With allegations of embellishment or outright lies about his work as a journalist falling out of the sky like acid rain, countless talking heads have called into question the character of iconic cable network news anchor Bill O’Reilly.
I don’t need to take their word for it: I am the author of The Man Who Would Not Shut Up: The Rise of Bill O’Reilly.
While it was an “unauthorized biography,” he did give me 29 interviews. As a Long Island boy, the dean of Fox News screaming had grown up reading my columns in Newsday, so he seemed thrilled to have the personal attention of his local TV critic for the 30-minute-a-week sessions over a two-year period, undisturbed by the cyclone fence and storm windows ads, the other staples of Newsday’s contribution to western civilization.
Among the laurels he handed out to himself in singing the praises of his 25-year apprenticeship as a TV newsman—rising from local TV beat reporter in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton market in 1970 to the top Fox News in 1996—is that nobody could tell him what to say or write.
Generally speaking, the word was O’Reilly liked the book, especially the parts where I praised him. The one part he didn’t like was the part about his phone sex problem.
In the book, I recounted certain allegations of sexual harassment (offensive phone calls to a female coworker in 2004), and he was understandably embarrassed by her lawsuit. It was the kind of story he would have covered on his show with glee if he weren’t a principal part of it. The news went viral.
It turned out O’Reilly was hypersensitive about the subject. In his opinion, sex problems did not have a place in exhaustively researched biographies. I disagreed. Omitting it would be like not mentioning Monica in a definitive biography of Bill Clinton or omitting Watergate from a book about Nixon.
To his credit, O’Reilly had second thoughts. “Look, Marv,” he told me in a phone call back when he was still talking to me, “I realize as a journalist you have to deal with the subject.” He even gave me advice on how it should be handled. “Three sentences,” he said, orally writing them for me. “Sentence one: O’Reilly had a problem. Sentence two: O’Reilly dealt with the problem. Sentence three: It’s history.”
The irony: It didn’t seem to matter to O’Reilly that my account, based on solid reporting, was not only fair and balanced, but also concluded he was being blackmailed. All that cut no ice with him, from all reports.
He was so eager to flush the incident down the memory hole that he paid off the plaintiff. Keith Olbermann reported that O’ Reilly paid ten million dollars to make it disappear. “And he didn’t even get a kiss,” Olbermann said on MSNBC’s “Countdown,” which covered O’Reilly like the morning dew in those days.
Another thing I never shared with my readers: the aftermath of my relationship with the modern-day Wizard of Ooze. Not only did O’Reilly turn on me, but he put the Big Freeze on the book despite its critical success. He had been in the habit of dropping into our interviews that a mention on “The Factor” would guarantee instant bestseller-dom.
In the event, a newly-aggrieved O’Reilly vowed not a word would be said about the book, despite the chance to let his viewers know all about the 25 years before he became such an unimpeachable source of information and enlightenment.
He kept his word. I will give him credit for that.
As if that wasn’t enough of a helping hand to his old admired local TV critic, not only was the book officially killed elsewhere in the Murdoch world, as Liz Smith told me about why she couldn’t mention the book in her column, but he spread the word to his friends on right-wing talk radio that Kitman was persona non grata on the guest list.
Up until this moment, integrity is what O’Reilly is purportedly all about—at least according to him. “If you couldn’t play by those rules as a newsman,” he argued, “then you should be doing Entertainment Tonight.” How could he live with himself?
As one of his bosses at Fox News later told me, “Bill has two sets of principles. One for himself, one for others.” I had committed the cardinal sin of practicing what O’Reilly preached.
Marvin Kitman was the TV/ media critic at Newsday from 1969 to 2005. He is the author of nine books about American icons, including O’Reilly and George Washington. (“The Making of the Prefident 1789” and “George Washington’s Expense Account”). He writes a non-blog at marvinkitman.com.