One of the most frequently asked questions I get as a critic is what do I really think of Bill O'Reilly?
This is because I wrote a book titled "The Man Who Would Not Shut Up: The Rise of Bill O'Reilly," a biography published in January by St. Martin's Press. While it is not an authorized biography, he did give me 29 interviews anyway. I had such access because O'Reilly is from Long Island, and I was the media critic at the Long Island paper Newsday for 35 years. It was a great honor, apparently, for him to be asked questions by somebody he grew up reading every morning.
All of which makes me the world's leading O'Reillyologist, more sensitive to changes in the most loved and loathed journalist on cable network news.
I should explain further that O'Reilly off the air is different than on "The O'Reilly Factor." I'd ask him one question, and he would talk for 10 minutes. Having a conversation with O'Reilly is like trying to take a drink of water from an open fire hydrant.
One of his shortest answers occurred the day I asked him what he thought of Keith Olbermann.
"Countdown with Keith Olbermann" is the rival show on MSNBC at 8 PM. It was the 19th attempt by MSNBC to compete in the ratings since "The O'Reilly Factor" debuted in 1996.The eighteen earlier ones had failed.
Olbermann has been at war with O'Reilly since he went on the air March 31, 2003. A regular feature of his news hour has been O'Reilly winning Olbermann's Worst Person in the World award, a bronze medal (worse), a silver (worser) and a gold (worst). Bill O'Reilly had the distinction of winning all the medals on a single broadcast (the night of Nov. 30, 2005). As of June, he had gone gold 57 times.
O'Reilly had been above the battle. Where he usually loved to get into media food fights, with epithets being thrown back and forth, which the media threw more oil on the fire by covering, he made an exception with Olbermann. He never mentioned Olbermann by name, preferring to identify him as "a notorious smear merchant."
"He'll be fired by the time your book comes out," O'Reilly assured me. "His ratings are awful. He's been last in his time slot for years. When CNN's Headline News is beating you, it's pretty bad."
I faithfully recorded his prediction as O'Reilly's Boswell, a term the New York Times Sunday book review used in praising my work.
Apparently, this hasn't exactly happened as O'Reilly projected. As I explained in my cover story in The Nation issue of Oct.9, Keith Olbermann is on the rise. While MSNBC is traditionally ratings-challenged, Olbermann's ratings in July alone had shot up 88% over last year. Not only hasn't he fallen into the Sixth Dimension and disappeared like his 18 predecessors, Olbermann is now recognized by everybody (except O'Reilly) as the first real threat Fox News has ever faced at 8 o'clock
I didn't want to tell Bill any of this. He has enough on his mind these days trying to get untangled from his Bushonian and pro-war positions.
I am worried about O'Reilly.
When I began studying him he was a semi-demented TV newsman, who rudely interrupted guests in debates, giving them the last word, which he also interrupted, but lately he seems to be losing it.
As an O'Reillyologist, I could see it happening more easily than the normal viewers who couldn't watch O'Reilly without their blood boiling and wanting to tear his tongue out and burning him at the stake -- and that was before they would punish him.
One night I was stunned to learn from the O'Reilly show that "a national underground network of pink pistol-packing lesbians is terrorizing America." Violent lesbian gangs are a growing problem, the segment began. All across the country they are raping young girls, attacking heterosexual males at random. The story told me more than I ever wanted to know about pistol packin' Lesbos who carried 9mm. Glock pistols, colored pink.
Nobody else had the lesbian gang story that day, as far as I could tell. Presumably, it was what used to be called in local TV news during sleaze sweep periods "an exclusive." Because nobody else wanted it. But this was national television with three million or so viewers who may, or may not be, permanently terrified by the thought of lesbian gangs with pink pistols.
O'Reilly had originally caught my eye for his investigative stories that were well researched and that needed doing. But suddenly he was spending a lot of time on conspiracies like the plot against Christmas and his other favorite topic, how the media was out to get him. Basically, he is a total narcissist, with paranoid tendencies, like Imus and other big TV names. But something else was happening.
Aside from his story selection, his previous strength was his interviewing technique. Mini-debates were the core of the show. You need two sides -- at least -- to make a debate. Even if they were on his side, if the guests were off 1%, he now would jump all over them. "Your Alger Hiss! And you're lying!"
He just seems to go berserk more often now.
Forget the important issues. Even his personality has changed. I was dumbfounded earlier this month when he was interviewing Tony Snow, his former colleague at Fox News, about his post-White House future, and the exchange went something like this:
O: So what are you doing next?
SNOW: Maybe a book. Or lecture circuit. I'm going to try to earn some money for my family.
O (snickers): Well, you're never going to earn as much as me.
That may not be the exact language, but the sentiment is right. He had to tell Snow how much money he makes. He would never have done that in years past. He just never bragged about his money. Probably because he feared people would ask for loans. He is a very frugal person, as my book explains at great length.
Frankly, I can't listen to him anymore. As much as I praised the early O'Reilly, I think he's gone nuts. Between the fight with Geraldo, the weekly culture quiz and the body language segment of the show, he has jumped the shark.
It may even be a physiological problem. Could it be an undetected tumor that is short-circuiting his brain? Unfortunately, he has a great fear of going to doctors. So we'll never know.
On the other hand, it's no great loss since I have Keith Olbermann at 8 o'clock now. As I explained in my Nation cover piece, Olbermann's style of journalism is changing the face of TV news. He is the first competent newsman, who is smart, articulate, with a sense of humor, an understanding of pop culture, with the guts to have opinions about important issues that he has the courage to stand by, or at least sit by, on the air.
I am so enthusiastic about Olbermann's skills and his evolutionary potential that in The Nation piece I even suggested CBS hire him as the replacement for Katie Couric on the evening news, which is failing now even worse than Dan Rather.
It is time commercial networks news, I argue, ended the sham of so-called "objective news," which never really existed except in the minds of Cronkite purists using the faux theory to cover their asses when under attack for the opinionated essays delivered by Murrow on the early CBS News shows.
Olbermann is the next Ed Murrow, I predicted, the way the idea-impaired CBS News brainiacs could degauss themselves of all past mistakes
Doing a variation on "Countdown" every night might shock the CBS 54-to-Dead demo evening news viewers for a while, make a certain number of pacemakers fratz out. But Olbermann is the key to getting "The CBS Evening News" out of the ratings dungeon, where it's been locked up for the last ten years.
For more on my constructive free advice I gave to CBS News, catch The Nation's Oct.9 issue.