From the very first moments of his cable-news-dominating show, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly sets a standard for himself: “Caution. You are about to enter the no-spin zone,” he warns his audience. That is: On “The O’Reilly Factor,” straight, hard facts roll up into obvious conclusions shepherded by the tall and dominant host.
This no-nonsense self-identification, though, doesn’t end with the beginning. Throughout his programs, O’Reilly sells himself as among the few who’ll play it straight “with the folks,” who doesn’t hew to ideological positions that might just cloud his status as a fact broker and who’s tough on everyone, as he enjoys reminding his loyal viewers. He signs off like this: “Please remember, the spin stops here because we’re looking out for you.” No other television journalist, of course, would ever cop to running a show where spin is countenanced. Or promoted. Yet in keeping with Fox News’s genius for branding — “Fair and Balanced” belongs in some kind of hall of fame — O’Reilly has plowed a singular path as truth-teller. It’s that very status that oftentimes drives memorable segments on “The O’Reilly Factor”; when the host feels that a guest is sidestepping an issue, O’Reilly dispenses with the mercy. In a 2008 interview with then-Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Finance Committee, O’Reilly seized upon the cratering of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — and blamed the lawmaker for the problems:
O’REILLY: Oh, none of this was your fault! Oh, no. People lost millions of dollars. It wasn’t your fault. Come on, you coward! Say the truth.
FRANK: What do you mean coward?
O’REILLY: You’re a coward. You blame everybody else. You’re a coward.
FRANK: Bill, here’s the problem with going on your show. You start ranting. And the only way to respond is almost to look as boorish as you. But here’s the facts. I specifically said in the quote you just played that I didn’t think it was a good investment. I wasn’t telling anybody to buy stock. I said it wasn’t a good investment. Secondly, I wasn’t presiding idly over this. I was trying to get the regulations adopted.
FRANK: We got them adopted in May.
O’REILLY: Bottom line is you’re there two years. Bottom line is stock drops 90 percent.
The King of Cable News called upon Frank to step down from his committee chairmanship, an unsurprising move for anyone familiar with the O’Reilly oeuvre. Calling for the heads of people who screw up is a mainstay of O’Reilly’s standing as a force for accountability. Herewith a chart that breaks down some highlights of O’Reilly’s time as chief of the personnel guillotine:
|New York Mayor Bill de Blasio||“I’m gonna send a big message tonight on ‘The Factor,'” said O’Reilly, on a Dec. 22 phone-in comment from vacation. “Bill de Blasio…is incompetent…He is an anti-police individual…He has been anti-police his whole career. Who’s his best friend? Al Sharpton. Al Sharpton, a racial provocateur, an anti-cop individual…This is an individual who should resign today, today.”||De Blasio remains in office.|
|CDC Director Tom Frieden||When Ebola struck the United States last fall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stumbled a bit in its early response. In interviews with Fox News and other outlets, Frieden refused to embrace calls for any sort of travel ban from affected African countries to the United States — a stance that infuriated O’Reilly: “Dr. Frieden, out of there,” said the host in October.||In subsequent months, events have rewarded Frieden and scolded O’Reilly, who still owes his readers an explanation of why he was so wrong about the merits of stopping air service to countries that depended on medical aid and personnel from the United States. By dissing O’Reilly’s policy prescriptions, Frieden & Co. have protected not only the United States but have also helped bring Ebola to its knees in its cradle countries of West Africa.|
|Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki||As exposed by CNN and other outlets, the VA system poorly served its constituents. “I think Shinseki has got to go,” said O’Reilly in a broadcast last May.||Shinseki, indeed, had to go.|
|Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel||In October 2013, in the midst of the government shutdown, O’Reilly railed against Hagel for stopping “payments to the families of military people killed in Afghanistan. That is an absolute disgrace — no excuse for it,” railed O’Reilly. “Hagel must go. He’s lost all credibility among the military.”||Hagel did resign, a year later.|
|Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius||Following the awful rollout of HealthCare.gov, O’Reilly assessed Sebelius’s work this way: “If things are falling apart, you have to — you have to, look, in Japan…the secretary might have to commit suicide.”||Sebelius did resign, months later.|
|Sen. David Vitter (R-La.)||In 2007, Vitter conceded a “serious sin” after news emerged that he was a customer of a prostitution service. He held onto his post. Years later, upon the resignation of Anthony Weiner, O’Reilly was asked about Vitter’s staying power: “I don’t think Vitter should be there,” responded the host. “Absolutely not.”||Vitter continues representing the great state of Louisiana.|
|Shirley Sherrod||In July 2010, O’Reilly called for the resignation of Sherrod, then USDA’s director of rural development in Georgia, after Andrew Breitbart’s BigGovernment.com surfaced an edited video in which Sherrod talks about discriminating against a white farmer. O’Reilly called her behavior “simply unacceptable. And Ms. Sherrod must resign immediately.” A fuller look at the video later revealed that Sherrod did nothing discriminatory.||Sherrod resigned and later sued Breitbart. O’Reilly apologized for “not doing my homework, for not putting her remarks into the proper context…I well understand the need for honest reporting.”|
|Vivian Schiller||In October 2010, then-NPR President Schiller fired Juan Williams for having said on Fox News that he gets “nervous” when boarding a plane with “people who are in Muslim garb.” O’Reilly railed, “In my opinion, Ms. Schiller should resign immediately because she is simply not smart enough to run a media company, even if it is NPR.”||Schiller resigned, but only after a subsequent scandal enveloped NPR.|
|Thomas Bartheld||Bartheld served as an Oklahoma district court judge in Pittsburg County and came under attack in 2009 from O’Reilly, Geraldo Rivera and others for approving a lenient plea deal for the defendant in a child rape case. “Judge, you ought to resign it right now,” said O’Reilly.||Bartheld withstood O’Reilly’s call and retired from the bench last year.|
|Meyera Oberndorf||While serving as the mayor of Virginia Beach in 2007, Oberndorf met O’Reilly’s wrath after an undocumented immigrant was charged with aggravated involuntary manslaughter in a drunken driving incident that killed two area teenagers. “The incidents all took place in and around Virginia Beach, which is a sanctuary city,” charged O’Reilly. “That means the authorities do not report criminal illegal aliens to the feds, unless it’s a drastic situation.” He also provided some advice to Oberndorf’s constituents: “The good people of Virginia Beach should immediately begin a recall process for Mayor Oberndorf,” he said.||Oberndorf finished out her term in office, though O’Reilly can perhaps claim some impact: A petition site secured seven (7) signatures to force her out of office.|
|Dr. Charles Steger||In 2007, Steger, the president of Virginia Tech, allowed the rapper Nas to perform at the university months after a massacre that murdered 32 people on campus. Combined with other offenses, O’Reilly argued, “it is clear Dr. Steger has to go.”||He lasted seven years beyond O’Reilly’s imperative.|
The foregoing raises a question as O’Reilly slogs through bad publicity following a Mother Jones story alleging that he exaggerated his coverage of global conflicts: Do we judge him by our standards or his own? The “O’Reilly Factor” mantra — “[So and So] must go!” — attests to the brilliance of its host as an entertaining broadcaster. By choosing both unworthy and worthy officials for his resignation calls, he keeps viewers interested. Plus, there’s a simplicity in calling for people’s heads — a simplicity that runs counter to the mealy-mouthed and pointedly evenhanded analysis you’ll find in other places.
It’s also a simplicity that did not swamp O’Reilly’s coverage of the recent Brian Williams scandal. After reports surfaced that Williams had embellished stories about his coverage of the Iraq war and other dicey moments, O’Reilly said, “I’ve known Williams a long time. I’m not friends with him. I don’t particularly like his style — it’s not my style. But he’s not a bad man. He’s never done anything I’ve seen underhanded, personally.” In an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show, O’Reilly again tacked away from his judgmental ways: “Anybody who is enjoying the destruction of this man — you got to look at yourself. And there’s a lot of people… happy his career is going down the drain. That disturbs me.” Even though O’Reilly went soft on Williams, he did use the anchor’s embellishments as the jumping-off point for an attack on the media: “All Americans who love their country should think about what has happened to Brian Williams, should think about other news agencies that are distorting the facts. We should all open that proverbial network window and yell out we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore,” said O’Reilly on his Feb. 11 program. Mother Jones cited that segment in seeking to establish O’Reilly’s alleged hypocrisy vis-a-vis his own statements about covering the Falkland Islands war. Those statements post some problems for O’Reilly. As Mother Jones documented, O’Reilly claimed to have reported in “war zone” and “combat” situations in Argentina, even though he never set foot on the islands where hostilities between Argentina and the United Kingdom were actually taking place. Though the host concedes that he didn’t report from the Falklands, he contends that he encountered combat on the streets of Buenos Aires, where angry citizens ended up in violent clashes with security forces following the British war victory. Whereas O’Reilly wrote that “many were killed” in these protests, accounts of the violence in June 1982 don’t corroborate such a contention. That’s a stubborn factual discrepancy that can be wished away only in a high-spin zone. Nothing would be quite as delicious as watching O’Reilly defend his recollection against O’Reilly in an episode of “The O’Reilly Factor.” Surely the Erik Wemple Blog, Mediaite, Politico and many other outlets would write about the proceedings.