There are very few people who don’t have an opinion about Bill O’Reilly — especially these days. His prime-time show “The O’Reilly Factor” is the top draw on Fox News, and it consistently beats the competition in cable news ratings. While his dominance is due in part to his high-octane interview style that straddles the line between fierce criticism and outright browbeating, O’Reilly started his career with a more traditional journalistic bend with stints at CBS and ABC News. Later, he worked at “Inside Edition” and at Fox News. During his 19 years at Fox, O’Reilly has penned “The Killing” series, a trove of top-selling books on the deaths of historical figures, including Jesus and Abraham Lincoln. Currently, O’Reilly is the executive producer and host of Fox News’ docuseries “Legends & Lies: The Real West.” The show airs Sundays at 8 p.m. and averages 1.2 million viewers, giving it the advantage over CNN in a troublesome time slot, something O’Reilly enjoys boasting about.
But in recent days, O’Reilly has been quieter, following news reports from a three-year old child custody battle claiming that the anchor had physically assaulted his ex-wife.
O’Reilly’s lawyer Fred Newman told WWD: “The legal proceedings are still pending and as of now, there is no change in Bill O’Reilly’s existing joint custody of his children.”
The bulk of this interview was conducted before those reports had been released. WWD did catch up with O’Reilly immediately after for a photo shoot. (He declined to comment on the allegations, however he did address how he has been portrayed in the media since the news broke.)
In the “Factor’’ studio, a quiet O’Reilly dutifully posed for photos, but before the shoot had ended, he asked this reporter to take a photo with him — a sort of nuanced joke that he delighted in.
“I don’t want to ruin your reputation,” he said with a smirk.
You’ve declined to directly address the current controversy apart from the statement issued by your lawyer, but in regards to the media scrutiny surrounding it, how do you respond?
After 19 years, I have come to expect personal attacks by some in the media. Nothing I can do about it. If the USA had the same libel laws that Great Britain has, the sliming might let up a bit. But until then, nothing will change. Opposing my opinions on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is valid if done responsibly. I have no problem with that.
In light of the Brian Williams scandal, did you feel persecuted by the Falklands allegations, in which it was claimed that you fabricated that you had covered the war from the ground? [O’Reilly said he covered the war, but wasn’t on the Falklands Islands.] Was the story about you fair game? Did you mislead the public in any way?
Everything that I said and wrote was true. We put forth our evidence and people voted with their clickers. It’s obvious that the point was to destroy the centerpiece of the Fox News network. Everyone knows what the game is — get O’Reilly.
How did you deal with that?
I deal with it in a factual way, by presenting the facts.
Do you view your show as point of view journalism or entertainment?
I am a traditional journalist in the sense that I got a degree at Boston University and I worked my way up through the ranks with the eye of becoming an op-ed columnist or a critic. I got an Emmy for investigative reporting, CBS hired me, then I worked at ABC News, and later “Inside Edition.” It was all part of a plan to do commentary. I had left “Inside Edition” because I didn’t want to do more after six years. I didn’t want to do entertainment anymore, but I knew I had to get visibility to prove I could get a show. Then I went to Harvard to get my master’s of public administration. At Harvard, I designed “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Have you ever gone too far in an interview?
It’s a high-wire walk. Sometimes you overdo it and sometimes you underdo it. I save most of my guests. I could destroy them. I could but I don’t. Sometimes like with [former U.S. Congressman] Barney Frank, you’ve got to go at it.
You went at him pretty strong. Is that an example of going too far or is there another one?
I watched this tape recently of me telling Phil Donahue that I was going to boot him off the set. I probably wouldn’t do that at this point. You know, you’re never perfect.
Do you play into the acrimony of the political debate between the left and right or do you view what you do on your show as just getting to the point?
I don’t look at it ideologically. We try to run a straight show. The far right doesn’t like me at all. They attack me routinely. I don’t evaluate it. I let the chips fall as they may. It’s not about ideology for us at “The O’Reilly Factor.” It has worked for 19 years. There is an authenticity to what we do. At the same time, the left isn’t going to like it. I don’t believe capitalism is bad. I don’t believe in a welfare system. The right isn’t going to like me because I don’t believe in demonizing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Is there anyone you haven’t you interviewed whom you would like to interview?
The Pope, Francis. That would be a really interesting person for me to do.
Practically everyone has a camera phone and access to the Internet. Technology has brought to light a lot of racial tension and police brutality. Is there more of it today or is it more visible than before?
FBI stats say crime is down, [but] police killings, felonious killings are up 89 percent. A lot of it [the tension] comes up from social media. I don’t believe that the American police in general are oppressors. Violent police encounters are down.
At Fox, you guys call everyone else the “mainstream media.” You have the highest ratings on cable news, and you arguably speak to and represent the views of the majority of Americas. Let’s not forget that Fox is not a media start-up. How are you not the mainstream media?
That’s a very good question, Alex. The mainstream media is the establishment. I worked at CBS News and ABC News. I was never able to conform to the way that the national media in Manhattan had presented themselves. I wanted to put my voice into the news. Fox is a maverick organization. It’s a $2 billion company [but] it’s maverick. We are outside the conventional wisdom. There’s a different way of going about things here at Fox News Corp.
Aren’t most media companies classified that way then? How would you classify the digital media companies?
They are all insurgents. They are trying to carve out a niche.
What do you think of the newer digital media companies?
The newer media companies — some of them are good, some of them aren’t. Even Yahoo isn’t a mainstream media company.
Do you ever get your news from the bigger digital players like Yahoo?
Not really. I’m so busy reading and doing my projects and books. I get a summation of what’s around on Fox News and I get it in a folder.
What are some common misconceptions about you? Do you hold any liberal views? Your position on gay marriage has softened over time, yet most people might see you as very conservative.
Anyone who thinks I’m an ultraconservative is just ridiculous. I’m against the death penalty. I’m an environmentalist…
Do you believe in global warming?
My thing is if it’s cleaner it’s better. I’m not qualified to determine if there’s a deity controlling it. Some people say the ice in Antarctica is massing. So there is a lot we don’t understand.
Like most people, I watched ABC News’ Bruce Jenner interview. I was surprised to learn that Jenner is a Republican. Do you think someone like Jenner, a transgender person, will ever be embraced by the Republican Party?
I really have no interest in the story at all. I don’t think it will rise to a national story. But I wish Bruce Jenner well. If he’s happy, I’m happy.
How did “Legends & Lies” come about?
After four major bestsellers with the Killing series — by the way, we have the most successful history books — Fox News was looking for a natural evolution. We selected the Old West. Next year we will do a series on patriots. I am executive producing the show. What that means is, I review all the scripts and I take out all the nonsense. We are really happy with the reaction and ratings.
How do you view your legacy in the media?
I really don’t care what people think of me. I don’t have that gene. I’ve worked very, very hard in my career.
But you can’t deny that you have impacted television news and I’d argue, even print journalism. Can you comment on that?
It’s all a matter of presentation. My presentation has changed cable news — that’s undeniable and everybody knows that — the nation has benefited from that. [At Fox], there’s enough straight news journalism during the day [and analysis at night]. Roger Ailes created a great formula.
But the daytime straight news at Fox is still targeting a certain audience and the stories are chosen to speak to the network’s narrative. That “formula” exists at rival networks. Is that kind of coverage just the way of cable news?
Look, I don’t see any gaping holes in our [daytime] coverage. We do it honestly. We are beating CNN [in the ratings].
Will the nightly newscast on network channels become a thing of the past as the media continues to change?
The 22-minute newscast is still profitable. It’s a prestige thing. They aren’t going away. Sometimes they black out stories — like the story on the Clinton Foundation. I don’t like that.
What about the larger issue of how the business model is changing in reaction to the landscape?
People watch the news differently. We know that. The audience is pretty big and there are a lot of eyeballs. The networks have fairly consistent audiences, but younger Americans are leaving TV and getting information on the Net. That being said, network news remains viable and necessary.
What about the news anchor? There aren’t many big anchors left. Is anyone coming up in the ranks?
The guys they have now are really good, but they don’t have the depth of experience that the older guys had, like [Walter] Cronkite.
Why is that?
It’s because there were just three channels before and the anchors had to do everything.
What do you read in your free time?
I read mostly nonfiction stuff. I just finished a Billy Martin biography. I’m a big baseball fan. I’m reading all the time.
Who are your heroes in politics or media?
Howard Cosell because my father hated him. I’d listen to him on the radio. Cosell would get involved and I thought that his talent was unique. I interviewed him before he died. Tom Synder [is another one]. He was a fabulous communicator. I studied how he communicated. And Peter Jennings — but I don’t have any “heroes.”
How do you come up with some of these sayings like “bloviator,” “gutter snipe,” “culture warriors,” “the no spin zone,” and so on?
I’m trying to be different, and constantly asking, “How can we do it differently?” Innovation after 19 years is a must. It’s basically that. You have to think, think, think. You have to mull it over. I don’t want to be bored. You know, we are up against entertainment programming at the 8 o’clock slot. We are up against dancing and wrestling and singing.
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