O’Reilly Factors into Alumni Weekend
Fox News prodigal on Obama, the media, and avoiding boredom
Bill O’Reilly isn’t usually on the receiving end of an interview. But there he was on Friday evening, lounging in a third-floor room of the George Sherman Union fielding questions minutes before taking the stage for what promised to be a raucous night before an overflow crowd at the start of Alumni Weekend.
O’Reilly (COM’75) called journalists over individually, like a doctor summoning patients into a makeshift office. Compared with his sharp, confrontational television tone, his manner was avuncular.
The star of Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor remembers fondly his days at Boston University. A former Daily Free Press columnist, O’Reilly filed stories that ranged from campus issues to Boston’s school desegregation to an interview with stripper Fanne Foxe, the “Argentine Firecracker,” who was involved in a notorious 1974 scandal with Congressman Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.).
Working his way from local Boston stations to ABC and CBS, O’Reilly launched his Fox News show, whose weeknight slot draws six million viewers and has been the most watched cable news program for nine years. It also has become a symbol to many: O’Reilly as the angry white man, O’Reilly as the inflammatory bloviator, or O’Reilly as the truth-teller, O’Reilly willing to buck the liberal media.
The blue-eyed Irish-American says he’s always been a maverick. “When you’re an outsider, you have a more skeptical view,” he says. “And you can uncover things more readily than people who kind of buy the prevailing wisdom.”
As O’Reilly tells it in his 2009 autobiography, A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity, he set himself apart from the lifestyle and politics that permeated BU in his student days. But he says he never had a problem with BU’s more liberal ideology.
“It’s not like Harvard,” he says, where he earned a master’s degree in public administration. “There, liberalism is in the fabric of the university. Here it’s more of a lifestyle than an ingrained tradition.”
He offers a simple explanation for his success: “People who like me know that when they turn on the television set, I’m going to speak the truth as I see it. I’m not going to play games with them. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. And they respect it. Americans like straight talk.”
And he has a simple characterization for those who don’t like or respect his show: “People who don’t like me are basically ideologues who feel threatened by an opinion other than their own. They don’t really bother me very much unless they start to do personal attacks and stuff like that.”
As to the recent White House decision to boycott Fox News, O’Reilly says that he couldn’t care less, although it’s been great for ratings. “I’m pretty much done with it,” he says. “I want to move ahead to other things. I don’t think it’s doing the country any good now.”
Speaking of moving ahead, it’s time to face the big crowd downstairs.
A standing-room-only crowd in Metcalf Hall greets O’Reilly as he takes the stage with Bill Wheatley, former executive vice president of NBC News. The two, both former College of Communication Distinguished Alumni Award winners, face the crowd, a modest bouquet on the table between them.
Alumni and students clutch glasses of wine or beer bottles, waiting for the discussion, A Bold Fresh Look at the Future of News, to begin.
Wheatley (COM’70) tosses O’Reilly a couple of softball questions before delving into an analysis of his show.
O’Reilly refers to himself a traditionalist, not a conservative. The difference, he says, is that he does not push an ideology or try to persuade listeners. He insists that his goal is to stimulate thought.
“My positions are basically born out of problem solving,” he says. “I want these very difficult problems to be solved. I don’t care if solutions are coming from the left or the right.”
O’Reilly says that mainstream Americans are rejecting traditional nightly news programs and selecting ones like his because “they want to be stimulated. They already know the news; they want to know what you think about it.”
Wheatley tries to pin down Fox as a conservative news station, but O’Reilly turns the debate. Fox is conservative only when compared to other new channels, he argues, but concedes it does tend to have more conservative guests.
“On my show, I try very hard to have just as many liberal voices as conservative voices,” he says. His opinions are based on facts, dug up by his team of researchers, “which is why I win 95 percent of my debates.” He looks around as laughter breaks out. “I don’t think anybody would ever dispute that. That’s why a lot of people don’t want to come up against me.”
Throughout, he maintains a straight face, a wry smile surfacing now and then as Wheatley throws a range of topics his way.
He says the American economy will rebound, yet he doesn’t think the government will level the playing field on Wall Street. “I felt that the Bush administration totally ignored overseeing Wall Street,” he says.
As to the government stepping in to bail out the journalism industry, O’Reilly is unequivocal: “I don’t want the government anywhere near the journalism community. The reason the Boston Globe is losing millions of dollars is because it’s boring.”
Thunderous applause erupts. O’Reilly is hitting his stride.
“The reason traditional nightly news stations are failing is because they’re boring,” he continues. “When you’re snooty and boring, you’re not going to get dates.
“I give viewers something they don’t get anywhere else. And I’m not boring.” He roars the last sentence. The audience loves it, laughing and clapping. The news performer has captivated his crowd, and doesn’t let up.
Once upon a time, newscasters could be boring and succeed, O’Reilly goes on. CNN anchor Campbell Brown is still following that mold; fair and smart, but ultimately — yes, boring.
Not The O’Reilly Factor. “I drive that show,” he says. “If I have a guest that’s boring, I take it over. I don’t let them say a thing.”
Again, the crowd erupts in approval. And when Wheatley raises Fox’s adversarial relationship with the White House, O’Reilly gets back to it: “Obama’s fighting harder against Fox than he is against the Taliban,” he quips, drawing roars of laughter. “If he put his energies into Afghanistan, maybe we’d get someplace. But he’s fighting us. We’re looking up waiting for the next drone missile to come down.”
Wheatley then moves on to written questions presubmitted by the audience. O’Reilly dodges some, answers others.
Then he focuses on students, who constitute about half of the supportive crowd.
This rich and powerful alum ends with some advice: figure out who you are, figure out what you would like to do, then make a living doing it.
“Don’t let anybody tell you, ‘You should do this; you should do that,’” he says. “That’s the key to your life. And finding people that you can trust. That’s really hard.”
Before O’Reilly reaches the door after bounding offstage, a swarm of students surrounds him for autographs.
Leslie Friday can be reached at email@example.com Comments