The Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2003
Skewered by 'Dean of Mean' Bill O'Reilly—
a Survivor's Tale
By Bruce Kluger
Earlier this month, Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly found himself on the other
side of the firing line for having used the term "wetback" in a discussion about
illegal immigrants on his nightly program, The O'Reilly Factor.
Indeed, the uncomfortable position in which this puts the pugnacious host is pure
poetic justice: For seven years, the former "Inside Edition" anchor has brought a
brand of dyspeptic discourse to the airwaves, lording over a talk show that's as
much about his bully tactics as it is about the issues of the day.
He has infuriated a litany of guests to the point of distraction: Barney Frank turned
beet-red at having his words twisted by O'Reilly; Susan Sarandon sadly shrugged
at not being able to speak her mind; smarter public figures flat-out refuse to go on
the program. Now saddled with the "wetback" fiasco, it's O'Reilly's turn to feel
Like most American viewers of his show, I've often imagined how I would fare in the
hot seat, wondering whether I'd have the presence of mind to return O'Reilly's
vitriolic volleys with similar agility, or simply crumble beneath his assault. Unlike
most viewers, I got my chance.
Last month, I wrote an essay in a national newspaper suggesting that O'Reilly's
mean-spirited program was just another part of the low-witted showcase for shame
now infecting TV—from Survival to Joe Millionaire. To my astonishment, the day the
article appeared, O'Reilly's office called to invite me on the show. Against the
advice of those closest to me (my father-in-law: "Are you sure you want to go on?";
my wife: "You're nuts"), I found myself clipping on a microphone 10 hours later and
facing off with the viceroy of venom himself. Our ensuing confrontation confirmed
something I'd always suspected: O'Reilly has achieved his dubious fame on the
backs of his guests (whether he considers those backs to be wet or not).
Although he professes to offer a "no-spin zone" of equal-time give and take, in truth
the man simply doesn't fight fair. Before the taping began, he glanced at the notes
I'd brought with me and glared. "You won't get to read them," he snapped. "This will
all go by in a flash." Then, when the cameras blinked on, O'Reilly launched into a 3
1/2-minute monologue—one that I'd repeatedly been told by his handlers not to
interrupt—in which he trashed me, my essay and my "committed liberal" ilk.
Consequently, I spent the entirety of our subsequent conversation rebutting his
allegations rather than discussing the theme of my article: his bad manners.
Before I knew it, O'Reilly was giving me a final whipping in his wrap-up.
Then there was the name-calling. In the nine minutes, 58 seconds we were on the
air, O'Reilly resorted to playground pejoratives no fewer than 20 times, calling me,
among other things, "cheap," "sleazy," "foolish" and "a left-wing journalist out for
blood." At one point he even referred to me as "a weasel"—the name he had
reserved for actor George Clooney—but then took it back. The retraction
disappointed me. For a moment, I was flattered to share a slur with a Hollywood
Finally, O'Reilly preposterously elevated our on-screen dispute to one of politics.
Instead of responding to my charges—that he's a belligerent blowhard—he took the
absurd position that the newspaper that had originally published my essay did so
because it disagreed with his stance on a war with Iraq. Can you say "narcissist"?
As much as O'Reilly can be credited with pioneering a new wave of televised
rancor, he is no longer alone: His success has spawned a crop of similarly cranky
on-air commentators, all of them bent on turning the sanctum of public debate into
a noisy free-for-all.
Still, the question remains: Did I win my face-off with the dean of mean? Hard to tell.
The most I got from my friends was, "You held your own," "You looked good" and
"Hey, at least you didn't cry."
But I do know I got under the guy's skin. After the taping, when most hosts drop the
showbiz artifice and extend a hand to thank their guests, O'Reilly kept his head
down, pretending to study his notes. The silence was embarrassing, so I left.
Like I said, bad manners.