Miami-Dade County

From Opa-locka to Fox News, the meteoric rise and fall of Bill O’Reilly

Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly poses on the roof of the Fox building in New York in this Oct. 13, 2003 file photo.
Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly poses on the roof of the Fox building in New York in this Oct. 13, 2003 file photo. AP

Fox News firebrand Bill O’Reilly was forced out of his job Wednesday in the wake of a burgeoning scandal over sexual harassment at the network. Here from the Miami Herald archives is a 2003 profile of O’Reilly, who started adult life as a schoolteacher in Opa-locka.

The overnight ratings are in, and Bill O'Reilly is snorting. Larry King? Whupped him again by 2 to 1. And Keith Olbermann? Please, don't even ask. "MSNBC's off the air, " chortles O'Reilly, in his dressing room. "You could put on monkeys jumping up and down and get bigger numbers than MSNBC."

No spin there. Bill O'Reilly is the undisputed king of cable news. Don't believe it? Just ask Connie Chung and Phil Donahue. Oops, you can't: The O'Reilly Factor left their slaughtered corpses behind, forgotten roadkill in a drive to the top that has made O'Reilly's Fox News Channel show No. 1— not just in its time slot, but in the entire cable news universe - for 20 months in row.

With an average 3.1 million viewers a show, O'Reilly most nights has a bigger audience than his competition on CNN and MSNBC combined. And on his good nights, he's the class of not just cable news but cable, period. The seven million viewers he drew on the first day of the war against Iraq beat out even such cable powerhouses as Sex and the City.

Then add the three million listeners who tune in to O'Reilly's syndicated radio show each week, the millions who have bought his two No.1-on-The-Times-bestseller-list nonfiction books and read his weekly newspaper column, and the potential zillions who are likely to see the movie of his novel Those Who Trespass when Mel Gibson, who owns the rights, gets around to making it. Oh, yeah, don't forget the cybergroupies who hang out at the new www.billoreilly.com.

No wonder Television Week magazine earlier this year named O'Reilly the second most powerful man in TV news, calling him "a one-man multi-platform, cross-promotional machine."

Not bad for a one-time TV news gypsy who once moved 10 times in 15 years, flitting to and from places like Hartford, Conn. and Portland, Ore., writing jokes for monster movie matinees (surely you heard his stuff on Uncle Ted's Ghoul School in Scranton, Pa.) when the newscasts alone didn't pay the bill. And flyspeck as some of those towns were, his audiences there dwarfed the 30,000 or so viewers who watched him each night when The O'Reilly Factor debuted on Fox News in 1996.

About the only guy who never doubted O'Reilly would make it big was O'Reilly. "I always knew news analysis would work in prime time, " he says. "We just had to give it time."

LOVE AND HATE

O'Reilly, 53, calls what he does news analysis. His enemies - and if you've ever watched the show, you know there's no shortage of them - call it right-wing attack-dog-ism.

"A bully and a jerk, " sniped the magazine Progressive Review. "Bloodthirsty, " adds the lefty media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. "A liar, " liberal comedian Al Franken said - for nearly half an hour - during a nationally televised debate with O'Reilly earlier this year. For the truly hardcore, the invective is nonstop at www. oreilly-sucks.com and the web's Sweet Jesus, I Hate Bill O'Reilly blog site.

O'Reilly shrugs that stuff off as the prattle of people who don't like the way he enforces his so-called "no spin zone" on The O'Reilly Factor. "We don't allow b.s., and I call people on it, " O'Reilly insists. "But it's not like I call them names."

That might come as a surprise to author Jacob Sullum, whom O'Reilly referred to as a "pinhead" after he suggested legalizing cocaine and other drugs. Or to Atlanta radio talk host Neal Boortz, whom O'Reilly labeled "a vicious son of a bitch" when Boortz needled him for making a tasteless joke about some inner-city kids.

Even when there's no outright name-calling, The O'Reilly Factor is sort of a political roller derby, with plenty of verbal hair-pulling and elbows to the kidneys. Actress Susan Sarandon yanked off her mike, threw it to the floor and stormed off the set after a white-hot exchange with O'Reilly over a police shooting in New York. Arizona's maverick Republican senator, John McCain, once said appearing on the show reminded him of his years in a North Vietnamese POW camp: "O'Reilly uses some of their old interrogation techniques."

Literally anyone is fair game on The O'Reilly Factor, even Sept. 11 survivors - as Jeremy Glick, an author whose father was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center, found out the hard way. Glick ran afoul of O'Reilly when he accused the United States of terrorism in Iraq and Panama. O'Reilly angrily accused Glick of dishonoring his own father.

"You evoke 9/11 to rationalize everything from domestic plunder to imperialistic aggression worldwide, " retorted Glick. "That's a bunch of crap!" O'Reilly snapped. Moments later, he ordered the Fox News director to cut off Glick's microphone and go to a commercial, abruptly ending the segment.

Rude? Or great showmanship? Or just a spontaneous reaction to a provocative statement? As O'Reilly would say, you folks can decide for yourselves. What's beyond dispute is that it's the kind of video red-meat that brings in viewers.

Says Victor Navasky, publisher of the left-wing magazine the Nation, "He's overbearing. He interrupts and sneers at his guests. I enjoy that."

Women are getting an earful of insults from their male colleagues in Washington, D.C. A few are making headlines, others go unreported. And some experts suggest the president is sending the message that such rhetoric is ok.

CONSERVATIVES, TOO

Navasky, whose magazine routinely calls President Bush a mendacious liar and recently demanded Donald Rumfeld's resignation as defense secretary, seems an unlikely candidate for O'Reilly's audience. But he says O'Reilly's brutishness is nonideological fun. "He's nasty and I don't agree with him, " explains Navasky. "But it's entertaining."

In fact, O'Reilly's audience may be more diverse than people think. He's not the knee-jerk conservative he's often portrayed. He's beaten up on Jerry Falwell and Tom Selleck, among other conservative icons, and he tore into Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan: "Powerful, cold and evil."

He's furiously bashed away at corporate America over the Enron and WorldCom scandals. And several religious-right organizations even called for boycotts against O'Reilly's advertisers after he ridiculed a minister campaigning against gay rights as "a religious fanatic."

"He's surprising and not as stereotypical as some people make him out to be, " says Andrew Tyndall, whose newsletter The Tyndall Report monitors TV journalism. "It's lazy to characterize him as being a conservative broadcaster. He's much more of a populist."

O'Reilly, for once, agrees - at least in part. "Populist, traditionalist, yeah, I don't mind that, " he muses. "But mostly, I would say independent. I'm a registered independent. I'm not an ideologue at any level."

O'Reilly says his world view has been shaped more by his early life: A lower-middle-class upbringing in a Long Island tract development, followed by a couple of years teaching in Opa-locka.

"That was crack alley, " says O'Reilly of his 1971-73 stint at Monsignor Edward Pace High School, which drew kids from all over North Miami-Dade. "Well, OK, crack hadn't really come in yet. But there were all kinds of drugs all over the place. It was terrible."

O'Reilly was a hit with the kids he taught. "He was a very straight shooter, " recalls Barbara Cunningham Kitching, 45, now a registered nurse in Kennett Square, Pa. In 1973 she was a giggly sophomore in O'Reilly's history class. "And, yeah, he could be a smart aleck. I laugh when I see him on TV now because he's exactly the same way he was back then."

O'Reilly was somewhat less popular with school administrators. He wasn't exactly brimming with respect for authority. When too many hot pants and halter tops were spotted in the stands at Pace football games, O'Reilly and the rest of the faculty were shanghaied into a meeting to discuss proper attire. Asked his opinion, O'Reilly replied: "Proper attire for a football game begins with shoulder pads, a helmet, knee and thigh pads, and spiked shoes, but never high heels."

Predictably, his teaching career didn't last long. After getting a master's degree in broadcasting from Boston University, O'Reilly was off on his long trek through local TV (including a brief stop for an internship at Miami's WPLG). Most places he worked - including brief spells as a network reporter at both ABC and CBS - he got into trouble for the same contempt for authority he showed at Pace.

MAJOR BUCKS

That skepticism of authority - the constant suspicion that big shots are screwing the little guys - very much colors The O'Reilly Factor. And it's why O'Reilly, married with a young daughter, still considers himself a working-class stiff, even though he has a Harvard degree and makes a reported annual salary of $4.5 million.

"Class is a sensibility, " he argues. "You don't have to sell out, you don't have to be one of the swells, just because you have a lot of money. I have a nice house. I drive a good car, though it's not a luxury model. And that's it. I'm not really into materialism."

He admits to terrorizing liberals on his show, but says he's no kinder to conservatives. "That's why [Attorney General] John Ashcroft will never come on the show, because he knows he'll get hammered about illegal immigrants and the war on drugs, " says O'Reilly, who then switches to the locally hot topic of the DCF (Department of Children and Families). "I'd like to see Jeb Bush on the show, but he's not going to do it, because he know's I'll ask about all the problems you're having with that child's social services agency."

Some conservatives who have agreed to do the show have doubtless regretted it - including George W. Bush, who appeared in March 2000, when he was still locked in a tight race with McCain for the Republican presidential nomination.

Bush, pushing his message of "compassionate conservativism, " was nonplussed when O'Reilly asked if he thought Jesus Christ would have approved of the hundreds of death warrants Bush signed as Texas governor. After all, O'Reilly noted, Jesus had some first-hand experience with the downside of capital punishment. "I can't justify the death penalty in terms of the New Testament, " Bush sputtered.

Another ambush victim was Barry McCaffrey, the retired Army general who became Bill Clinton's drug czar. O'Reilly taunted him with questions about why the drug war was failing. "McCaffrey came off the set, and he was yelling at the producer who booked him, " recalls Bill Shine, network executive producer at Fox News. "He couldn't believe how he was treated and the questions he was asked . . . .

"Bill doesn't show all his cards even to us. When Rosie O'Donnell came on the show to talk about gay adoption, we were all expecting war. I mean, you'd think they'd butt heads, right? By the end of the taping, it turned out they were just two Long Island kids who had a great time."

WISH LIST

Even so, O'Reilly's most memorably bloody shows have mostly involved liberal targets. And his twin Moby Dicks, the interviews he'd most love and knows he'll never get, are both liberals: Jesse Jackson (O'Reilly has devoted 56 shows, at last count, to probing the finances of Jackson's nonprofit foundation) and Hillary Clinton (for years, a doormat emblazoned with her face sat in front of his office).

O'Reilly will even admit to lying in bed at night fantasizing about Clinton - about interviewing her, that is. In his dream, he asks half a dozen pointed questions about Whitewater and the suicide of Clinton White House attorney Vince Foster. The seething Clinton finally breaks her silence with a command to her Secret Service escort: "You can shoot him now, boys."

"That would be great television, " says a wistful O'Reilly, presumably referring to an interview and not the shooting part. "That would be an Event. Jesse Jackson, too. But neither one of them is ever going to happen."

Related stories from Miami Herald

  Comments