Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bill O'Reilly

There are two reasons that I don’t absolutely despise Bill O’Reilly. One is that I believe he has a sense of humor—he was an awfully good sport on The Colbert Report. The second reason is one that I couldn’t pinpoint until I read a little bit about him: it’s education. I may disagree with, and even think he’s a jerk on the air, but he isn’t an idiot.

He got a Master’s degree from Boston University in broadcast journalism (apparently at the same time Howard Stern was there), and then after he left the tabloid TV show Inside Edition (few people will remember that he replaced the venerable David Frost, who got fired after three weeks), he went to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for a Master's degree in Public Administration. Rush Limbaugh, by contrast, went to high school and dropped out of Southeast Missouri State University after barely a year.

When my boss told me she was going to interview Bill O’Reilly, I begged her to let me come along. She had just interviewed Geraldo Rivera at Fox News, and was understandably wary of going back for more, but when O’Reilly’s custom dress shirt maker said he could set something up, she couldn’t say no.

Fox News is in the News Corp building on Sixth Avenue across from Rockefeller Center (not far from MSNBC) at 48th Street. O’Reilly has a modest-sized corner office on the 17th floor, an office that is very neat, but obviously worked in. There are family photos and award plaques on the walls and the desk has a few orderly stacks of books and files. Set carefully alongside an etched glass sign that bears his name, there’s a bumper sticker that says DON’T TAZE ME BRO!

O’Reilly was cool at first. He rose from behind his desk to shake our hands, but the handshake was weak and noncommittal. He’s an imposing man—he must be at least 6’4”—but he looks a little older in person than he does on camera. His face has more lines and his eyes aren’t as bright.

When my boss pulled out his latest book, an autobiography, it earned a smile, but his offer to sign it was as well-rehearsed as any celebrity’s. I was a little worried that he wouldn’t have patience for our questions about his wardrobe, but he took them very seriously. To him, the suit is a uniform. He’s not a peacock and tailored clothing and all of its accessories are not a way to express his personality. His watch is a $100 Seiko. He thinks cufflinks are too showy and pocket squares are for pretentious people. When he was a reporter at ABC, and Peter Jennings offered to help him get a London posting to “refine the rough edges,” but those rough edges are his working class roots, and he’s proud of them.

The Interview

When asked about Obama, O'Reilly was fair. He admitted that 100 days into the administration is too early to tell whether or not Obama was an effective president. But it was in this statement that O’Reilly began to show his personality: “I think he has to send a message to the country sooner or later—he hasn’t thus far—about how he sees his own country: does he want progressive change (it looks like that’s where he’s going) or does he want to bulk up the traditional aspects of the country (which is pretty much where I am).”

Our mission in interviewing was not to argue with him, but to draw him out. We had thirty minutes of his time and we knew that debates would not be productive. It took me a while to jump in. It would occur to me to challenge him on a point, but then I would stop myself after I realized how combative I would sound.

At times, O’Reilly sounded like the sort of dispassionate observer of American politics that we need more of on television: “I think that religious people in America can be persuaded to vote without using biblical references. I don’t think you need to do that; I mean, I think most people understand the separation of church and state, that we run our secular affairs differently than we run our church affairs. I think it’s only the fringe that wants you to be involved with Jesus while you’re running. The Republican Party understands that they need the independents to come back.”

At this point, I’m starting to like him. And then he starts talking about how “hateful” the New York Times is. He quotes a poll that says 46% of Americans call them selves conservative and says that the Times is “an ideological paper. They don’t report the news anymore and they try to social engineer.” He thinks that the Times and many other papers are going down because they are alienating “traditional” people.

This is where I jump in. What about David Brooks, I ask, Isn’t he their pet conservative? This riles him a bit, and I was stunned by what he said next because it sounded exactly like the sort of thing liberals said about the Bush administration and Fox News itself: “If that’s what the New York Times is telling you is a conservative, that’s not true. He’s a moderate. That’s what he is. So they can say whatever they want. They can say, ‘well that’s a Pontiac’ when it’s a Mercedes. They can say that, but we can see what it is.”

O’Reilly continues with his theory that the lack of conservative voices is killing journalism. “Look, Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago—they’re all bankrupt, and they one thing in common: they are all far-left publications, every one of them. You can’t tell half of your readership ‘go get you-know-what.’ Not in this competitive marketplace.”

I jump in again here, and ask him if Katherine Kersten wasn’t still at the Star Tribune. She wrote her last column in January, but I didn’t know that yet. Neither did he. Here, he says the Minneapolis paper is on its deathbed because it had no conservative voices when it clearly did in Kersten. Her rants against taxes and secular humanists weren’t enough to save the ailing paper because journalism’s problems have more to do with the old economic model of print than with a dearth of right wing writers. And he dismisses the much more conservative St. Paul Pioneer Press because it’s so obviously a lesser paper.

My next question was about his show. “How much of your on-air persona is a persona?” I asked. “None,” he said easily. “Okay,” I replied, “because you sound a little different in the office than you do on TV.” He’s not amused. “How so,” he asks irritably. “I don’t know,” I muse, “here you’re more…I hate to say it but you’re more balanced in the office.”

“You have to show that to me,” he insists, “because we’re pretty fair out there. If you watch on a regular basis, we don’t cheap-shot anybody. There are nights when there will be a certain theme, like tonight with this torture memo stuff, which is absolutely a conservative base show tonight. We don’t believe this is good for the country. But there will be other nights when we’ll be doing some other topics that…I get mail that’s saying ‘you’re too conservative’ and I get mail that’s saying ‘you’re too liberal.’ So as long as I’m getting that mail…”

Leaving the No Spin Zone

As the interview continued, my boss's questions got a little tougher, and I got increasingly worried that we would have to leave without photographic proof that we were there. While having a recording of Bill O'Reilly telling us to "shut up" would be priceless, I was really counting on that photo. We got it, and O'Reilly seemed to genuinely enjoy obliging us.

O'Reilly is the quintessential American conservative right now: he's a blowhard, but he's educated. Not William F. Buckley educated, but that level of intellectual rigor started falling out of fashion when Reagan won. O'Reilly is wary of being called conservative, prefering "Independent." It's a way of hedging, of not committing to a party in deference to both journalism and the populist frustration with politics. He enjoys conceding small points to lend enough impartiality to comfortably call himself "fair." Like most wily conservatives of his generation, he's also adept at using classic liberal techniques to argue conservative points (like calling liberals "hateful" of traditional values and accusing the left of refusing to enter into meaningful dialogue).

My fascination with conservatives like O'Reilly is partly good old American celebrity awe. But meeting him gave me the same sort of smirk I get when I watch strangers arguing with each other on the subway. For a moment, I'm able to set aside my own feelings and ideologies and just watch people posturing, puffing themselves up with self-importance and indignation. And then someone will step on my foot and I'm back on the train again, another angry citizen.

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Blogger Screaming Annie said...

Well, Mr. O'Reilly may not be fair and balanced, but you, Mr. Masticator, certainly are. Thank you for an enlightening and enjoyable article.
And that picture is my screen saver.

11:18 PM  

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