brucekluger.com

    The Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2003

    Commentary
    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
    misunderstood.

    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 TVfrom 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 monologueone that I'd repeatedly been told by his handlers not to
    interruptin 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 Clooneybut then took it back. The retraction
    disappointed me. For a moment, I was flattered to share a slur with a Hollywood
    stud.

    Finally, O'Reilly preposterously elevated our on-screen dispute to one of politics.
    Instead of responding to my chargesthat he's a belligerent blowhardhe 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.