How to beat Bill O'Reilly.

How to beat Bill O'Reilly.

How to beat Bill O'Reilly.

Media criticism.
Sept. 23 2004 7:29 PM

How To Beat Bill O'Reilly

Kill him with kindness.

Bill O'Reilly so loves to fight that had he been born a century ago, he'd have turned pro and taken his arguments into the ring. Jab! Jab! Feint! Round-house! followed by a little trash-talking out of his grinning, bleeding mouth:

Come on, you didn't hurt me a bit! The working-class girls I grew up with in Levittown slap harder than that! You call that a left, you Communist sonofabitch? Here's a fair and balanced one-two punch for all those slanderous, card-carrying members of the media elite. Put up your David Dukes and try to stop my no-spin haymaker, you fascist supporter of the ACLU.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty
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O'Reilly's combativeness and array of rhetorical gambits make getting a word in edgewise nearly impossible for guests on his show, let alone beating him. If O'Reilly wants to take you out early in an interview, he'll narrow his eyes in that Clint Eastwood-style what-kinda-nut-are-you squint that he has. The hands go up in the air as his eyes roll, or the two fingers come up and fire at the camera lenses like a pair of six-shooters. The O'Reilly Factor production assistants are already carrying your KO'd body off the set, and Bill has yet to open his mouth.

Then come the interruptions, the pummeling sarcasm ("Come on. … Really? … Great. … Right."), the mock indignation, the righteous fury, and the lecturing. Disagree with O'Reilly using an argument he hasn't heard before, and you get accused of "spinning"—a capital offense in his universe. In July, he tried to cut Reason magazine Editor Nick Gillespie off in the opening minutes of a segment about medicinal marijuana.

"No spin zone," said O'Reilly, when Gillespie started to make his pro-medicinal argument—the very thing the show booked him to do.

"If I could finish," Gillespie responded.

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"You can't finish, because what you're saying is ridiculous," said O'Reilly, who argued a few minutes more with Gillespie before pole-axing him: "Mr. Gillespie, I'm going to cut your mike now because you've had your say." (Disclosure: Gillespie is a friend.)

A self-appointed populist, O'Reilly imagines that he's sticking up for the disenfranchised against evil corporations, corrupt governments, wacko academics, busybody pressure groups, and the producers of vulgar pop culture. To cross O'Reilly on his show is tantamount to disrespecting his audience, and he will not tolerate that.

But every palooka, no matter what their won-loss record, can be beat, and Bill "King of the Cable Talk Shows" O'Reilly is no exception.

The first thing to understand about O'Reilly is that he's prickly, although other writers might use the root of that word differently in their description of him. He's irritable. Crabby. A short fuse, pre-lit. But if you approach him the way you might a spooked grizzly bear—low voice, reassuring tenor, respectful tone—he's a tabby cat, purring and pedaling his paws on your lap like a kitten. The basic rules for beating O'Reilly go like this:

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Be a Giant If You Can
Not everybody can go onto The O'Reilly Factor as a Seymour Hersh, a Steven Brill, or a Judge Andrew Napolitano (Fox News Channel's senior judicial analyst), but you can study their performances and adjust your strategy accordingly. All three of these guests come with egos that match their accomplishments. They all speak in coherent, full paragraphs and aren't intimidated by O'Reilly's antics. If anything, it's O'Reilly who is daunted by them.

It's not easy to simulate the inner confidence of Hersh, Brill, or Napolitano while on national television, but it won't hurt to try.

Share the New York Studio With Bill
O'Reilly tends to bully and dismiss guests who appear via remote camera hundreds of miles away. If you can swing it, go to New York and appear on the show across Bill's desk. If you're inside his physical space, you automatically win the first round on points. Why? Because even though he's a doofus, O'Reilly is a gentleman. When you're under his roof, you're a guest in his home—until you prove yourself a trespasser. When Hersh, Brill, and Napolitano appear on the show, they share the studio with O'Reilly.

NPR Fresh Air host Terry Gross illustrated this principle two nights ago (Sept. 21) when she faced O'Reilly in the New York studios of The O'Reilly Factor. The appearance was a bit of a rematch: About a year ago, Gross invited O'Reilly on her radio  show to discuss his new book, but her relentless questioning caused him to terminate the interview, and he's been snarling and yelping about the way she treated him ever since. O'Reilly invited Gross onto his show to discuss her new book, and he was as charming and gracious as could be. It wasn't until Gross proved herself unprepared for the interview and started sputtering that O'Reilly started gutting her.

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Also, when you're in the studio, it's harder for O'Reilly to cut you off, dismiss you, or control the pacing of the interview.

Be Prepared
O'Reilly covers every conceivable subject on his program, from politics to culture to foreign policy to the criminal justice system. There's no way he can be expert in all things, yet time and again guests appear on his show mentally underdressed. This peeves O'Reilly. If he doesn't have your ideas to push off, he'll start shoving, so bring a clear and easily articulated set of facts to the table. When Sojourners Editor Jim Wallis appeared on the show in December 2002 to argue against the invasion of Iraq, O'Reilly butchered him not out of desire but out of necessity. Wallis wasn't making a coherent case, and O'Reilly needed to make something happen, and he did.

Be Prepared and Come Out Swinging
O'Reilly doesn't want to be a bully, and he doesn't want you to agree with him; he wants a good, Marquess of Queensberry fistfight. He commonly books two guests for a segment: a ringer who will take his side and an opponent he can spar with. He's usually less comfortable with the ringer than he is with the opponent, especially if the opponent states a strong point of view. Despite the lack of Venn diagram overlap between O'Reilly's views and those of Democratic Party apparatchik Donna Brazile, he enjoys having her on his program because she tests him. Proof of this is that he hardly ever interrupts Brazile.

Whatever you do, don't go on his show if you are a feckless midlevel journalist, a goggle-eyed policy wonk, or a drippy activist.

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Be Careful: He Adjusts
Last year, I wrote a piece about O'Reilly's propensity to tell people—in specific and in general—to shut up. About six months later, I recheckedThe O'Reilly Factor transcripts and discovered that he'd stop doing it altogether. The lesson here is that he reads his clips, studies the tapes, and adjusts.

His Latest Tic
O'Reilly is fond of saying to guests at the close of interviews, "I'll let you have the last word." As often as not, he takes the last word after them. In recent months he's offered the last word to a host of guests and then slipped in the last last word. Out-lasted guests include Donna Brazile, Carl Seppala, Michael Zucchet, Raul Hinojosa, Elysa Gardner, David Bossie, Neal Puckett, Martin Garbus, Mark Green, Mary Ellen Attridge, Joel Fish, Newt Gingrich, Linda Chavez, Rep. Jerry Lewis, Linnda Durre, Bob Kohn, Jim Walden, Carol Darr, Debra Saunders, Enrique Morones, Joe Scheidler, Stewart Baker, Mark Stepnoski, former Slate Editor Michael Kinsley (with whom he remains furious over this column), Jim Fotis, Paul Waldman, Chris Kozlow, Bill Goodman, Seymour Hersh, et al.

After O'Reilly's staff reads this section, he'll give up the "last word" tic and move on to a new one.

Take the Zen Approach
As a regular viewer of the show, I've noticed that the chip on O'Reilly's shoulder morphs to fit the situation he's in. He seems to love nothing more than to throw himself a pity party over the nasty things Al Franken wrote about him in Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. He so despises Franken he won't even speak the comedian's name on the air.

But most of the time he's as reactive as a 4-year-old child in need of a nap. If his guests treat him with respect, listen to what he has to say, and find something he says that they can agree with, he'll smile and conduct the most cordial interview you can imagine. He seems unable to air his more outrageous and insulting views if guests don't give him an opening by helping him escalate things. It's a show mainly fueled by ire: If his guests are courteous and prepared, he spins his wheels.

In two recent appearances (May 3, 2004, and Sept. 13, 2004), Seymour Hersh tamed the Fox madman with those techniques. He never reacted angrily, never gave O'Reilly a foothold, and never fed O'Reilly's anger with his own. O'Reilly barely interrupted and came away smiling and refreshed at the close of the interviews. Meanwhile, Hersh succeeded both times in getting his points across to the largest cable talk show audience. The episodes were like a prime-time version of The Charlie Rose Show, only slower.

These Zen techniques aren't news to anybody who's entered marital counseling or read a child-rearing manual. Alternatively, take a Valium before you go on the show—and see if you can get O'Reilly to take one, too.

Bill O'Reilly needs a hug, not a head butt. The next time you go on, give him one. He'll go out like a light.

TKO!

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