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.)
Narcissistic Behavior: “Preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.”
Bill O’Reilly had a pretty good year in 2011. The O’Reilly Factor, his show on Fox, was once again the number one program in cable news, regularly crushing the competition on MSNBC and CNN. His book about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Killing Lincoln, made the New York Times bestseller list. And he earned a reported $10 million, which isn’t too shabby for a former Boston TV personality.
Of course, even in the best of years, everyone’s bound to have a few missteps. In August, the website Gawker broke a story that an enraged O’Reilly had pulled strings to get New York’s Nassau County Police Department to investigate an officer he suspected of having a relationship with his estranged wife. In October, when O’Reilly sent a “care package” of copies of his book Pinheads and Patriots to American soldiers stationed at an outpost in Afghanistan, they burned the lot in a trash barrel and posted photos of it online. Then, in November, the bookstore at Ford’s Theatre — the site of Lincoln’s murder — banned Killing Lincoln because of its inaccuracies. Ouch.
But O’Reilly’s lowlight last year was surely this quote, which appeared in a September profile of him in Newsweek:
“I have more power than anybody other than the president, in the sense that I can get things changed, quickly.”
You want to know something? There are plenty of other people on TV, from Oprah to Alex Trebek, who probably think something like this occasionally. But it really is a pretty amazing thing for a cable TV personality to say. Out loud. To a magazine.
Seriously, the second-most-powerful person? Never mind Joe Biden or John Boehner, or even O’Reilly’s bosses Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch: There are dozens of people who wouldn’t even crack a top-100 “most powerful” list, but still have more juice than Bill O’Reilly. Like, say, Matt Lauer, Simon Cowell, Jon Stewart, or Maury Povich. O’Reilly got an interview with President Obama? So did an elementary school kid from Florida. I mean, he can’t even win the War on Christmas! People were still saying “Happy Holidays” at the Chestnut Hill mall this year, so how powerful can he be?
That quote did, however, get me thinking about what the hell would cause someone to say something so obviously absurd. Was it just ego? I mean, clearly, we already knew that O’Reilly has an ego — from shouting, “Shut up” at guests on his show to his network’s claim that the pope pays attention to his opinion.
Listen, I know what it’s like to have a healthy ego. I, too, was famous for a time. At least a little bit. As the co-anchor of the popular ’90s tabloid news show Hard Copy, I ran in some of the very same circles as O’Reilly. I flew on private planes and interviewed actors, athletes, and politicians. In between signing autographs, I could clap my hands and fruit would be delivered. And I did clap them. It was amazing. And it was fun, and yes, it goes to your head.
But a claim like O’Reilly’s goes way beyond egotistical — it seems to me to veer dangerously into the pathological. As I thought about it more, I began to seriously wonder if he wasn’t merely your garden-variety baby-boomer narcissist but somebody afflicted with a full-on case of what’s known as narcissistic personality disorder. So I dug out the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV — the chief tool psychiatrists and psychologists use to diagnose mental illness in their patients — to learn more. The chief characteristic of NPD, it turns out, is “a grandiose sense of self, a serious miscalculation of one’s abilities and potential that is often accompanied by fantasies of greatness.”
Hmm. Sounds like somebody we know. I read on. To receive an NPD diagnosis, individuals must exhibit at least five out of nine classic narcissistic behaviors, things like a lack of empathy and a need for admiration. Check and check. Interest piqued, I was ready for more. Could I, simply by rummaging through O’Reilly’s very public actions and antics, try to “diagnose” him with NPD? I’d cue up YouTube, talk to some psychiatrists, interview old coworkers. Didn’t seem too hard at all.
As I began the process, though, I did know one thing: Even if O’Reilly isn’t the second-most-powerful man in America, he certainly wields some influence: After all, he did get me fired once.
Narcissistic Behavior: “Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).”
As I set about plumbing the very depths of Bill O’Reilly’s ego, my first call is to Paul Meier, a psychiatrist and the coauthor of You Might Be a Narcissist If…. The truth is that in this age of social media and reality television, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a little egotism and clinically significant narcissism. “We all have a few narcissistic tendencies, unless we are perfect,” Meier tells me. “And if you think you are perfect, well, you’re a narcissist!” Where it starts to become a problem, he says, is when we see “a pattern of deviant or abnormal behavior that the person doesn’t change, even though it causes emotional upsets and trouble with other people at work and in personal relationships.”
It’s unethical for a psychologist or psychiatrist to make even a tentative diagnosis of someone they’ve never met or treated, so I don’t ask Meier to weigh in on O’Reilly specifically. But before we get off the phone, Meier does offer some helpful advice: People with severe personality disorders display traits of it rather early in life.
That got me thinking about O’Reilly’s 2008 autobiography, which is called A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity. Where did he come up with that title? It’s apparently something a nun once used to describe him. When he was eight years old.
Still, what’s one book title when you’re trying to take the measure of a man? If I was going to get to the bottom of Bill O’Reilly’s problems, I was going to need more. So I called up Rory O’Connor, who was a year behind O’Reilly at Chaminade High School on Long Island in the 1960s. O’Connor later went on to work with O’Reilly at WCVB Channel 5, one of O’Reilly’s early broadcasting jobs. Today, O’Connor is a filmmaker and the coauthor of Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio, which examines radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Don Imus, and O’Reilly. O’Connor says his old colleague and classmate was a “pompous jerk.” When I told him about O’Reilly’s “second-most-powerful” quote, O’Connor replied, “I am only surprised that he thinks he is only the second. He is definitely delusional.”
And really, it’s not even necessary to go beyond O’Reilly’s own words to find more prime examples of delusion. In 2007 author Marvin Kitman published The Man Who Would Not Shut Up, an authorized biography of O’Reilly. In the book, O’Reilly tells Kitman that he was a richly gifted but woefully underappreciated high school football player. O’Reilly, who made the team his senior year but was a bench warmer, says he could kick field goals from 45 yards, punt 60 yards, and deliver 80-yard strikes with his passing arm. The reason he couldn’t get on the field during games: The equipment manager claimed there were no more pads left.
Narcissistic Behavior: “Believes that he or she is ‘special’ and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).”
In case it’s not obvious by now, I can get a little neurotic about whether, I, too, might suffer from some kind of narcissism disorder. As I said, a taste of fame can do weird things to you. So learning that clinical narcissism tends to show up early made me feel a little better. When I was a kid, I had no delusions of grandeur. I was a nerd, and I knew it. Horn-rimmed glasses, zits, advanced math class, and barely third-string on the football team. When I became famous, it caught me by surprise. And it turned out to be just a phase.
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.
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.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2012/01/shut-the-f-up-is-bill-o-reilly-a-narcissist/