What an unlikely pair. It was all on the up-and-up. A producer from the show called the publisher of my book Wetback Nation the other day (the paperback edition is coming out), and invited me to appear on his TV show. I spent a couple of days deciding whether to accept the invitation. I sought advice from colleagues and friends, and I watched clips of the show, checking out O'Reilly's frequent use of guests as whipping boys for the soapbox that is his act. Is this something I wanted to subject myself to, and if so, why?
I learned a lot about our culture (and my friends and colleagues) in those few days I was contemplating the invitation. No one I asked suggested I turn down the offer to appear on the box. Everyone I asked was familiar with his show (it is the highest-rated of its ilk, some 2.5 million views nightly). And perhaps most interesting, this pack of ad hoc advisors I assembled - worldly, sophisticated, and usually blasé about celebrity - were quite taken by the idea of a face-off with Bill O'Reilly. "You've been asked to appear on the O'Reilly show?" Most of them initially responded with a taste of awe when I came to them for advice. TV is potent stuff, and when it is combined with a character such as O'Reilly, no matter how repugnant some say they find him, there is a magnetism about the medium that's all but irresistible.
My publisher wanted me to make the appearance. Understandable. There are 2.5 million potential book buyers out in the O'Reilly audience. If we get one percent of them to buy Wetback Nation, that certainly is worth five minutes in center ring.
The editor-in-chief of a national magazine I write for insisted I make the appearance. He says he never turns down any such offer from any TV show. He considers the broadcast media too important a marketing tool for the magazine world to avoid.
A friend who works in journalism education was enthusiastic. "Go on the show and sell books," he insisted. "Self define," was his advice. "Say, 'Here's what my critics are going to say, Bill.' Then make a point about something you think he plans to say critical about the book and follow it with, 'But the reason my idea is worth considering is . . . .'"
The host of a radio talk show armed me with some tawdry personal background about O'Reilly. He recommended that if the encounter heated up and Bill started getting personal about me, I should interrupt him and start talking about Bill's own history.
"Bad idea," opined Beau Friedlander, director of marketing at Chelsea Green, which published my most recent book, Mission Rejected. "Stop talking if he goes gorilla on you. Wait for the calm, be calm, make good eye contact, wait a beat, and say, 'You're a bully'."
One of my sons kept reminding me to draw O'Reilly into my lair and speak about the substance of the news I report in Wetback Nation. "Make him talk and respond to your Socratic dialogue, not to your opinion," was his advice.
I am not a regular in Bill O'Reilly's audience, so I procured some tapes of his show and studied his techniques with interviewees. I watched the montages in the documentary Outfoxed of Bill yelling at his guests, "Shut up! SHUT UP!" I checked in with media watchdog organizations to learn O'Reilly's past positions on immigration. I probably over prepared, but at least I have another professional field of expertise now: I am a Bill O'Reilly specialist. Come to me with your Bill O'Reilly questions and concerns!
So how did it go, you may wonder? My segment of the show immediately followed a scream fest over oil prices that Bill engaged in with a fellow who maintained that the big oil companies were not gouging us consumers with three dollar a gallon gasoline. Bill attacked and dismissed the guy.
I sat in a San Francisco studio facing the unblinking camera eye and heard Bill in my ear during the commercial break. "Peter, O'Reilly here. Here's what we're going to do. I'll give you thirty seconds to make your point, then I'll come on to make fun of you!" Can't argue with his honesty regarding intent. Full disclosure.
In fact, Bill was quite the gentleman. We sparred, but it was much more trading ideas than personal assault - on both sides. And he graciously and repeatedly mentioned the book title: Wetback Nation. Maybe he just enjoyed saying it.
O'Reilly has a history with the term "wetback." And the word, of course, is in the title of my book. So perhaps we met on his TV set with more in common than we thought.
A few years ago O'Reilly used "wetback" to describe Mexicans crossing the border into the U.S. without papers. Here's the quote, as O'Reilly was talking with Texas Representative Silvestre Reyes about beefing up the border patrol (Reyes is the only member of congress who served as a border patrolman himself, and Reyes was the architect of current policy that is driving illegal border crossers from urban ports of entry to the deadly southwest desert). "We'd save lives," O'Reilly told Reyes, were there more border patrol officers on duty, "because Mexican wetbacks, whatever you want to call them, the coyotes - they're not going to do what they're doing now, all right, so people aren't going to die in the desert." Critics jumped O'Reilly for the "wetback" reference.
Broadcast transcripts often look awkward in print, but it's hard to fault O'Reilly's use of the word "wetback" in that context. As I make clear in my book, wetback is only derogatory when derogatory use is the intent, gringo.
Here's what I learned on The Bill O'Reilly Show: If you're invited to make an appearance, be sure you're all right with the old saying "any publicity is good publicity."
As for mileage: The show gets out there, hombre. My other son was on vacation when I was on the air with Bill. He walked into an Anaheim hotel near Disneyland, and, poor kid, there was dear old dad on a giant plasma screen in the lobby yelling about Mexicans and immigration per usual.