O'Riled Up: Geraldo and O'Reilly Have a Brawl

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 7, 2007

It felt as if you had wandered into a barroom brawl, people were cowering under their tables and the only question was when someone would get smashed with a broken beer bottle.

It was the battle of cable goliaths, Geraldo Rivera vs. Bill O'Reilly, a trash-talking, vein-popping, finger-thrusting shoutfest complete with cries of "cool your jets!" and "that's bull!"

The rising decibel level Thursday night on "The O'Reilly Factor" -- an arena not exactly renowned for delicate discussion -- was an instant YouTube classic as the two Fox fighters went at it on the subject of illegal immigration.

Rivera did what few guests dare in the "No-Spin Zone": accuse the host of making "a cheap political point." O'Reilly, undeterred, said Rivera wanted "open-border anarchy." And although Rivera didn't get his nose broken, as happened during a 1988 scuffle with a neo-Nazi guest on his old syndicated talk show, both men were clearly fuming.

"This is the courtroom scene from 'A Few Good Men' after a case of Red Bull with the volume knob cranked to 11," says Matthew Felling, an analyst with the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "Add to that the surreality of Geraldo being the voice of reason, and it's the oddest video you'll watch a dozen times."

Says Jessica Shaw, senior writer at Entertainment Weekly: "It was, for sure, riveting television. I'm sure the director was loving every second of it."

Cable news often thrives on emotion. Magazine editor Michael Kinsley tells the story of quizzing a guest during his first week on CNN's "Crossfire" in the 1990s when a producer said in his ear: "Get mad! Get mad!" O'Reilly and Rivera needed no such encouragement.

The dustup involved a drunk driver, with three previous alcohol-related convictions, who killed two teenagers in the Virginia Beach area last month and has been charged with manslaughter. In his opening commentary, O'Reilly said the driver was an illegal alien from Mexico, and he assailed the city's mayor for what he said was a policy of not reporting those in this country illegally to federal authorities. He included a clip of the mayor, Meyera Oberndorf, saying that Virginia Beach has adopted no policy making it a "sanctuary city," as O'Reilly called it.

Rivera, a regular guest on the show, immediately challenged the premise, saying there were 347 drunk-driving fatalities in Virginia in 2005 and "the only reason it's news on 'The Factor' is because the driver was an illegal alien." He said O'Reilly should apologize to the mayor.

As they sparred over whether the drunk driver should have been deported earlier, O'Reilly observed that Rivera has teenage daughters and asked if he approved of "somebody sneaking into the country, becoming drunk, get convicted of a DUI and staying here?"

Rivera, whose father is from Puerto Rico, countered: "It could be a Jewish drunk. It could be a Polish drunk. . . . What the hell difference does it make?"

"It makes plenty of difference!" O'Reilly shouted, his face grimacing. "He doesn't have a right to be in this country! . . . He should have been deported!"

"It's a cheap political point," Rivera roared back.

"No, it isn't."

"And you know it!"

"This is justice! . . . And you want anarchy," O'Reilly said.

As they glared at each other, Rivera said: "What I want is fairness."

"Fairness? Bull!" O'Reilly said.

Rivera said that illegal aliens had been "lured" to this country with the promise of jobs in a full-employment economy. "Do you want your viewers to go knocking on people's door, door to door?" he asked.

"Oh, bull. That's bull," O'Reilly said.

But it was television, after all, so O'Reilly closed by plugging Rivera's weekend show, and Rivera said it was wonderful that Fox was fair and balanced on the issue.

Plenty of people witnessed the tussle: During the first quarter of the year, O'Reilly averaged 2.4 million viewers a night.

A Fox News spokeswoman had no comment and said the combatants were not available. O'Reilly was off last night, depriving the country of the possibility of a rematch.

Critics were quick to score the contest. "I feel like Geraldo comes off really normal and making good points," Shaw says. "He's finally found the perfect foil. Did it shed any light on immigration reform? Of course not."

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