Bill O'Reilly And NBC, Shouting to Make Themselves Seen?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 15, 2007

A war of words between Bill O'Reilly and NBC has erupted into a shouting match that is overheated, mean-spirited and incredibly entertaining.

"NBC News has gone sharply to the left," the Fox News star said on his radio show in early January. "They are an activist network now. They hate Bush across the board."

Such comments prompted MSNBC's Joe Scarborough to break with his fellow conservative. "Why does Bill O'Reilly hate NBC so much?" Scarborough declared on his show.

Beyond the name-calling -- which nearly matches the mud-fight quality of the Donald Trump-and-Rosie O'Donnell smackdown -- is a serious debate about the Iraq war and the nature of media bias. But the cantankerous talking heads are also showmen who know that a bench-clearing brawl can be good for ratings.

O'Reilly, who has hosted the top-rated cable news show for five years, has long berated the mainstream media for lurching to the left, while casting Rupert Murdoch's network as one of the few balanced outlets around. O'Reilly is frequently on the offensive against liberal judges, professors and others -- he recently told an antiwar activist who appeared as a guest that she was a "lunatic" -- but his assault on NBC seems particularly personal.

"I'll admit it. I don't like you guys," O'Reilly told NBC's Andrea Mitchell during an interview 10 days agoin which he grilled her about alleged bias among her colleagues.

Scarborough, a former Republican congressman who has been trying to demonstrate his independence from the GOP, says in an interview that O'Reilly "really does toe the party line more than I ever have."

"I certainly took offense when he said there were no conservatives at the network, we were all liberal stooges and Marxist sympathizers," Scarborough says. The "final straw," he says, was when O'Reilly criticized Richard Engel, NBC's Middle East bureau chief, for "suggesting the obvious" -- that the rushed hanging of Saddam Hussein had been "a PR disaster." (President Bush told NBC's Brian Williams last week that the execution video ranked just below Abu Ghraib in terms of the war's mistakes.)

O'Reilly declined to be interviewed for this column, but Fox News spokeswoman Irena Briganti says he "has exposed media bias for the last 10 years. This is nothing new. We don't know why NBC finds the label 'liberal' so insulting."

Scarborough says O'Reilly is being driven by animosity toward Keith Olbermann, whose MSNBC show "Countdown" has been gaining in the ratings. "He's allowed his anger toward Keith Olbermann to damage his credibility," Scarborough says.

Olbermann, who faces off with O'Reilly at 8 p.m., has been denouncing his rival for years. He positions his program as an increasingly liberal alternative to the "O'Reilly Factor" and frequently bestows on "Bill-O" his "Worst Person in the World" award. "Countdown" was up 60 percent in the fourth quarter over a year earlier, to 656,000 viewers. But "Factor," despite a 21 percent decline during the same period, still dwarfs the competition with 2.049 million viewers.

Several times over the last year, according to three sources who asked not to be identified because they were describing private conversations, O'Reilly's agent called Jeff Zucker, chief executive of NBC's television group, urging him to tell his MSNBC commentators to back off. O'Reilly also posted an online petition demanding that NBC dump Olbermann.

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