In the Age of Beck, Limbaugh and Hannity, Fox News’ Powerhouse Seems Downright Moderate
On a segment of his highly-rated cable talk-show last month, Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly was locked in verbal combat with a guest, as is his usual wont.
But this particular guest wasn’t an atheist chiming in about school prayer or an ACLU attorney arguing against the USA Patriot Act.
Dick Morris, the Republican strategist and former Bill Clinton advisor-turned-antagonist, was yammering against Justice Department plans to hire a group of lawyers who had defended terrorism suspects while they worked in private practice.
O’Reilly wasn’t buying Morris’ assertions that the lawyers—dubbed the “Al-Qaeda Seven” by the right-wing advocacy group Keep America Safe—were a security risk because of their past litigation experience.
“You shouldn’t be demonized because you take on an unpopular client,” O’Reilly rebuked a surprised Morris, who is famous for his almost obsessive hatred for Hillary Clinton.
O’Reilly has been a contrarian for years. While labeling himself a “traditionalist”—although never a ‘conservative’—and a “culture warrior,” he supports some gun-control restrictions as well as gay adoption and civil unions.
In a 2008 interview with Marvin Kalb on PBS, O’Reilly, who is hostile to the “progressive agenda,” took some decidedly progressive stands on same-sex unions and gay rights.
Asked by host Kalb “Should gays have rights?” the 6’4” Boston University graduate replied, “Sure. They are Americans.”
O’Reilly continued: “Do I care about this? Not really. I don’t care what Lenny and Squiggy do. They want to get married, let them get married. If you open it up for one group, you’ve got to open it up for all the groups. And they have done that in Holland, by the way.”
Pressed by Kalb, who asked “In terms of gays, you would have no problem with marriage?,” the Fox host answered “Personally? I don’t care.”
O’Reilly, 60, has also called for a civil discussion on matters of national policy. He urged the conservative C-PAC group to refrain from personal attacks on the President, and chided the group’s speakers for “bashing Obama.”
While he thinks the chief executive lacks the experience to handle his job, he praises the man himself. “I like Obama,” he says.
He was also quick to tell viewers what he thought of 2008’s “birther” story, in which critics of then-candidate Obama claimed he had never produced a birth certificate proving his American citizenship.
Said O’Reilly: “’The Factor’ debunked the whole birth certificate deal more than a year ago. It was easy. The State of Hawaii sent us a copy of the document. End of story.”
And comparing the fear that many right-wing groups employ in their political messages to a “double-edged sword,” O’Reilly warned that angry political rhetoric “can lead to violence and heartbreak.”
And while he still takes his jabs at the “far-left media,” even sometime-critics like Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart have taken note of O’Reilly’s measured tone.
Joked Stewart during a February appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor:” “You’ve become in some ways the voice of sanity here [at Fox], which as I said is like being the thinnest kid at fat camp.”
“The Factor” is Fox News’ most valuable advertising engine, which is reflected in O’Reilly’s salary, reported in the Los Angeles Times to be around $10 million a year.
The program averages 3.7 million viewers, an 8% increase from last year according to Nielsen ratings. His competition lags far behind, with left-of-center MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, O’Reilly’s chief nemesis, pulling in around 984,000 viewers and 635,000 tuning into Campbell Brown on CNN.
O’Reilly is still a controversial figure. In 2008 he called Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank a “coward” during a screaming match about banking reform.
In 2009, liberal commentators charged that O’Reilly shared blame for the murder of Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller.
O’Reilly rejected those claims. “I reported the story accurately,” he said after Tiller’s death.
Whether he’s mellowed or not, O’Reilly says he’s become less concerned with people’s views on his politics and how they are perceived.
“Let them hate you,” he told the L.A. Times last month. “So what? Who cares?”