Shut the F*** Up! The Second-Most-Powerful Man in America is Talking
I grew up in the white-bread, mayonnaise-loving suburbs of Washington, DC, then went off to college at the University of Tennessee. After a spell of live theater and a television pilot for WNBC in New York, I found myself working as cohost of Channel 4’s genial, family-friendly Evening Magazine. It was the early ’80s, and I was doing heartwarming little stories filled with hope about people like the Hoyt family (you know them: the father who pushes his son in the wheelchair in the Boston Marathon). I worked with Robin Young — whom half the men in New England had a crush on — and Sara Edwards, one of my best pals. We treated our audience like family, and when we met them on the street, they treated us like old friends. It was a nice feeling.
Across town, Bill O’Reilly was a rising star in the news division at Channel 5. Showing an early predilection for the talents he would later put to use in his “No Spin Zone,” his specialty was acrid commentary on the news. He made it clear that he believed he should replace the station’s main news anchors, the beloved husband-and-wife combo of Chet Curtis and Natalie Jacobson. O’Connor says O’Reilly “was despised in the newsroom — but he didn’t care.”
To get a totally different take on O’Reilly’s early days at Channel 5, I call one of his most ardent and loyal defenders, Emily Rooney, who these days is host of Greater Boston on WGBH. Rooney once told a Globe reporter that her late husband, Channel 5 reporter Kirby Perkins, “used to say I had a character flaw for liking Bill O’Reilly.” I tell her about O’Reilly’s “power” quote and ask for her take on it. Her reply: “On the greater point of what he says to Newsweek — he has not diverged from who he was 30 years ago. When he went to ABC, he would say, ‘I should be the anchor.’”
I ask Rooney whether O’Reilly might ever take a dive into politics. “I don’t think he will ever run for office,” she says. “He has too much power.”
“But really,” I ask, “the second-most-powerful person in the U.S.?”
“I didn’t say he wasn’t delusional.”
Narcissistic Behavior: “Requires excessive admiration.”
After nine years at Channel 4, I left Boston in 1989 to take a job hosting Over the Edge, a reality magazine show on ABC. But we got canned just a month later when the new ABC president decided there was no future for reality programming. (Ha!) From there, I spent about six months at Fox’s Beyond Tomorrow before it got canceled to make room for some crazy experiment Fox wanted to try called The Simpsons. With a mortgage and two small kids who kept wanting to eat food, I was feeling as unloved and desperate a TV weasel as you will ever find. Fortunately, the phone rang. It was Hard Copy calling.
In case your memory of the late ’80s and early ’90s is hazy, Hard Copy was a syndicated half-hour tabloid news program that brought you everything you secretly wanted to know about the latest bloody evidence in the O. J. Simpson case, the newest child-molestation charges against Michael Jackson, the secret Gennifer Flowers phone tapes with Bill Clinton, and the hidden-camera video of Amy Fisher. We were like a cross between TMZ and CSI, combining celebrities, gauzy dramatizations, and crime stories. And we specialized in pissing off famous people. Howard Stern, for example, threatened to walk off the set of his own movie, Private Parts, if Hard Copy went forward with a story. George Clooney boycotted our sister show, Entertainment Tonight, until Hard Copy agreed to stop covering his private life. Getting the very famous riled up like that tends to give you a vague sense of power. It is surprising, actually, how easy it is to confuse being able to annoy powerful people with being powerful yourself.
And for a brief time, I became famous, too. B-list or C-list for sure, but famous enough to get invited to “celebrity” charity events, poker games with the likes of Sid Caesar, and a driving stint in the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race. Being famous means you have people fussing over you all the time. They tell you how great you look or how great your show is. You have a “clothing allowance,” travel in limos, and stay in suites. You fly first class or on corporate jets, where you eat shrimp and sip champagne. Women who are much better looking than you are surprisingly nice to you at parties. People send you drinks, buy you dinners, and even offer you cars. You hobnob with other famous people, pose for pictures with strangers, and sign autographs for kids. And this is easily taken to mean, “I am somebody.”
Trust me: It goes to your head. My contract required that all travel had to be first class and hotel accommodations had to be suites. I remember being on some assignment out of town and walking into my hotel room and thinking: “Well, yeah it’s a suite, but it’s not a very big suite.” I got into an argument once with the production manager because he wanted me to take a taxi from the airport instead of a limo. And even though Hard Copy regularly covered celebrity divorces in great gory detail, I got quite miffed when Matt Siegel of Matty in the Morning mentioned my own split on Kiss 108. He was just trying to be funny. How dare he!
O’Reilly’s career, meanwhile, was following a similar arc to mine: After leaving Channel 5, he landed a gig in New York hosting Inside Edition, a syndicated show that featured tabloid crime stories and celebrity gossip. Reporters at Hard Copy often competed against his reporters for the best “gets” of the scandal du jour. And I don’t mind telling you that Inside Edition used to work in Hard Copy’s shadow. It also produced the single most popular YouTube clip of O’Reilly.
Sign-offs are the silly one-liners that appear at the end of a show to transition to the credits and the next program. I’ve taped thousands, and have watched others do it live, in the bitter cold or blistering heat, and at the scenes of disasters. It’s not that hard. But for some reason, on a particular day of taping Inside Edition, O’Reilly was having a really difficult time with a sign-off that went, “Here is Sting, to play us out.” What could that possibly mean? he kept demanding to know. Unable to get a satisfactory answer, he had a complete meltdown. After a few failed attempts at the sign-off, he became apoplectic and screamed at the stage manager, “Fuck it! We’ll do it live!”
One of the reasons the clip is so popular is that it came to light years after O’Reilly had hit it big on Fox. Seen today, it resonates as a kind of flashback — a rewind that offers us a brilliant prediction of the venomous, furious character who would eventually become so familiar. Back then, he had a full head of hair and fewer wrinkles, but it’s the same O’Reilly. The video also confirms what we’ve always suspected the guy was like off camera. The only reason any of us ever got to see the clip is that O’Reilly forgot one of the most important things all TV stars know: Always, always, always be nice to the technicians. Especially the ones who can make copies of tapes.
Narcissistic Behavior: “Lacks empathy: Is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.”
O’Reilly ended up getting replaced on Inside Edition in 1995 by the far more attractive Deborah Norville. Instead of sticking with TV, he ended up back in Massachusetts, enrolling at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. After graduating, he landed his Factor gig on Fox News (at first, it was called The O’Reilly Report), which was an instant hit. According to the authorized biography of O’Reilly, Ailes later explained to him why his show became such a success: “Bill, you’re authentic. You are an authentic prick. It’s just not on the air. Like, you’re a prick to your staff, you’re a prick to management. You’re a prick to your family. You’re authentic. You’re actually a prick.”
Ailes is often credited with being a broadcasting genius, and in this case, the conventional wisdom may have it right. The success of The O’Reilly Factor is, in fact, due in large part to O’Reilly’s acting like a prick. He has an affinity for attacking. He launched a war against those who didn’t support the invasion of Iraq. He’s waged a jihad against the imaginary “War on Christmas.” He shouts down those who have the gall to criticize him. When a caller to his radio show mentioned the name “Olbermann,” O’Reilly informed him that he could expect a little visit from Fox security. He has his TV crews ambush critics outside their homes. He has tried to get his detractors fired. And recently, he tried to have arrested a man who politely asked him, “Mr. O’Reilly, were you at Newt Gingrich’s fundraiser?” The police officer on the scene declined to lock the offender up. (Which sort of raises the question, again, of just how powerful O’Reilly really is.)
Now, attacking people can be an enjoyable exercise. I’ve done it myself, and when you are in the middle of “getting” someone who actually matters, someone who you view as a bad guy, it can indeed feel like you are performing a virtuous civic deed. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun. In 1996, when Dick Morris was a high powered political adviser to President Clinton, I delighted in snagging an interview with Sherry Rowlands, his $200-an-hour prostitute. Morris had such a need for envy and admiration from others that he constantly bragged about his power and prowess, even letting Rowlands listen in on a phone conversation with the president of the United States.
So even though I don’t agree with his politics, I absolutely get why O’Reilly sometimes feels a great sense of enjoyment when he goes after the rich and powerful. I can’t begrudge him that for a moment. It’s fine to “punch up,” to righteously go after those who are more powerful.
But what about when you attack innocent victims?
Take the case of Shawn Hornbeck. In 2002, 11-year-old Shawn was out riding his bike near his home in Richwoods, Missouri, when he was kidnapped by a stranger. Four and a half years later, acting on a tip, police in Kirkwood, Missouri, busted the kidnapper and rescued Shawn, along with another boy who had also recently been taken captive.