BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Among the many strong media personalities the Bush administration will encounter over the next four years, one of the most pungent is Bill O'Reilly, host of The O'Reilly Factor on the Fox News Channel.
BOB GARFIELD:The O'Reilly Factor is rated the number one cable news program in prime time. His book, also called The O'Reilly Factor, is a New York Times Bestseller! In fact it has been the number one bestseller in America for a total of eight weeks, including this one. Just who is the man who vanquished Larry King in the ratings and the Beatles Book in the stacks? Our producer at large Mike Pesca reports. You decide.
MAN: Five seconds-- music come up - cue - the O'Reilly Factor is on tonight - the tension mounts as the Florida Supreme Court takes its time in deciding....
MIKE PESCA: In the basement of the midtown Manhattan headquarters of the Fox News Channel the reigning king of cable news, Bill O'Reilly, has just set the table for another episode of the O'Reilly Factor.
BILL O'REILLY: Caution: You are about to enter a no-spin zone!
MIKE PESCA: O'Reilly says he'll smack the spin right out of you, unless it's spin O'Reilly agrees with - but then, that's not spin! O'Reilly's viewers, the "Folks" he calls them, won't countenance spin either. But they love O'Reilly. Or maybe they love to disagree with O'Reilly. Either way, and this is all that matters to Fox, they watch O'Reilly. On a good night, a million households tune in. A million households isn't enough to keep network programming on the air. It's not close to the ratings of a Rush Limbaugh, and if a million households watch a Hollywood movie, it's dubbed a flop. But in the world of cable news, it's blockbuster, and O'Reilly is a star.
ANN KLANK: He doesn't just accept the spin from his guests, and I don't think he seems like he's controlled! He is oddly attractive. He's very, very masculine--
MIKE PESCA: Ann Klank is a veteran television producer who created the MSNBC program Equal Time and turned Mary Matlin into a TV personality. She advises talk show talent but when it comes to O'Reilly she wouldn't change a thing. She says the entire format needs exactly the kind of jolt that O'Reilly provides.
BILL O'REILLY: Shouldn't Hilary Clinton, then, when it was proven that she was used by her husband, shut up? Shut up? Not continue to support the man?
MIKE PESCA: While the bulk of cable news is comfortable being a.m. radio on TV, O'Reilly and his rival Larry King host two of the only programs where the dominant image is of two people talking --no panel of pundits - not two headed anchors, one from the right, one from the left -- one host - one guest - having it out.
BILL O'REILLY: And you're a supporter of Hilary Clinton, I understand, correct?
ANN KLANK: Yes, I am.
MIKE PESCA: Here O'Reilly's brought on Linda Waite, author of a book on marriage. On the pages of the New York Times, Waite opined that it was unfair to pummel Hilary Clinton for not getting a divorce. O'Reilly quickly dismisses that narrow argument and has the University of Chicago professor answer for all the wrongs of Hilary's tenure as First Lady.
BILL O'REILLY: How can you support someone who the Justice Department says is a perjurer?
ANN KLANK: Well, I, I have to tell you Bill you're getting outside my area of expertise.
BILL O'REILLY: But you're an American citizen! Why would you, as a college professor vote for somebody who lied under oath?
ANN KLANK: Well I think because in my view she's extremely bright, very well trained, extremely I think politically savvy--
BILL O'REILLY: So was Mao Tse Tung!
MIKE PESCA: It's a favorite tactic of O'Reilly's. Barbecuing sacred cows through surrogates, be they official spokesmen or flimsy front men. Where did O'Reilly learn such tricks?
BILL O'REILLY: People have to be persuaded to even listen nowadays! Now I'm not trying to convert 'em a la Rush Limbaugh, but I just want 'em to see my point, and I learned that at Harvard.
MIKE PESCA: O'Reilly's probably the only the person in news with entries on his resume from both Harvard and Inside Edition. One gave him standing as a serious thinker; the other taught him to connect to an audience. His audience.
BILL O'REILLY: The O'Reilly Factor TV show and the O'Reilly Factor book is basically the first national presentation on television and I think in non-fiction literature that was written expressly for working Americans. That's who I represent.
MIKE PESCA: When you add the part in your book about how when you doubledated with Donald Trump, how do you think your audience is going to react to that - as you as this champion of the working class.
BILL O'REILLY: If a working class guy like me makes it, they're happy for me! And I think I have an obligation to help them as well with the knowledge that I've accumulated.
MIKE PESCA: But not everyone's gracious enough to accept O'Reilly's help. ALAN DERSHOWITZ: The fact that he's so popular and that his insipid book is the number one bestseller to me is a very symptomatic of what's happened to talk radio and talk television -- that the worse you are, the baser you are, the more popular your ratings seem to be.
MIKE PESCA: Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz is a ubiquitous cable presence, but he draws the line at O'Reilly. In fact he boycotts all of Fox programming, both local and national because of O'Reilly. Dershowitz says that it has nothing to do with O'Reilly's conservatism. On that point he won't get an argument. O'Reilly says he's not a conservative. His political hero is Bobby Kennedy. He supports gun control. He opposes the death penalty. Instead of executions, here's O'Reilly's solution.
BILL O'REILLY: Much better is to banish them to a life of hard labor! Look--: a death in - by injection or gas or whatever you're going to do is 2 minutes. There's a little suffering, mostly psychological before you get there - and you're gone! Most of the time they sedate these people! I don't know if people know that, but they give 'em a sedative before they execute them. That's not the worst death in the world! It's--
MAN: Well considered humane to do it that way.
BILL O'REILLY: Whatever it is.
MIKE PESCA: A recurrent them of O'Reilly's talk show career has been positioning himself beyond political parties.
BILL O'REILLY: Everybody tries to label me, and, and I don't like it. I'm an - registered Independent politically and I'm a journalist who looks at life the way it is, not the way I want it to be.
MIKE PESCA: In reality, O'Reilly is not a registered Independent. He's been a registered Republican since 1994. When this information came to light after our original interview, O'Reilly said he made a mistake when registering to vote in Nassau County, Long Island six years ago. But records show that he's voted in at least five elections since then, each time being confronted with his party registration which he never took any steps to change. O'Reilly now says that the mistake has been corrected and he finally is a registered Independent. That also is not entirely true. Nassau County does not allow someone to re-register until one general election has passed. So he won't be a registered Independent until November 2002. But why is O'Reilly so eager to be seen as an Independent? Political talk show consultant Ann Klank. WO
MAN: I watched these shows, the left and the right, so often. They are really put in a partisan straightjacket. Go into the green room! It's all gray area. I mean-- these political talk shows are similar to professional wrestling, and these are fake fights!
MIKE PESCA: Fake is anathema to O'Reilly. He has somehow managed to balance honesty and self-promotion. Granted, he postures as a hero to the working man. His book is full of grooming advice, and he has three chapters on child rearing even though he has less than two years experience as a parent. He knows he's sometimes rude.
BILL O'REILLY: I just have no diplomatic skills!
MIKE PESCA: He plays the huckster.
BILL O'REILLY: Appreciate your getting the book very much, and that goes for everybody else who has picked up The Factor tome--
MIKE PESCA: And he's as ratings conscious as anyone on TV.
MAN: 8 o'clock CNN 1.2; Larry King Live - 1.4.
BILL O'REILLY: Yes!
MAN: Hardball at 8 on - Hardball at 5 on MS had a 1.3.
BILL O'REILLY: Oh, they run that fifteen times a day and then MSNBC at 8--
MIKE PESCA: Despite the showmanship, this is not a role. Unlike almost any other political chat show, you can't recast the lead in the O'Reilly Factor. [SEVERAL SPEAK AT ONCE] On this night Bill O'Reilly has just thrown the program to commercial. Only the people in the control room and O'Reilly in the studio can see the next guest on the feed from Washington. Laura Ingram is a smart, very attractive conservative commentator who's latest book is called The Hilary Trap. To O'Reilly, who brags about his success with the ladies in his own book, Ingram's next words couldn't be more gratifying.
LAURA INGRAM: How does it feel to be the Elvis of, of talk?
BILL O'REILLY: Is that what I am now?
LAURA INGRAM: That's basically all the girls are saying down here.
BILL O'REILLY: I'm the Elvis of talk. [SEVERAL SPEAK AT ONCE: GROANS]
MIKE PESCA: Groans aside, O'Reilly's staff knows it's working for the king of cable news. This show ends, but Elvis can't leave the building. He's taping again in two hours, just enough time to order dinner. Part showman, part wonk, graduate of Harvard and Inside edition, O'Reilly calls out: Turkey burger. Two slices of American cheese. For On the Media, I'm Mike Pesca.