Shut the F*** Up! The Second-Most-Powerful Man in America is Talking
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.
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.”