Peter Hart, author of "The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel’s Bill O'Reilly"
BuzzFlash.com interview, 11.10.03
This interview originally appeared on BuzzFlash, the pro-democracy news source.
Peter Hart, Advocacy Director for Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), has written a useful quick reference guide that debunks, deflates, and derides Bill O'Reilly. "The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel’s Bill O'Reilly" looks up facts O'Reilly couldn’t be bothered with, uses O'Reilly's own sound bites and transcripts to find out what was really said on The Factor, and even boasts a chapter of O'Reilly vs. O'Reilly -- proving it takes a hypocrite to catch a hypocrite. All Bill O'Reilly has to do is look in the mirror.
Hart understands that less is more. Rather than writing a dense academic treatise, he paints a thorough and insightful picture of The O’Reilly Factor by answering and "unspinning" O'Reilly’s sound bites, one by one, until the tightly wound conservative host is left atop his own heap of lies, distortions, and half-truths. This book is the "talking point" that Bill O'Reilly doesn’t want you to read because it gives you all the information you need to look O'Reilly straight in the eye and tell him to shut up.
Hart is the co-host and producer of FAIR’s syndicated weekly radio show, CounterSpin.
BUZZFLASH: Why did you decide to write your book, "The Oh Really Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel’s Bill O'Reilly?"
HART: FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) started looking at Fox News seriously a few years ago. The idea was to try to poke holes in Fox’s marketing strategy. Fox is obviously a conservative news outlet, and yet they go a long way and put a lot of effort into denying this fact. So we decided to try to confirm that as best you can. And a book on O'Reilly was part of that effort.
O'Reilly is a good company man and he toes the line, telling people he’s not a conservative and his show isn’t conservative. So an analysis of his show was part of that special issue of FAIR’s magazine http://www.fair.org/extra/0108/fox-main.html
We realized that O'Reilly, while he has strong opinions, often tries to use facts to back them up. And we began noticing that there are many instances where the facts just weren’t there. They were either concocted or things were being misrepresented to support O'Reilly’s point. So we thought it might be a good time to investigate that angle -- the accuracy stuff.
O'Reilly considers himself a journalist. He is on a news channel, and by virtue of that, you have to be judged by the standards of journalism. And one of the first rules of journalism is to get the facts right. And so the book is an attempt to catalog the inaccuracies and the distortions that are served up every night on the so-called "No-Spin Zone."
BUZZFLASH: No one brands themselves better than Bill O'Reilly. The message you hear over and over again is that this is the "no-spin zone, you get the facts here." A lot of BuzzFlash readers think that O'Reilly’s show is nothing but spin -- and the soapbox for a right-wing talking point. However O'Reilly goes on the offensive and pre-empts any criticism that he’s a spin doctor through repetition -- reminding people over and over that this is the "no spin zone." For people who are less critical who watch his show, they easily buy into the myth that O'Reilly’s show is a "no spin zone."
HART: I think that’s the marketing strategy, and I think it works with a certain segment of that audience. I talk to people all the time who have bought O'Reilly’s books, who read his columns, listen to his radio show, who watch his television show, and they tell me the same thing over and over again -- that this guy tells it like it is, and he speaks the truth. And I think it goes to show you that if you repeat something often enough and loudly enough, people will buy it. And they’ll buy the idea that this is finally the one place where somebody cuts through all the B.S. and gives people the real deal.
I think that was calculated way beforehand by Fox. I think it plays in perfectly with their strategy, which is kind of a preemptive P.R. strategy where you are attacking your competition, implying that they’re the ones who are biased, in all of your rhetoric and in your slogans. Essentially "fair and balanced" is a slogan because it implies that the other networks aren’t. We report -- you decide. There’s an implication that this is the place where you get that. Whereas over there, on CNN or over there at NPR, you get something entirely different.
So I think it’s classic marketing. These people are very good at the business of television. And they’ve crafted a message that resonates with both the conservative audience and an audience that, I think, leans in that direction.
BUZZFLASH: As part of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, who do you think, based on your research, watches O'Reilly? Is O'Reilly preaching to the choir, as many people say about Rush Limbaugh and some other conservative radio shows? Or does he really reach a sort of swing or independent and undecided voter?
HART: I think the research that they’ve done on it demonstrates that the audience is mostly conservative. This is a point that O'Reilly concedes nowadays, though on other occasions, he has said just the opposite. I think it’s a conservative audience. I also think he does reach, at the same time, an audience which dislikes him quite a bit, and watches the show because it’s entertaining and it gets them riled up. And there’s probably some small independent audience or a libertarian audience. But I think generally the audience, if you had to classify them, would be considered conservative.
There’s a reason that you pitch your programming to an audience that is angry about Jesse Jackson or reparations for slavery, or are still angry about Bill Clinton, or who think -- like O'Reilly does -- that Hillary Clinton is the most dangerous politician in the country. And if you create programming for them, they’re going to watch it. So it makes sense that those are the people who are watching Fox, and who are watching O'Reilly.
BUZZFLASH: Let’s look at the biography of O'Reilly. Here’s a man who was essentially a tabloid journalist while hosting Inside Edition for several years. He's lied and distorted the truth about Inside Edition, as Al Franken clearly demonstrated. Do you think that what he does on Fox News represents his true views? Or does he understand, as you pointed out, that he’s a company man?
HART: I’m not a psychologist, so it would be hard for me to determine what his motivations are. I do believe that, by and large, he believes what he’s doing, and he believes in these ideas. And I think that’s why he’s there. I think that’s why they hired him. I think Fox and Roger Ailes saw a guy who could sort of blend the tabloid elements with the political slant that Fox was looking to cultivate and so O'Reilly would be a perfect choice. He's a guy who seemed to have conservative politics to begin with, and could perform well in front of the camera. Those two things are key to Fox’s success, whether it’s The O'Reilly Factor or Hannity and Colmes, or any of the other programming. They know how to package good television and they know how to please their viewers.
There was a story a couple of months ago about producers at Fox News Channel. And they had a term for this. They said that they were doing certain stories that would appeal to conservatives. They called that "feeding the core" because inside the company, there’s an understanding that your core audience are conservatives and you need to placate them. So I think O'Reilly is really a perfect fit for Fox. He can do the tabloid stuff, he can perform well, and he has the political orientation that they desired. So I think his background is probably what got him the job.
BUZZFLASH: What is the reason that people have bought into this notion of infotainment such as O'Reilly, rather than legitimate news?
HART: I don’t know. It’s always important to remember that, while we talk about a phenomenon on cable news like Bill O'Reilly, his audience is still relatively small. We’re talking about a bit over 3 million, which, I think, is about half of the audience of any of the nightly newscasts on any given night. So while he’s hot and while he’s getting a lot of buzz in the media, I don’t know that it’s a sign that news consumption has changed significantly. I think there are trends you could point to in the other direction. I think you could look at Americans searching the Internet for news from overseas, watching the BBC, listening to the BBC, subscribing to alternative news sites. That gives you an indication that for every new viewer that wants the "pro-wrestling style" of cable news, there’s somebody else who’s looking for something more substantive. So I think it’s dangerous to draw too many conclusions about what this means.
If you want to look at this as a trend, it probably can’t be separated from general trends in our political culture and in our society that his presentation is more entertaining. It is geared toward sound bites -- short bits of information or disinformation. It’s much easier to watch and process. It doesn’t ask a lot of viewers. And I think that is something that you’ll always find an audience for. Unfortunately, in some cases, that audience can seem rather large. But in the end, we have to keep in mind that their stunning success should be put in the context of what the rest of the country is doing. And by and large, people are still tuning into other sources of information that aren't as harsh, I think.
BUZZFLASH: The Chicago Tribune ran a front page story, "Tuning Out" (9/28/03), about the actual number of viewers of cable and network news in the Chicago market. And the Tribune calculated the viewers in the Chicago area who watch O'Reilly, and it was on average 36,250 viewers in a market with 3.4 million television homes. Although O'Reilly is the number one cable news program, the raw numbers show that he’s not as big as you think. I think that’s the power of media and how it can inflate your presence.
HART: Yeah, and O'Reilly is such a self-promoter that you would think the fact that he’s got a nightly show means that there’s this sweeping O'Reilly fever across the country. And it’s just not the case.
I think what makes him interesting and important is the fact that he works in a commercial media environment and in a structure where the drive is to get an audience that advertisers want to reach and sell products to. So other cable news outlets might look at something like The O'Reilly Factor and say that’s the successful formula. Advertisers enjoy it -- let’s do that. So MSNBC would go out and hire an openly bigoted talk radio host such as Michael Savage in the hopes that he’s bringing in a very conservative audience on the weekends. Joe Scarborough's show on MSNBC, for example, is, I think, modeled in some ways on The O'Reilly Factor.
So I think the commercialism of mass media distorts our ability to understand what’s really happening. It distorts the idea of what journalism and really news presentation should be because it’s really at the end of a bottom-line business. And the national cable networks are chasing a small audience and trying to divvy it up amongst themselves.
BUZZFLASH: Al Franken’s book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, really took the wind out of O'Reilly’s sails. A lot of BuzzFlash readers were ecstatic that finally there was information presented in such a way that really showed O'Reilly for who he is. However, O'Reilly seems to be incredibly threatened by anyone who challenges him, even when facts and his own lies are spoon-fed to him, as Franken demonstrated both in his book and at a book expo in Los Angeles. O'Reilly not only continues to lie, but he also goes on the attack.
HART: I think that is addressed in a way in my book. O'Reilly has always been hypersensitive about people who criticize him. And he does this to the point where he distorts the arguments that are made against him in such a way that they bear virtually no resemblance to the original charges.
He was upset when Bill Moyers mentioned him in a speech, so O'Reilly went on a show and said Bill Moyers called me a warmonger because I called for a military response in Afghanistan. Well, Bill Moyers never called him a warmonger, and O'Reilly wasn’t calling for a military response in Afghanistan. O'Reilly wanted to destroy the Afghan infrastructure. He wanted to do the same in Iraq. And he mentioned he wanted to do the same in Libya. His plan in Libya included blowing up its airports and mining its harbors. And he said, speaking of the population of Libya, "Let them eat sand." Now if Bill Moyers were to say that those were the words of a warmonger, he would be entirely correct. But O'Reilly shifts the accusation against himself to make it seem like Moyers objected to retaliating in Afghanistan. This is classic O'Reilly. And I think it’s the same strategy he used against Al Franken. You call Al Franken every name in the book in the hopes that that will discredit him, and you really deflect any attention away from the substance of what Franken is saying.
O'Reilly used a racial slur on the air. He referred to Mexican immigrants as wetbacks. And he went on Tim Russert’s show and in his new book, in fact, and said that it was a guest who offered that term as an explanation of the lingo people use. Now anyone who watched the show or who has access to the transcripts knows that’s completely false. But O'Reilly’s idea of responding to critics is to pile on and hurl insults at them, and to tell people they should shut up, and then go on to distort the facts. It’s no surprise that he hung up on an interview with Terry Gross, and then went on the attack against NPR. This is exactly how the guy operates.
BUZZFLASH: My response to the O'Reilly interview on NPR with Terry Gross was that he just comes off as such a baby. I mean, here’s a man who talks about being tough. "You come onto my show, we don’t tolerate spin," blah blah blah. But O'Reilly’s own behavior shows that the guy can’t handle any tough questions himself. After what happened with Terry Gross on NPR, O'Reilly comes off to me as just a crying, mewling child.
HART: I think that it’s understandable to reach that conclusion. And I think the most distressing part about this was that NPR's ombudsman, the person who is kind of the ref over at NPR, actually sided with O'Reilly on that particular interview. And one of his comments was that Terry Gross’ questions -- and these are his words -- "were pointed from the beginning." Now if asking someone pointed questions is a problem at NPR, then NPR has a huge credibility issue that they need to deal with. I think it’s outrageous to say that a journalist shouldn’t ask pointed questions of a controversial public figure.
BUZZFLASH: When you listen to the interview -- even if you consider the questions pointed -- Terry Gross was still incredibly polite. I don’t recall a single moment where Terry Gross cut O'Reilly off. They spoke for nearly 50 minutes. So when you add up all of those factors, it’s not as if O'Reilly wasn’t given untold time to respond and defend himself. That is not what would have happened if someone was on O'Reilly’s show.
HART: Sure. Her approach, I think, was pretty typical of NPR, in that it was polite and I would say, in some cases, perhaps too polite. O'Reilly has continued to distort a number of things in interviews and on his own show -- for example, about how he handled his interview with Jeremy Glick who was on the show because he opposed the war in Iraq. His father had died on September 11th. And O'Reilly has gone on a number of different interviews and said that Glick was claiming that the Bush Administration had foreknowledge of the September 11th attacks, and that’s why O'Reilly treated Glick so harshly. Now Glick never said that on the O'Reilly Factor. That was not his point. And if anything, if Terry Gross was being pointed, or could have been tough on O'Reilly, she could have caught O'Reilly in those distortions and really followed up with some pointed follow-up questions, but she didn’t.
The fact of the matter is that O'Reilly pulls stunts like this in order to generate more publicity for a book and to generate more publicity for himself. The idea at the end of the day is to convince people that NPR is way to the left and is completely unfair to good folks like me, Bill O'Reilly. That was the message that he delivered after he did the show. He entertained an interview where they talked about cutting off the funding for NPR and PBS. The point is to score some political points at the end of the day. That was the purpose of this controversy, and that’s how O'Reilly has used it.
BUZZFLASH: I do not understand why anyone goes on his show if you hold a different opinion than Bill O'Reilly. To this day, I am baffled why anyone would go on his show.
HART: This is a challenge for anyone who is looking to enter into a hostile interview like O'Reilly. You know you are going to get cut you off and hit with all kinds of accusations. The trick for anyone doing this is to be prepared for exactly that kind of treatment, and make a decision about whether or not you think that is the proper venue to make your case. I think there are plenty of people who have decided: I will write critically about Bill O'Reilly, and if Bill O'Reilly doesn’t like it, he can go ahead and call me names on his show, and hit back. But I’m not going to engage in the argument because I’ve got nothing to argue with him about. I think a number of journalists have taken this position.
At least once a week, O'Reilly claims that someone won’t come on and face the fire, and won’t take the heat from him. I think in some cases, it’s probably a reasonable decision on their part that their piece -- whatever they wrote -- should speak for itself. FAIR, as a media watchdog group, we have always encouraged people to enter into situations where they feel like they can make a point to a broad audience and hopefully deliver that message. So in the case of this book, I’d be happy at any time to go on The O'Reilly Factor and talk to him about it, but I’m not exactly waiting by the phone for invitation.
BUZZFLASH: Do you see any signs that his show is weakening at all? You look at other conservative shows on radio and TV and they sort of come and go -- people get sick of them. Do you foresee that with O'Reilly?
HART: I think it’s hard to guess how long an audience will take an interest in something like this. When FAIR did a book about Rush Limbaugh a few years back, the point of that book was to show that Limbaugh was often inaccurate, often distorted the facts, but was being entertained by the mainstream media as a legitimate commentator -- somebody who was an expert in some of these issues.
It’s hard to imagine now, but shows like Nightline would talk to Limbaugh about environmental issues. The point of FAIR’s book was to make it clear that he was an ideologue and not someone who could be considered particularly reliable. O'Reilly isn’t really in that category. I don’t think the rest of the media take him seriously as a journalist. I think a lot of them think he’s kind of a fad or some sort of novelty act. But that’s not to say that his show’s going to go away anytime soon. As long as it continues to be very profitable either on the radio or on television, he’s probably safe for many years. And I think there’s always going to be an audience who wants to hear the latest about the alleged scandalous behavior of Jesse Jackson, or people who think putting the military at the border with Mexico is going to solve the country’s immigration problem. There will always be an audience that’s receptive to that. And as long as O'Reilly is slamming liberals night after night, he’s probably safe. He’ll probably always have a job at Fox News Channel.
BUZZFLASH: What would you say are the one or two things that are the most important for people to know about O'Reilly after writing this book and doing your research?
HART: I think it’s important to understand that O'Reilly’s confidence can sometimes give you the impression that he’s correct about the issues that he’s talking about. Any time you watch someone silence his debating opponent by telling them to shut up, or tell them I’ve got the facts right here that proves you’re wrong -- I think a lot of people can be persuaded by someone like that. If anything, it goes to show you that the showmanship shouldn’t fool you -- that anyone can listen to a show like this and then do the slightest bit of research, and check out whether or not what he’s saying is true.
A few weeks ago, O'Reilly was angry that the L.A. Times was investigating Arnold Schwarzenegger’s record of sexual misconduct and possibly assault. O'Reilly said that the L.A. Times never sent a team down to Arkansas to investigate Clinton’s problems with women. Well, in fact the L.A. Times was one of the very first media outlets to devote considerable front-page attention to what became known as the Troopergate scandal, which, if you remember, led indirectly to Clinton’s impeachment proceedings. So this wasn’t a small story by any stretch of the imagination. But O'Reilly was so convinced that they hadn’t done that that I think he just doesn’t check. He’s convinced that the L.A. Times is a left-wing newspaper that went soft on the Clintons, and he just says it. And he’s completely wrong. I think his confidence is persuasive. I think it makes people think that yeah, in fact, this guy is telling me the truth, when in fact on many occasions, he’s not.
I think that’s probably the most important lesson to learn is that you can check this stuff. You can look it up. You can do your own research. And you can hold him accountable.
BUZZFLASH: We interviewed Congressman Barney Frank from Massachusetts, and he rhetorically remarked that if Democrats knew a magic bullet to get our message across, don’t you think we would be doing it? Congressman Frank said there’s this perception by a lot of people that the Democrats have been silent and complicit to the Bush agenda which he stated was not true -- that essentially Democrats were doing a lot of good things, it’s just that people weren’t hearing about them. Do you think part of the reason is that the base of the Democratic Party doesn’t have a Bill O'Reilly to consistently communicate and rile them up? What happens is that the volume from conservative media outlets such as Bill O'Reilly essentially dwarfs, mitigates, and distorts issues and victories that are happening on the other side?
HART: There's a structural problem in media itself. And that goes a long way in explaining why progressives don't have a reliable perch in the mainstream media -- progressives certainly don’t have their own national cable channel. And I think there’s an interesting point that an ad executive made, and ironically it was an advertising executive from Fox News. And he explained to Advertising Age magazine a couple of weeks ago that the problem with being associated as liberal is that they wouldn’t be going in a direction that advertisers are really interested in. He was talking about the stories that Al Gore is looking to start a cable channel. And his message is very clear -- that you can't talk about wanting to start a partisan, progressive show because the advertisers will never go for it.
There’s always going to be a problem when you look at the structure of the media -- when the message is something that advertisers are not interested in. There will also always be political pressure from owners, publishers -- people with real power in the media -- who tend to be more conservative politically and probably don’t want to promote a genuine progressive point of view. That’s something that FAIR has documented over 16-some-odd years. And I think that is a major obstacle to progressives ever feeling like they have a voice in the national media debate.
That’s, I think, the number-one challenge for progressives. Bill O'Reilly will deliver a message that conservatives agree with and will tune in to watch, and he will not offend advertising interests. At the end of the day, they don’t care whether or not his facts are right. They want to be sure that his viewers buy their products. And as long as that’s the way the media business works, progressives will have a tough job ahead.
BUZZFLASH: Peter, thank you so much for speaking with us.
HART: Thank you.