/7/00)

"I don't understand why in the year 2000, with all of the media that we have, that a certain segment of the African-American community does not understand that they must aggressively pursue their child's welfare. That is they have to stop drinking, they have to stop taking drugs and boozing, and--and whites do it, too! Whites do it, too!" (1/17/00)

One person O'Reilly especially likes to "hammer" is Jesse Jackson. Since late 1998, when the Nexis news database began archiving the show's transcripts, The O'Reilly Factor has run an astounding total of 56 segments about Jesse Jackson (that is, with Jackson's name in the headline). That means that approximately one out of every 12 episodes of The O'Reilly Factor has featured a segment about Jackson -- over a period of two and a half years.

Lest anyone think O'Reilly has mixed feelings about Jackson, here is a partial sampling of O'Reilly transcript headlines: "Did Jesse Jackson Pay His Mistress With Funds Donated to Charity?" (4/2/01); "What Do Jesse Jackson's Financial Records Reveal?" (3/8/01); "Has Jesse Jackson's Tax-Exempt Status Been Clarified?" (3/14/01); "Is the IRS Avoiding Jesse Jackson?" (3/9/01); "Has Jesse Jackson Lost His Moral Authority?" (1/9/01); "How Personal Are African-Americans Taking the Moral Failures of Reverend Jesse Jackson?" (2/19/01); and, inevitably, "Jesse Jackson Lashes Out at The Factor" (3/22/01).

Soft on Bush?

It's hard to find examples of O'Reilly attacking conservatives (other than Goebbels, of course) or their favorite causes with such vigor. For a commentator who scrutinized every action of the previous administration, O'Reilly's softball treatment of the Bush White House speaks volumes: "President Bush ran on the slogan 'reformer with results.' That sounds good to me," he cheered (2/15/01) during Bush's first weeks in office.

When Bush won Senate passage of his tax cut plan, O'Reilly (5/24/01) belittled its opponents: "How on earth could 38 Democratic senators vote against it? . . . This is not a big tax cut. . . . A tax cut that puts money in the pockets of all working Americans is a good thing, period."

When Bush appointed Dick Cheney to formulate the administration's energy policy, O'Reilly (5/1/01) judged the former oil man a sound choice: "I would rather have a Cheney--even though I might disagree with him sometimes--at least trying to do something, than the hypocrites we had in [the] Clinton/Gore administration."

And once the Bush/Cheney energy plan came under attack, O'Reilly ran interference for it. When Greenpeace's John Passacantando asserted that drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would only yield six to nine months of oil (5/1/01), O'Reilly was not impressed. "That's your opinion!" he retorted.

This is a favorite O'Reilly debating tactic: Faced with a factual statement he's unable to rebut, he accuses his guest of stating an opinion. When a journalist mentioned Israel's "illegal settlers" (7/18/00), O'Reilly replied: "All right, that's your opinion!" When a drug-policy advocate said marijuana impairs driving less than alcohol does (1/3/00), the answer was, "Well, that's your opinion!"

Interviewing U.S. News & World Report editor Stephen Smith (7/22/99), O'Reilly outlined his view that famed journalist Ben Bradlee had been soft on President Kennedy -- and then asked Smith, who had known Bradlee, "What's your opinion?" When Smith answered that he thought Bradlee had managed to stay objective, O'Reilly interrupted: "Well, that's your opinion, though!"

When O'Reilly's claims of ideological neutrality are challenged, he tends to respond with a pre-written script. As part of his "no-spin" marketing strategy, he has cultivated a handful of pet "liberal" political positions that he can rattle off when accused of leaning to the right. But when O'Reilly actually expounds his "liberal" views, they generally turn out to be conservative views in disguise.

For example, O'Reilly often touts himself as a staunch environmentalist to prove his ideological evenhandedness. But then he rails that "the greens have strangled the California economy" (5/10/01), environmentalists are "distorting and oversimplifying some very powerful issues" (5/1/01), and his stance on climate change (3/29/01) is so qualified as to be practically a non-position: "I believe there is global warming. I mean, I know that's controversial. For every scientist who says there is, there's one that says there isn't."

His often proclaimed opposition to the death penalty quickly wanders off to the far right. O'Reilly's proposed substitute for capital punishment (WorldNetDaily.com, 6/14/01): Offenders "should all be subjected to life in prison without parole in a federal work camp," which "would be run military style and be located on federal land in Alaska. It would be in effect a gulag." Convicts would be "forced to labor eight hours a day, six days a week in the harsh climate" and "if the criminal did not cooperate with the work detail, his food rations would be cut, and he would be placed in solitary confinement."

O'Reilly's Roots

In March, Slate.com editor Michael Kinsley infuriated O'Reilly by suggesting the Fox host's background was less proletarian than he lets on (Washington Post, 3/1/01). O'Reilly makes much of his "working class" upbringing in Levittown, Long Island. His book's dust-jacket bio begins: "Bill O'Reilly rose from humble beginnings to become a nationally known broadcast journalist," and O'Reilly says his father, who retired in 1978, "never earned more than $35,000 a year in his life."

But O'Reilly's mother told a reporter her son actually grew up in Westbury, Long Island, a "middle-class suburb a few miles from Levittown," where he attended a private school (Washington Post, 12/13/00). His father's $35,000 income in 1978 is equivalent to over $90,000 today in inflation-adjusted dollars.

In February, O'Reilly gave a speech seemingly taking credit for winning a coveted Peabody award while an anchor at the tabloid TV show Inside Edition. After comedian Al Franken pointed out that the show never won a Peabody, O'Reilly retorted, in Mamet-esque syntax (O'Reilly Factor, 3/13/01): "Guy says about me, couple of weeks ago, 'O'Reilly said he won a Peabody Award.' Never said it. You can't find a transcript where I said it."

But on his May 19, 2000 broadcast, he repeatedly told a guest who brought up his tabloid past: "We won Peabody Awards. . . . We won Peabody awards. . . . A program that wins a Peabody Award, the highest award in journalism, and you're going to denigrate it?" (Inside Edition won a Polk Award, not the better-known Peabody, for reporting that was done after O'Reilly left the show--Washington Post, 3/1/01.)

But such gaffes don't stop O'Reilly from critiquing other journalists. In a profile in MediaWeek (2/8/01), O'Reilly declared that the Los Angeles Times was an abysmal paper, in part because "they never mentioned Juanita Broaddrick's name, ever. This whole [Los Angeles] area out here has no idea what's going on, unless you watch my show." (Broaddrick accused Bill Clinton of raping her in 1978.)

When former L.A. Times editor Melissa Payton pointed out that the Times archive contains 21 citations of Broaddrick's name, Catherine Seipp, who wrote the MediaWeek profile, summed up O'Reilly better than most: She chalked up her failure to check the claim to having been "mesmerized by O'Reilly's sheer O'Reillyness."

See also the other two articles in FAIR's special report on Fox News Channel:

The Most Biased Name in News: Fox News Channel's extraordinary right-wing tilt

Fox's Slanted Sources: Conservatives, Republicans far outnumber others-- a study of Special Report with Brit Hume.