At 67-years-old, Bill O’Reilly has been with us, doing what he does, for so long that its hard to remember a time in which he wasn’t. He is the mole on your back that doesn’t seem to be cancerous but you can’t see it and your dermatologist told you it has weird edges. He is your insistence on drinking skim milk that could just taste like the absence of fat but also might have gone bad. He may not kill you, but he will most certainly not make you stronger.
O’Reilly was born in 1949, and grew up, now famously, in Levittown, Long Island, an upbringing he has written at length about, and which was covered extensively in Marvin Kitman’s book The Man Who Would Not Shut Up: The Rise of Bill O’Reilly. (A few years back, O’Reilly and Al Franken memorably and publicly sparred over whether O’Reilly had actually grown up in Levittown or in the more affluent nearby neighborhood of Westbury.) He describes himself as “working-class Irish American,” and was raised Catholic, matriculating at Marist College, before getting a Master’s in Broadcast Journalism from Boston University.
Starting in 1979, he worked at a number of stations, slowly working his way up from local news, winning a few local Emmys in the process, before getting gigs at CBS News and ABC News. No reports of O’Reilly’s behavior written at the time make him seem like a particularly noteworthy talent; in 1983, the Vice President of Programming of the local new channel he worked for called him “bright and creative—someone who has a background in news, but is flexible enough to handle the kind of range required in a program which calls for a strong personality and spontaneous response.”
As such, at this point in time, it does not appear that any of his news coverage seemed notably slanted; if it was, it has been lost to the sands of time. But in 1989, O’Reilly got the break that would change things for him, and for us, his audience: a job at Inside Edition. He would eventually become the host of the show, which is where he began to make his mark on a national level. A December 1992 AP article sings his praises, describing him as an “intense, driven anchor” who “manages to look rangy and intense, kind of halfway between comedians Tom Hanks and Bill Murray.” While in that role, O’Reilly’s show regularly competed with Fox’s A Current Affair, and he had grandiose plans for it, telling the AP that he planned to “pass Tom Brokaw in the ratings.”
It was at this point that his more traditional news background melded with his new tabloid-esque sensibilities, an emphasis on informing and entertaining, and an ability to get people to stay watching that would serve him well at Fox. From that same interview:
“What we’re doing here has changed television and will continue to change television more, and people don’t understand it,” he said.
“That’s what drives our show: Emotion. All of our stories are emotion-driven. If they don’t have emotion, we don’t do ‘em,” O’Reilly said.
“That emotion has changed the way the viewer looks at the news. And the viewer doesn’t understand it.
In the ’90s, O’Reilly was part of the rise of so-called tabloid journalism, combining commentary with reporting. This resulted in high-profile sparring with Dan Rather in the pages of The New York Times, over things like whether paying for sources was appropriate. But in 1994, O’Reilly was replaced with Deborah Norville at Inside Edition. He said that he was working on a book about the television world (which would become the thriller Those Who Trespass) and considering a run for Congress, and he spent time at the Harvard Kennedy School. Two years later, he’d get his big break: his own show on Roger Ailes’s new 24/7 news network Fox News. It seems funny (funny in that, you’re laughing so hard you can’t breathe and then actually think you might want to die way) to think of now, but at the time, whether or not Fox would be distinctly conservative was still up for debate. From the Times:
Will FNC be a vehicle for expressing Mr. Murdoch’s conservative political opinions?
Many journalists believe Mr. Murdoch wants to offer a conservative alternative to what he views as liberal bias among traditional news purveyors. Reinforcing their belief is the fact that the new network’s chairman and chief executive is Roger Ailes, the well-known former Republican political strategist.
While Mr. Murdoch concedes that he sees a liberal bias in television news, and cites opinion polls showing that many Americans agree with him, he stops just short of championing an explicitly conservative alternative. He says he wants his network to label analysis and opinion to clearly distinguish it from news, and to be ‘’fair and balanced’’ in reporting.
From the beginning, O’Reilly’s show (originally called The O’Reilly Report, before being renamed The O’Reilly Factor) was primarily a place for him to discuss topics he thought were “worthy of attention.”
On opening night they included drugs and the Presidential debate. Heavy stuff, but the next night brought the actress Cheryl Ladd plugging a book. Mr. O’Reilly seemed just as interested in Ms. Ladd as in the election. It’s that sort of show.
As Howard Kurtz explained it in the Washington Post in October of 1996, though he said horrible things, O’Reilly got points for allowing others to get a word in after he said them:
Former “Inside Edition” host Bill O’Reilly brings plenty of attitude to his show. To the minister of murdered rapper Tupac Shakur, he said: “A lot of people say that man did a lot of evil.” To gay rights activist Candace Gingrich, he said: “Most Americans think homosexuality is wrong.” But O’Reilly gives his guests plenty of room to respond.
And as O’Reilly wrote in an op-ed that year that examined the failures of TV news, his interest has always been a highly specific focus on “examin[ing] the lives of ordinary Americans who are succeeding or failing in their endeavors.”
The major reason why young people have tuned out network news, and many of the local broadcasts as well, is because they do not cover issues relevant to their lives. Street fighting in Liberia: the TV news is all over it. Liberia, for crying out loud. Who cares?
But try finding out why many high school students don’t know where Montreal is, much less Monrovia, and you’ll rarely find answers on the television news. It’s too time-consuming and expensive to do stories without flames, bodies, and heavily armed, nutty militiamen.
By 2000, it appeared that O’Reilly’s tactic was working; he was getting 366,000 viewers a day, garnering the second-biggest audience in cable news prime time, behind Larry King (the show would eventually get millions of viewers an episode and kick King to the curb). That year he published his second book, also called The O’Reilly Factor, about “what’s right and wrong with America”; the randomly organized assortment of his nonsensical and often offensive, inaccurate beliefs became a New York Times bestseller.
O’Reilly would go on to write or co-write over 20 books, many of them bestsellers as well (he’s currently got two on the charts). At 51, the always notably confident man was gaining a more comfortable lifestyle—he now reportedly makes $25 million a year—and greater conviction in his beliefs, enabling his worldview to become more and more prominent, his obsession with his idea of class allowing him to ignore race and gender. A November 2000 Times article attempted to peg down his political beliefs, ones that, despite all evidence to the contrary, O’Reilly always insisted could not be predicted:
“I’m an independent,” he said. But Mr. O’Reilly seems to have little love for the Clintons; under his desk, for example, he keeps a “Hillary Clinton doormat,” with the senator-elect’s smiling face on it.
During the 2000s, O’Reilly only continued to become more of the modern persona we’re familiar with. But something else changed too: the growth of the internet allowed O’Reilly’s particular brand to flourish past his base, and by that I mean it flourished among liberals who hated him; people who loved him could watch him every night, and people who hated him could share the heinous things he said, allowing him a different level of notoriety and creating a cycle in which he would then respond to the responses to him. Part of O’Reilly’s appeal to Fox News viewers has always been how much he has never seemed to believe in anything as much as he does himself. So as tensions heightened between liberals and conservatives post-9/11, his particular brand of obsession with Americana seemed to caramelize.
- Telling the women of The View “Muslims killed us on 9/11"
- His continued obsession with Beyoncé
- His repeated fights with Jon Stewart
- “Stephen Colbert”’s love of him
- His repeated battles with rappers
- His continued lack of respect for women, anyone who is not white, and anyone who is not straight
The backdrop of all this, of course, was how he actually treated people, not just what he spouted in books and on television. As J.K. Trotter has reported extensively, O’Reilly has been involved in a complex and protracted legal battle with his ex-wife Maureen McPhilmy for several years now. They married in 1995, and divorced in 2010, and their divorce and custody battle has involved revelations that O’Reilly allegedly abused McPhilmy, and tried to get her new husband fired from his job.
And while it was only the recent New York Times report that O’Reilly and 21st Century Fox had also spent millions over the years settling a number of harassment lawsuits against him at work, that was hardly the first time such accusations had been placed against him; in 2004, he sued producer Andrea Mackris for extortion, who then countersued him for harassment. (They eventually settled, though Mackris’s original complaint is quite lurid and damning.) It wasn’t until Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit regarding Roger Ailes’s behavior against her that O’Reilly started to feel the public heat again, with Andrea Tantaros naming him in her lawsuit against the network as well. O’Reilly has devoted considerable resources and time to attempt to keep actual evidence of his true personality out of the public eye, and for a long time, was highly successful at it.
Despite the obvious disconnect between who O’Reilly says he is and who he actually is—what is that, if not the definition of a celebrity personality?—it was not an easy decision for 21st Century Fox to show O’Reilly the door after over 20 years. It took extensive advertiser pressure for the Murdoch family to get rid of him, and even that was a battle amongst them. “It is the end of an era here at the Fox News Channel,” Dana Perino said in an on-air goodbye to him Wednesday night. “Bill has been the undisputed king of cable news, and for good reason. He is an incredibly talented broadcaster who raised the bar everywhere.” Upon his exit he will make an entire year’s salary, reportedly roughly double what he has paid out in settlements to his accusers.
In 2008, television critic Marvin Kitman added an afterword to O’Reilly’s biography. “I wrote a biography of Bill O’Reilly because I admired him. What I liked most was the fearless quality of his journalism,” he noted. “I had admired the way he held people to higher standards. Integrity is what he was all about. He told me that himself quite often. The trouble is, as I discovered, he failed to respect others who lived up to the same high standards as he did.”
“As much as I admired the original O’Reilly, the current one is scary,” he added.
How Kitman and others could be shocked by current Bill is hard to understand, especially with the evidence he has left behind of all his selves. Bill was always there, the itch that you want to scratch but it’s turning into an oozing wound with every attack, eventually becoming so infected that all that can be done is amputate the limb. He even laid it all out there at the beginning, in his first book, when he was discussing what he considered “one huge problem with the media”: “What is said, right or wrong, can never really be taken back. Rebuttals never really offset the first bad impression. Lies take on a life of their own,” O’Reilly wrote.
“Journalism is a business. And the business of business is to make money. The men and women who can do that best—no surprise—are the charlatans, opportunists, and worst of all, the bean counters.” O’Reilly counted his beans, and left behind an empty stalk.