March 2009 marks The O’Reilly Factor’s 100th consecutive month as the top-rated cable news program. Bill O’Reilly, the show’s bombastic star, talks to B&C Programming Editor Marisa Guthrie about the new president, skepticism toward the mainstream media and what happens when he bumps into NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker.
First of all, congratulations on 100 consecutive months as the top-rated program on cable news. That’s quite an accomplishment, especially in this day and age.
I don’t think it’s ever been done in any kind of TV milieu. We had our people research all programs going back to the’ 50s, like Gunsmoke and things like that. Nobody’s ever stayed on top this long.
How have the goalposts been moved by the election of Obama in terms of your show? Do you feel it’s a good time to be in opposition? Is that an advantage or a disadvantage?
I think that the ratings over the past three months prove beyond any doubt that many Americans are uneasy with the direction of the country. Sixty-two million Americans voted against Barack Obama. Some of those people are concerned. So where are they gong to go for information? Are they going to the Obama cheerleading crew: MSNBC and CNN? Obviously they’re not. So they come over to a network that is more skeptical of the president. My program has benefited the most. And this is interesting: My program, I think, is the least skeptical of the so-called conservative programs. We give the president the benefit of the doubt and we never cheap-shot him. But we’re really heavy on, hey, this is a risk, what he’s doing is not a lock. I think the combination of people who don’t like President Obama with the people who are scared is generating higher ratings for everybody over here.
Public opinion polls show that Obama still has tremendous popularity, even though Republicans and some Democrats are inveighing against the bailout and the budget and the stimulus. He still seems to have tremendous public support.
I don’t know if it’s as much about Barack Obama the man, because I think he is very likable and a brilliant guy, as it is about people’s individual situations. I think that’s why they’re coming [to Fox News]. It’s about them, not Barack Obama.
Do you want Obama to fail?
No. We want him to succeed. We want to persuade him that perhaps some of his policies are not going to help him succeed.
What about all this talk of socialism? Isn’t that a little premature, since this bailout was started by the Bush administration?
I’ve never bought into the fact that Barack Obama is a socialist. I think he’s a classic liberal that believes that big government can solve the problems of society, and he wants to redistribute income. I don’t think he’s a socialist. I don’t think he wants to seize people’s property. But I do think he’s a classic committed liberal.
Do you think the socialist argument being advanced by the right-wing pundits is effective?
It raises questions about how far the government is going to be able to go in its pursuit of social engineering. So I think it’s worthy in that regard. You’re reminding people that there is a difference between the United States and Sweden. To call these people Communists and socialists, that’s as nutty as the far left calling people fascists and all of that. It’s the same kind of craziness.
You have been a loud critic of the so-called mainstream media. How do you think they’re doing covering President Obama?
I despise, and you can put that in capital letters, what many in the media are doing right now, particularly in the hard-news area. I think they’re corrupt. I think they’re dishonest. I think they’re ill-informed. And in individual cases I think they’re hateful and should not be working in the industry. I don’t want anybody to have any doubt about where I stand on that.
I don’t think anybody does. But I watched your show on the night of the president’s primetime press conference, and you conceded that CBS News’ Chip Reid asked a good question. And what did you think of [CNN reporter] Ed Henry’s question?
I thought the press did a pretty good job. I’m glad you watched the program because I thought I gave a very fair assessment of what happened. It isn’t the White House press corps that’s the problem. It’s the editors. It’s the people in power at the networks. I don’t have any beef with ABC News or CBS News. I think they try. I think they’re run mostly by liberal people. Their agenda is somewhat tempered. I don’t even have a beef with CNN. They’re what they were 20 years ago. NBC is corrupt top to bottom. They say, oh, it’s only MSNBC. No it’s not, it’s across the board. What they did to that Branchini family was disgraceful. Every media outlet in the country should come in on that.
What they did they do?
They attacked a foundation that helps rape victims and their families for having me emcee a charitable event.
NBC has denied that they had anything to do with that.
That’s a lie. NBC’s air drove all of that. The Internet cannot get traction unless it has an outlet, a national outlet, and NBC provided that. I hope you’re understanding this. There aren’t two sides to this story. There’s what happened and the NBC lie about what happened. That’s it.
Amanda Terkel from Think Progress [who wrote the initial blog about O’Reilly’s keynote at the It Happened to Alexa Foundation] said she felt threatened by your producer.
Did you see the clip?
Did she look threatened to you?
See, sometimes you’ve got to go with what you see.
She also said you didn’t invite her on The O’Reilly Factor.
We contacted that Website. We heard nothing.
Obviously, you and Keith Olbermann have ideological differences. But don’t you think this feud is good for both of you?
There is no feud. I have never mentioned the man’s name in my life and will never mention it. There is no feud. There’s no nemesis. All there is coming out of NBC are attacks on the Fox News Channel. [Jeff] Zucker allows it to happen. All we do is point out what they do. We don’t attack them personally. So there’s no feud. That’s inaccurate. That’s the way the media wants to play it.
I think we in the media can get a bit myopic. I don’t think people in Detroit who are losing their jobs care about media feuds.
I agree 100% on that. They don’t care about what so-and-so says. They don’t watch so-and-so. But the media has a responsibility to be honest. But when you have institutional sabotage, when you have a well-thought corporate strategy to attack another corporation by using smears and lies, you’re telling me that’s not a story?
Do you know Jeff Zucker?
Of course. I’ve known Zucker for a long time.
So what do you talk about when you bump into each other?
I don’t bump into him. He sees me, he runs.
There is a rather well-known story about you from your days at Channel 3 in Hartford. The story goes that Walter Cronkite was in the newsroom and you approached him and said, “I will be you someday.” Is that true?
Total bull. In fact, that story is recycled in every market I have ever been. In Boston, it was I told [WCVB’s] Natalie Jacobson and Chet Curtis that I’d take their jobs. In Portland, I told somebody I’d take their job. It’s the same story with different people.
Why do you think it keeps getting recycled?
Because I’m an outlaw. Every station I’ve ever worked for it’s, “Hey, O’ Reilly used to work here. And you should have seen him; he threw a hand grenade at the general manager.” Because why not? I take it as a compliment. Wherever I go, I get people running up to me, “Did you really have a bazooka and blow up this guy’s Volkswagen?” I say, “Yeah, I had an AK-47, too.” Whatever they want. It’s this mythmaking. It’s fine with me.
People are afraid of you?
Who are you afraid of? Are you afraid that Glenn Beck will surpass you as the most watched program at Fox News?
I never do that. If Glenn Beck surpasses me, more power to Glenn Beck. It’s a competitive marketplace.
The president has made a strategy of being very media-accessible. Do you think that’s working for him?
He wanted to get AIG off the front page, and he was able to do it. And I would have done the same thing if I were Barack Obama. I would have gone on The Tonight Show. I would have gone on 60 Minutes. I probably would not have done that press conference last [week]. I think that hurt him. He’s got to watch it because most people are still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and they still like him. But his approval is falling quickly. So right now, what people want him to do is stop talking and solve some problems. I think that critical mass has been reached, and he needs to take a few weeks off and get some things done so that he can say, here’s a win for us.
What did you think of his Special Olympics comment on The Tonight Show?
Look, I make mistakes every single day, particularly when I was doing radio. You have three hours of commentary every day; you’re talking off the cuff. You’re going to say stuff that you don’t mean. I didn’t mention that once. I’m not looking to play the gotcha game with Barack Obama. In fact, when I see someone do that, I cringe. We’ve got more important stuff to do than that. Everybody knew he wasn’t insulting anyone.
Have you invited him to come back on The O’Reilly Factor?
Not yet. President Obama and I, I think we have a respectful relationship. I think he understands the power of the program. We have invited [David] Axelrod on [this] week. We hope he comes on. They weigh it. I don’t take that stuff personally. There is going to be a time when I want President Obama to come on the program, and I will make that clear.