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The Great Arianna v. O'Reilly Debate of 2008


I don't know Arianna Huffington. I mean, I never dated the woman. In fact, I've never even met her.

But I do know Bill O'Reilly. Having had 26 interviews one-on-one with the man researching my book, The Man Who Would Not Shut Up, I am not only the world's leading O'Reillyogist, I know more than I ever wanted to know about him.

If he wanted to be pithy and perceptive about Arianna's political past, O'Reilly could have opined about the oddity of the woman beginning her career in politics as an arch-conservative and is now, as he would put it, a loony far-left liberal, the worst kind. He could even cite the fact that she was in bed with Al Franken. I remember catching this awesome sight while watching Comedy Central's coverage of the 1996 conventions, proving the theory that politics makes strange bedfellows.

I have heard O'Reilly say god-awful things about other individuals. He called Molly Ivins right to her face on the air "a socialist." He has no problem uttering outrageous facts, like there are no homeless veterans.

But to say there is no difference between the KKK and Arianna Huffington was embarrassing even to me with a threshold of tolerance as big as all outdoors. Adding that he didn't see any difference between Huffington and Nazis did not aid his cause. His argument was like saying there is no difference between Bill O'Reilly and Father Coughlin.

It didn't help either that in the same episode of The O'Reilly Factor, he explained he "isn't ready to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama, unless there's evidence of hard facts."

All of which only goes to prove my post-publication thesis that O'Reilly is losing it.

When I first wrote about O'Reilly he was a semi- demented newsman who interrupted guests, but who seemed on the cusp of introducing a different kind of journalism. The same thing could be said of Dr. Josef Goebbels, who showed promise as a journalist until he became the PR man for the National Socialist Party.

O'Reilly is now in the process of a meltdown that could make the island of Manhattan subside, or at least reach the 17th floor of the Fox News Tower on Sixth Avenue where O'Reilly gets his ideas.

I feel sorry for him, as I would any person in the terminal stage of an illness.

There are those of his early admirers who think something physiologically is happening to his brain. Could an undetected tumor of the brain be short-circuiting his thought process, causing radical personality changes? A similar thing happened to Marshal McLuhan. After the legendary media theorist was awarded the Albert Schweitzer Chair at Fordham University, it turned out he had a brain tumor the size of a grapefruit. This helped explain some of those wild and crazy theories he was continually spouting, like that the invention of lasagna made the Pullman railroad car extinct.

Unfortunately, the only thing O'Reilly fears is going to doctors. So we will never know.

Three other problems complicate O'Reilly's case. First, he has Political Tourette Disease. This allows him to say anything that crosses through his mind without getting the green light from the censor, his unconscious, which normally holds things up to the light and says, "Hmm, this doesn't sound right."

Secondly, he operates under an unusual interpretation of the first amendment: "I can say anything I want; they can't."

Most importantly he is encased in an unbreakable plastic bubble that makes him impervious to criticism. It all dates back to his childhood, of course, his constant battles with his rough father and the holy fathers and sisters in fighting his way up the parochial educational system.

He cannot admit he is wrong about anything he says or does. Even his bosses at Fox can't ever get him to admit he is wrong about anything. It is as if he ever just once admits he is wrong his defense mechanism will have turned out to be as impregnable as the Maginot Line.

Having said all of that, I disagree with John Amato's eloquent and finely reasoned essay on Huffington Post (February 29) that asked, "Will O'Reilly's Vile Attack on Arianna Huffington Finally Get Him Kicked Off the Air?" His rhetorical answer was yes.

According to Amato, Arianna feels O'Reilly has finally "crossed the line."

Now I'm as much in favor of Bill dropping banana peels in his path as anyone. Going over the line, leading to a jet-propelled anchor seat expulsion ala Imus would help sales of my book.

As much as I admire Amato's work at crooksandliars as well as Arianna's contributions to journalism, what they and other well-wishers don't understand is the thing about O'Reilly at Fox News is there is no line to cross. More exactly there are more lines than on a football field or on your TV screen (560, and even more on HD).

The only line that will get O'Reilly off the air, however, is the bottom line. A sudden drop in his ratings is the only thing that would make O'Reilly shut up. O'Reilly swears by the ratings, a devotion shared by his bosses at the network.

The other thing about O'Reilly is that he reads the ratings every 15 minutes. He will know when it is time to shut up long before Amato or Huffington read in the papers that his show is "on the bubble," as we say. O'Reilly will know when his 15 minutes is up. He will be fading to black even before we can write our obituaries.

Despite everything O'Reilly has done to make me seem to be a prophet without honor in being the first to write a book that actually found some good things to say about him -- the only other being the six he wrote about himself -- I still believe in Liebling's Other Law, that a free press should be like a supermarket. It is a place where a shopper can push a cart through the aisles, loading it up with different things taken off the shelf for later consumption.

O'Reilly's a product that is beginning to smell like a fish that has been left off ice in the store for two or three days.

For anybody wanting to know more about why the O'Reilly monster is malfunctioning, I recommend the definitive text on the subject, The Man Who Would Not Shut Up: the Rise of Bill O'Reilly, still available.