March 19, 2014

A cable-news fiend can encounter no scenario quite as juicy as Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly whining about other networks’ scheming for ratings.

Which is exactly what the King of Cable News was doing on his program last night, with the help of Fox News contributor (and Post columnist) Charles Krauthammer. In a four-and-a-half-minute segment, O’Reilly couldn’t bring himself to denounce by name the network whose ratings are skyrocketing on account of its extensive focus of the missing Malaysia Airlines — uh, CNN — but he did say that this over-coverage is “corrupting the news business.”

“It’s a grab — a ratings grab, that’s what it is,” O’Reilly told Krauthammer.

And what better person to recognize such depravity? As former O’Reilly lackey and Fox mole Joe Muto wrote in his book “An Athiest in the FoxHole,” O’Reilly is downright obsessive about his own ratings. Or maybe that’s understating the case. An excerpt from Muto’s book published in Salon gets to the heart of things.  Three takeaways:

1) When the ratings numbers came out every afternoon, O’Reilly would get all hyped up. Muto:  “[I]f the number crunchers were even one minute late with the data, Bill would get agitated, calling [Stan] Manskoff every few minutes to impatiently ask him if the e-mail with the spreadsheets had come in yet.”

2) Once in hand, the numbers received a massive scrub-down from O’Reilly. “If the number for ‘The Factor’ was good, he’d crow about it for the rest of the day,” wrote Muto. “If the number was bad, he’d panic, making phone calls until he determined what had gone wrong: ‘Eugene, we dropped thirty-three thousand in the demo last night in the final quarter. Remind me what we had in the back of the show last night?'”

3) O’Reilly made firm editorial decisions based on ratings. Once he found out what topic or guest had caused his numbers to crater, he’d “decide that the show would no longer be covering that topic, or would cease inviting that guest,” noted Muto.

So perhaps O’Reilly was a bit perturbed by this story, titled “CNN’s Anderson Cooper Bests Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly for Record Third Time with Malaysia Airlines Mystery.” From Wednesday through Friday of last week, Cooper’s CNN program edged out O’Reilly’s in what’s called the “news demo,” viewers between the ages of 25 and 54.

These moments don’t come around that often — big, international events in which CNN can flex its newsgathering muscles to temporarily sneak up on cable news leader Fox News.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.