Shut the F*** Up! The Second-Most-Powerful Man in America is Talking
It’s no secret that Bill O’Reilly is in love with himself. But could he actually be suffering from some kind of pathological personality disorder? One of his recent comments so shocked our author—who’s known O’Reilly since they started out in Boston (and who can tell you a thing or two about broadcast fame going to your head)—that he set out to find the truth. (And by “truth” we mean whatever a former TV anchor with an obvious ax to grind—but a point nonetheless—was able to dig up.)
When the first sketchy accounts of Shawn’s ordeal began to emerge, it was clear that the boy had had opportunities to escape, but hadn’t done so. Thoughtful commentators brought up the likelihood that Stockholm syndrome had come into play, wherein a helpless victim begins to identify with his captor in order to survive. O’Reilly, for his part, dismissed “the Stockholm syndrome thing” out of hand, somehow divining that “there was an element here that this kid liked about his circumstances.” He added: “The situation here for this kid looks to me to be a lot more fun than what he had under his old parents. He didn’t have to go to school. He could run around and do whatever he wanted.”
The truth, though, was that Shawn had spent most of his first month bound to a futon all day, every day. He was constantly sexually abused. His abductor terrorized and threatened to kill him if he ever told anyone who he was. Shawn would later say, “There wasn’t a day when I didn’t think he was just gonna kill me.”
All of these details became public, and O’Reilly was widely criticized for “blaming the victim.” But he never apologized for what he’d said. He never acknowledged he was wrong.
What does all this have to do with being a raging narcissist? I get in touch with John Gunderson, one of the country’s leading experts on personality disorders, to find out. Gunderson, the director of psychosocial and personality research at McLean Hospital in Belmont and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, tells me that a primary characteristic of narcissistic personality disorder is a lack of empathy. Gunderson — who, again, was talking generally rather than about O’Reilly — says people with NPD “seem to disregard or dismiss what ordinarily would evoke concern or sympathy.” Furthermore, he says, it’s “difficult for them to apologize. If they make a mistake, they would be ashamed of it and more apt to withdraw, or to just never mention it again.”
Narcissistic Behavior: “Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.”
In 2004, a Fox News producer named Andrea Mackris filed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment against O’Reilly, her boss. Mackris had worked for O’Reilly for a total of four years, in two separate stints, booking guests for The O’Reilly Factor. The suit was loaded with alleged quotes from dirty O’Reilly phone calls, including one in which he fantasizes a shower scene and confuses a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine with a loofah. “So anyway I’d be rubbing your big boobs and getting your nipples hard, kinda kissing your neck from behind…and then I would take the other hand with the falafel thing and I’d put it on your pussy but you’d have to do it really light, just kind of a tease business….”
Mackris alleged that O’Reilly repeatedly propositioned her and her friends and masturbated while talking with her on the phone. He also allegedly threatened that if any woman dared to claim sexual harassment against him, he would “make her pay so dearly that she’ll wish she’d never been born. I’ll rake her through the mud, bring up things in her life and make her so miserable so that she’ll be destroyed. And besides, she wouldn’t be able to afford the lawyers. I can endure it financially as long as I can. And nobody would believe her, it’d be her word against mine and who are they going to believe? Me or some unstable woman making outrageous accusations? They’d see her as some psycho, somone unstable. Besides, I’d never make the mistake of picking unstable, crazy girls like that.”
The suit was settled in two weeks for an undisclosed amount. Unsurprisingly, researchers have discovered a link between narcissism and sexual aggression. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concluded that narcissistic males are “more punitive than other men toward a woman who refused them some sexual stimulation that they had anticipated.” Huh.
Narcissistic Behavior: “Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.”
After Hard Copy flamed out in 1999, I ended up taking a gig as a senior correspondent for Extra. Four years later, I became the executive producer and host of a TV show on CN8, a now-defunct regional network Comcast had built in the Northeast. In 2008, quite by accident, I found out that the local chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences — or NATAS, which is the organization that runs the annual New England Emmy Awards — was planning to give O’Reilly its Governors Award. That’s the body’s highest award, presented to individuals who have done something noteworthy and important in their career. I was shocked.
In the past, the award had gone to such luminaries as Mike Wallace, Ken Burns, and Natalie Jacobson. You know, journalists. I was concerned that bestowing such a prestigious honor on Bill O’Reilly would send the wrong message to every aspiring reporter. It would be holding O’Reilly up as an example of a good journalist. It would be saying, Become a bully, get the facts wrong, call people names, snarl “Shut up,” and you too might one day be worthy of our esteem and honor.
I sent an e-mail to the NATAS board of governors, arguing that they should reconsider their decision. Not long after, I got an e-mail from CN8 vice president Ken Botelho with a message in all caps: “BARRY…I DID NOT SEND THIS TO YOU!! :).” It was an e-mail thread that began with a message from Roger Lyons, the former president of the board of governors, to the members of the board. Lyons wrote that he had taken my criticism to heart, and that I was right. After further consideration, he wrote, O’Reilly’s “indiscretions, inaccuracies, and prejudices disqualify him from such a lofty honor.”
In a subsequent message in the thread, Botelho wrote that he agreed completely and that if “we do not reverse course there will be a backlash from others in the industry seriously questioning the integrity of this award.” He went on to call giving the award to O’Reilly a “ticking time bomb.”
The NATAS board of governors, in the end, decided not to change its plans. And so, the night of the Emmy Awards dinner, I protested by passing out copies of a document titled “The Man We Honor Tonight.” It contained some of O’Reilly’s more outrageous quotes attacking the free press and calling people names. It also contained choice sections of the sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him. When O’Reilly was introduced to the room, I quietly got up and left.
Two days later, O’Reilly wrote a letter to the chairman and CEO of Comcast complaining that I had “attacked” him. Not that I had said anything untrue about him. Just that I had “attacked” him. O’Reilly was particularly upset about that kind of behavior from an employee of Comcast — “an excellent business partner” of The O’Reilly Factor and Fox News. The implication: Comcast, you’re attacking me, the hand who feeds you. Make it stop.
I was canned. O’Reilly went on to have another successful year with his show. While pursuing “other interests,” I sued Comcast for violating my constitutionally guaranteed right to engage in free speech. The suit wound its way into federal court, and in 2011, a federal appeals court ruled against me. O’Reilly finally got somebody fired. Me.
Narcissistic Behavior: “Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.”
Getting axed from Comcast was a humbling experience. I am a financially poorer man now, for sure. But since then, life has been good by all the metrics that really matter. My children, now young adults, remain proud that their dad stood up to a big-mouthed bully. I treasure that respect. I love my wife more than ever for her unwavering support. I learned to keep saying true things out loud.
I also learned to live more modestly. With fame, you begin to believe you didn’t just get here by some lucky accident — which is all it is: luck. You come to believe that this was always your destiny. I look back on some of that now, and it makes me cringe. I want to say to the people I might have offended, to all the people who brought me fruit, to the program manager I argued with over the taxi ride, “I’m truly sorry.” And to the person I once was, “Get over yourself.”
O’Reilly, clearly, hasn’t. He once warned comedian Al Franken that “One day he’s going to get a knock on his door and life as he’s known it will change forever. That day will happen, trust me.” Actually, O’Reilly was right about that one. Franken’s life did change forever. He’s now a well-respected U.S. senator.
Narcissistic Behavior: “Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her.”
One week after Newsweek profiled O’Reilly, the magazine turned its lens on Roger Ailes, his boss and the head of Fox News. Ailes, a former Nixon and Reagan political consultant, tossed off a few grenades in the piece, including this one. “O’Reilly hates Sean [Hannity] and he hates Rush [Limbaugh] because they did better in radio than he did.”
Now, Ailes is a master media manipulator, so I’m sure he had a good reason to stoke the fires between his television personalities. But it’s no surprise that O’Reilly hates two men who do exactly what he does, and sometimes even better: He hates being a loser, being second.
There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be the best — the world runs on ambition. But there is a huge difference between wanting to excel at a task and hating those who might be better at it. When you’ve had one of the highest-ranked cable shows for more than a decade, hating radio guys comes across as pure, unbridled envy.
Look, I’m no psychiatrist, but it’s clear that, never mind the five required for a diagnosis, O’Reilly regularly displays all nine behaviors of narcissistic personality disorder. That’s not a happy observation, though. It leaves me feeling sorry for Mr. O’Reilly, a man who once got me fired. Oh, he’s still successful, rich, and famous. But he is also heedless of the truth, indifferent to suffering, petty, peevish and vengeful toward the powerless, and generally lacking empathy.
I tried to contact O’Reilly for his comment. He refused to return my calls. I do, however, anticipate getting his take not long after this article is published. I expect it to come in the form of provocative questions hollered at me by The O’Reilly Factor camera crew that ambushes me as I walk out the front door of my home.