Bill O'Reilly and the Fox News Channel producer accusing him of sexual harassment hit the airwaves yesterday in an increasingly ugly war of words as the anchor acknowledged that his career is on the line.
"I knew I was going to get vilified and vile stuff was going to be put out there," O'Reilly said in a telephone interview. "It's very embarrassing to have this stuff out there. Any human being would be depressed to see this. . . . This is the worst day of my life. . . . I have to protect the people closest to me. If I have to suffer, that's the way it has to be."
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O'Reilly said he could not, on his lawyer's advice, address producer Andrea Mackris's accusations that he subjected her to graphic phone-sex chats -- a tactic that her attorney, Benedict Morelli, seized upon.
"Guys like O'Reilly who like to espouse what right-wing Republicans espouse about family values shouldn't be doing stuff like this," he said, adding: "The man knows he did it. He finally got it through his thick skull that he did it, and he's not going to get away with it. . . . He's going down."
Although attorneys, publicists and media critics differ on whether O'Reilly is handling the accusations wisely, there is one point of agreement: The nation's most popular cable news host, who often lectures guests on morality and recently wrote a book of advice for children, could be badly tarnished if the allegations are proved.
After Rush Limbaugh, who acknowledged an addiction to painkillers, and William Bennett, who admitted he had a gambling habit, O'Reilly -- a television and radio host and best-selling author -- is the latest high-profile conservative commentator to face humiliating allegations. But O'Reilly and Fox responded by filing a preemptive lawsuit against Mackris and Morelli, accusing them of extortion.
Mackris, 33, took her case to "Good Morning America" and "Today" yesterday, telling the ABC program: "There were definitely threats. I was threatened."
Asked why she returned to "The O'Reilly Factor" in July, after a few months at CNN, if the earlier conversations were so offensive, Mackris said: "I came back because he agreed to not ever talk to me that way again." But then, she said, "the language was ratcheted up. He pushed the boundaries further and further from what I had established."
O'Reilly, who is 55 and married, defended himself on his Fox show the last two nights and on the "Live With Regis and Kelly" program yesterday, saying: "I knew that by filing this lawsuit I was going to perhaps ruin my career. . . . If I have to go down, I'm willing to do it. But I've got to make a stand."
Said Morelli: "That's a very interesting comment to make for a guy who is innocent, isn't it? Mr. Family Values. Mr. No-Spin Zone. Ask him, did he do it?"
O'Reilly's attorney, Ronald Green, would not deny that the sexual conversations had taken place, saying he could not address whether his client "used a particular word or phrase at any time as part of a joke." He said that the lurid, highly detailed "snippets" recounted in Mackris's lawsuit could have been "taken out of context" or "spun for exaggeration," and that O'Reilly "wants to hear the tapes if they exist." Green said he has witnesses who say Mackris told them that she decided to tape O'Reilly when the four-year employee returned to Fox.
Morelli declined to say whether the conversations were taped. In New York, it is illegal to tape a phone conversation without the other party's consent.
O'Reilly's broadly worded denial of illegal conduct with Mackris, an intern in the first Bush White House, carried echoes of another intern scandal.
"When you draw that first line, it better be a line that's going to hold," said Mark Fabiani, a California crisis-management consultant who worked in the Clinton White House. "If it doesn't, you're often in a worse position than you would be if you said nothing. . . . It happened in the Monica Lewinsky situation," when President Clinton denied having sexual relations with that woman, "which is the statement that everyone remembers to this day."