The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly embarrasses self, colleagues, country in post-debate debacle

Bill O’Reilly. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

The debate-moderating trio of Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace handed their colleague Bill O’Reilly a fine setup last night. In a wild showdown in Detroit, the moderators pressed the four remaining Republican candidates on the budget, anti-terrorism and their records as leaders, among other stuff. To great effect, they deployed graphics to slow down the blustering Donald Trump over key factual issues, including his pledge to curb spending by targeting waste, fraud and abuse.

So O’Reilly had vast pastures in which to roam when he started his post-debate show. Instead, he chose to tread a broadcaster’s cul-de-sac of narcissistic and pointless questioning.

Just after the debate ended, there was O’Reilly, mic in hand, approaching Trump about the night at the podiums. To be precise, the idiocy started at 11:02 p.m.: “I don’t know who this guy — he’s been following me around all day. Now look, we’re standing mano a mano here, you’re not gonna be taller than me,” said O’Reilly alongside Trump. Whatever that was supposed to mean. Lame, vacuous, inside-softball questions ensued — about Mitt Romney’s speech hammering Trump — “You think he’s a phony?” O’Reilly asked — and about Hillary Clinton. All the sort dialogue you’d expect O’Reilly and Trump, who are longtime friends, to enjoy over a pair of vanilla milkshakes.

Fox’s News’s Bill O’Reilly omits vanilla-milkshake disclosure from rant on media, Trump

Presidential candidate Donald Trump and Fox News host Bill O’Reilly had an awkward exchange after the GOP debate March 3. It’s not the first time the two have clashed, but they also seem pretty friendly at times too. (Video: The Washington Post)

Four minutes — that’s as long as O’Reilly could go without making himself the center of the action. At 11:06, he uncorked this self-centered inquiry: “Now, are you getting mad at guys like me when I ask you the negative questions?” A clown show erupted, as Trump accused the host of becoming “very negative” and suggested that he consult his “psychiatrist” to figure out why. Trump then introduced O’Reilly to his wife, Melania, and son Eric. But O’Reilly wouldn’t let go the question of his treatment of Trump. “I want to get back to this. I think I’ve been very fair.” When Trump disagreed, O’Reilly petitioned for an example of his unfairness. Trump declined. “Come on,” lamented O’Reilly.

That’s right — just moments after his network had highlighted a number of important national issues — minus climate change, of course — O’Reilly spotted a new, more pressing matter: himself. Fox News viewers had already seen O’Reilly’s insecurity vis-a-vis Trump in a September interview in which O’Reilly repeatedly wondered if he was being fair.

The rest of Thursday night’s presentation lived down to its initial awfulness. In what sounded more like an expression of hope than analysis, O’Reilly said this in an interview with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): “I’m a little amazed that Donald Trump’s support is so rock-solid at the 35-to-45 [percent] level. This new CNN poll is very high for him. And I don’t think those people are going to give him up no matter what you say, or what Mitt Romney says or what I say — and I’m fair to Trump. They’re not going to give him up.” Rubio disagreed.

Here are the weirdest 45 seconds from Fox News's Republican presidential debate in Detroit on March 3. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Shallow, Trump-centric questions continued into an O’Reilly chat with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who deserves a Fox News medal for sitting patiently through insulting interviews. For example, O’Reilly said, “The Trump phenomenon seems to have changed politics. Would you say it has changed it?” Another: “Do you believe that if Trump is the nominee in Cleveland, he gets his butt kicked by Hillary Clinton?” Another: “How would Hillary Clinton with all the scandal surrounding her . . . why couldn’t Trump convince all these people to go with him and not her?” Another: “Do you think Donald Trump’s an honest man?”

O’Reilly himself gave a forceful answer to that one. “I’ve known him for about 30 years. I think he’s an honest man,” said the host. For whatever reason, Cruz, a tough media critic, did not then ask why on earth Trump’s longtime buddy was sitting there interviewing him about Trump.

Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannit rescue Donald Trump on racism

A decades-long friendship may explain why O’Reilly later covered for Trump over his comeback to Rubio over the size of his hands. Here’s the much-discussed line from Trump, right in the middle of the Detroit debate: “And he referred to my hands — if they are small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee.”

That moment stopped Bernard Goldberg, a longtime Fox News analyst who made this muscular argument to O’Reilly Thursday night: “Donald Trump said something that I can’t say on this channel, what he really meant when he talked about the size of a particular body part, because that would be vulgar. But Donald Trump said it. I can’t say it, but Donald Trump said it and he’s running for president of the United States. And he didn’t only say it on national television. He said it during a presidential debate. Bill, I know you care about kids. . . . Imagine if a family is watching this debate with their 12-year-old daughter, and she said, ‘What did he mean by that about size?’ . . . Is there anything that would embarrass his supporters — mainly his supporters on conservative television and radio who have fallen madly in love with Donald Trump and who slobber over him in just the same way as liberals in the media slobbered over Barack Obama?”

Famous moralizer O’Reilly responded this way: “I see it differently. I didn’t take offense by it,” said the host, who added that Trump was “appealing to regular people” and that it was “done in a jocular way.”

The Erik Wemple Blog has written before about how cable news is a hive of content-distorting conflicts of interest. This O’Reilly-Trump thing, though, is singular. Three decades of ballgames and vanilla milkshakes have turned “The O’Reilly Factor” into a laundry room for Trump. His messes come in, and O’Reilly, OxiClean in hand, cleans them up for him. The entertaining part is the charade in which Trump claims that his pal has gone “negative” on him and O’Reilly insists on his fairness to the real estate mogul: two men, dedicated to hoodwinking their respective audiences.

Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, John Kasich and Ted Cruz feud over rhetoric, elections and immigration at the March 3 debate in Detroit. Here are the key moments. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)