NBC News
updated 12/9/2003 4:01:30 PM ET 2003-12-09T21:01:30

He is a one-man media machine with attitude. “The O’Reilly Factor,” his nightly offering on the Fox News Channel, is at the top of the heap in cable news, drawing an audience of some three million. Fans can also catch him on the radio, read him on the Web and in a weekly newspaper column. Recently, NBC’s Stone Phillips walked across the street to Fox News headquarters in Manhattan and sat down with Bill O’Reilly for what turned out to be a lively and candid interview. They talked about just how big a factor O’Reilly really is and how big a target he’s become.

Stone Phillips: “Fame usually comes with a price. What’s it been for you?”

Bill O’Reilly: “Well, lots of people want to hurt me.”

Phillips: “Seriously.”

O’Reilly: “Oh, you bet. They wanna hurt me, and they wanna destroy me in any way they can. That’s the price you pay for being a big mouth.”

Phillips: “But you’re talking about physically hurting you.”

O’Reilly: “Physically. And defamation. Character assassination. All kinds of stuff.”

Phillips: “How do you live with that?”

O’Reilly: “Gotta be cautious. You gotta be cautious, and you have to be— aggressive in defending yourself.”

Phillips: “Do you have body guards?”

O’Reilly: “Yeah, I have body guards.”

Phillips: “Around the clock?”

O’Reilly: “Well, we got ‘em when we need ‘em. I didn’t know going in, that I would be this vilified in some circles. I never realized that. I guess I was a dope. I should have. But, you pay a price for— if you want power in this country, you’re gonna get it. They’re gonna try to destroy you.”

Whether it’s on television or in print, over the Internet or on radio, Bill O’Reilly’s in his comfort zone when he’s on the attack. Still, we wondered if there might be a sensitive side to him, one that’s hidden from public view.

O’Reilly: “I’ll tell you what. I’m pretty much the way I am on the air, off the air, too. And— which is a tragedy for me. And I admit it.”

Phillips: “But something must touch you. Something must be able to reach you at that level. What —”

O’Reilly: “Who are you, Barbara Walters? Is this Barbara Walters? How did Barbara Walters get on ‘Dateline’? I—”

Phillips: “— what touches your heart, Bill?”

O’Reilly: “I like people who are genuine. I like people who are funny. I like people who are contributing to society. But I don’t I wear my emotions on my sleeve. All right? I mean, I don’t do that. I am the quintessential Irish warrior.”

Phillips: “A crusader.”

O’Reilly: “I am. I’m a maverick. I’m a mercenary. I work for money. But I have always, from the time I’m two years old, said, ‘If that’s not fair— if somebody’s getting hosed, I’m gonna try to help that person. I’m gonna try to solve that problem.’”

With his newest book, O’Reilly says he hopes to help his readers avoid problems. A self-help book? Well, there’s plenty of red meat for the faithful, but there’s also a heavy dose of homespun advice on everything from relationships to parenting to diet.

O’Reilly: “The book is called, ‘Who’s Looking Out For You,’ as you know. All right? And you gotta look out for yourself, is one of the main themes of the book. And if you’re gonna abuse any part of yourself, whether it’s physical or mental or emotional, I’m gonna tell you, try not to do that. ‘Cuz I want your life to be good. This book is about— not about me, it’s about you.”

Phillips: “You know, it’s pretty clear who you think is not looking out for the average guy.”

O’Reilly: [Laughter] “I think that’s pretty clear.”

Phillips: “Federal government. Big media.”

O’Reilly: “You bet.”

Phillips: “Hollywood. Big business.”

O’Reilly: “Awful.”

Phillips: “In some cases, not even a guy’s family.”

O’Reilly: “That’s right.”

Phillips: “It’s a pretty grim picture.”

O’Reilly: “It’s grim, but life is hard. People are flawed. We live in a very competitive, capitalistic system here. And people wanna exploit people. They want money. They want power. They want sex. And they’ll exploit you to get it. So, you have to be strong and smart enough to prevent being exploited. And that’s why I wrote the book. To give you some signs, tips, little road map. A road map.”

Choose your friends wisely. And know your enemies. O’Reilly writes, “It is amazing to me that many of us just cannot tell the good people from the bad people these days.”

Phillips: “So how do you do it? How do you tell the good people from the bad people?”

O’Reilly: “Well, instinctively, I have that in me. I’ve always had that gene, that I knew phonies and charlatans right off the bat.”

Phillips: “And for those of us who don’t have that gene?”

O’Reilly: “You have to work at it. Just like you would work at building up your body, you have to build up your perception ability.”

Phillips: “So, what’s your advice? Good people, bad people, how do you know?”

O’Reilly: “All right. There’s no 100 percent sure way. But always watch how that person deals with people other than you. That’s number one. Because chances are, when you’re dealing with a person, they’re gonna tell you what you wanna hear. That’s the way Americans operate.”

And how Americans operate at home concerns O’Reilly, too. At age 54, he’s married with two young children and has his own ideas on how to raise them.

Phillips: “Bill O’Reilly’s Ten Commandments for Effective Parenting.

O’Reilly: “Yeah.”

Phillips: “You know, we’ve already got ten of these from Moses.”

Phillips: “We need 10 more from Bill O’Reilly?”

O’Reilly: “Well, I’m just hoping that Bill O’Reilly’s Ten Commandments of Effective Parenting aren’t ruled un-Constitutional. All right? Because the secularists, the people who don’t want any mention of God or spirituality, I mean, they don’t like this Ten Commandments deal.”

Phillips: “Ten Commandments. Why call them the Ten Commandments?”

O’Reilly: “I like the Ten Commandments. They’re pretty good, aren’t they?”

O’Reilly: “Do I go by them? I try, but I’m a sinner, like everybody else. But why do we, why are we bashing the Ten Commandments?”

Phillips: “I’m not bashing them. I mean, Moses, you know, had it on pretty good authority, for his 10.”

O’Reilly: “Yeah.”

Phillips: “Where do yours come from?”

O’Reilly: “These are just tips to help children have a happy life.”

Phillips: “Let’s talk about them. A parent who’s looking out for you will make time for you, if he or she possibly can.”

O’Reilly: “Yeah.”

Phillips: “Hint. Serial golfing is no excuse.”

O’Reilly: “Right. So, if you’re gonna have the kids, pay attention to them.”

Phillips: “All punishments will fit the crime.”

O’Reilly: “Yeah.”

Phillips: “Discipline is essential, but no parent should inflict frequent physical or mental pain on a child.”

O’Reilly: “That’s right. Because if you do that, the kid’s gonna be a maniac. You know, they don’t understand why you’re beating the hell out of ‘em. I got hit when I was a kid. And it wasn’t good. It wasn’t good.”

Phillips: “What effect do you think it had on you?”

O’Reilly: “Well, it made me a little bit distant from my parents. You know. I mean, that’s for sure. I was more distant from them, than I would have been if I weren’t hit.”

Phillips: “You eventually kind of had it out with your Dad.”

O’Reilly: “I had it out with him.”

Phillips: “A mini-brawl, you call it.”

O’Reilly: “You bet. I had it out with him, and I’m glad I did. You know? I mean, enough’s enough. I loved my father, I respected him. He tried to do the best he could. But he just didn’t understand how to raise children. That’s why I wrote these Ten Commandments for Raising Kids. My father had no clue about how to raise kids. None. Because his father had none. You see. And parents have gotta figure it out, that you have an obligation to raise the child in the best way possible.

Doctor Spock, he is not. And O’Reilly scoffed at our suggestion that he seemed to be venturing on to another doctor’s turf.

O’Reilly: “Is it a self-help touchy-feely Dr. Phil to me, no. It’s in out.”

Whether it becomes a best seller remains to be seen. But for the moment, it’s satirist Al Franken’s book that’s at the top of the best seller list. It’s called ‘Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.”

Phillips: “Your picture’s on the cover of two books this fall.”

O’Reilly: “Yeah.”

Phillips: “Yours and Franken’s.”

Phillips: “He says you were furious when you saw...”

O’Reilly: “Oh, absolutely.”

Phillips: “Saw the book cover.”

O’Reilly: “Absolutely.”

Phillips: “And that you kind of lit into his publicist.”

O’Reilly: “Absolutely furious. There isn’t a human being on earth with any dignity who would think that was a positive thing in any area. Look, character assassins are a dime a dozen in this country, OK? This is character assassination. Not only on me but on a lot of other famous people. Americans don’t like that.”

O’Reilly may not be buying Franken’s book, but many Americans are. It includes a chapter which pillories the Fox News Star, part of what Franken says is his effort to set the record straight. The battle didn’t stop there. Lawyers for Fox News went to court, trying to stop Franken from using O’Reilly’s photo and the words “Fair and Balanced,” a Fox News trademark on the cover of his book. They argued that the public might get confused.

Phillips: “Do you think that anybody who saw your picture on that book, with that title, could possibly think that you were endorsing that book?”

O’Reilly: “It doesn’t matter to me what they thought.”

Phillips: “But that’s what the lawsuit was about.”

O’Reilly: “The lawsuit has nothing to do with me. I would have —”

Phillips: “You’re you’re cited in the lawsuit repeatedly.”

O’Reilly: “They can cite whatever they want. I didn’t write the brief.”

Phillips: “Were you in favor of the lawsuit?”

O’Reilly: “I was in favor of holding him accountable. If I had been in charge of the lawsuit, I probably would have gone the defamation route. Now, I know I would have lost, because I’m a famous guy. And famous people in America have no protection under the law.”

Phillips: “Well, the standard is, is he lying about you?”

O’Reilly: “Of course he is. It’s absurd. It’s ridiculous. He—”

Phillips: “What has he said that’s inaccurate?”

O’Reilly: “Well, I’m not gonna go over that. I’m not gonna— I mean, all I can tell you is that I don’t lie. Haven’t lied about anything. He says I lie. That’s not true.”

A judge dismissed the Fox News lawsuit. And thanks in part to Franken’s book, O’Reilly is in a running battle with his critics. One favorite target is his personal history and whether he has sought common man credibility by claiming a more modest upbringing than he actually had. O’Reilly and his detractors have even skirmished over which Long Island town he called home.

Phillips: “Is it Levittown, is it Westbury?”

O’Reilly: “I was raised in a section of Levittown, OK?”

Phillips: “The house you grew up in is not in Westbury?”

O’Reilly: “It’s in a section of Levittown, which used to be called Westbury. It’s now called Salisbury.”

Phillips: “Levittown Post Office is that where you got your mail?”

O’Reilly: “No. It’s a Westbury post office.”

Phillips: “Westbury post office.”

O’Reilly: “The Westbury section of Levittown, OK? If you say you lived in Queens, somebody said, ‘No, you live in Jackson Heights.’ You say, ‘No, look, it’s all Queens, right?’ It’s all Levittown. It was built in one big tract, OK? And that is what I told everybody to get across that I had a very lower, middle class upbringing.”

Phillips: “So you haven’t tried to kind of characterize your background as more hardscrabble than it was.”

O’Reilly: “I was brought up in a two-bedroom, one bath house. How absurd is this? How ridiculous is this?”

In O’Reilly’s view, the location of the Levitt-built house he grew up in is not what’s really important. What matters is his sensibility about class and power. In the struggle between the haves and have nots, there is little question where O’Reilly places himself. And yet, a recent survey suggests he has climbed pretty far up the ladder of the well-known and influential.

Phillips: “This year you were named the second most powerful person in TV news.”

O’Reilly: “Yeah. Next to Neil Shapiro, your boss.”

Phillips: “You’re ahead of your boss, Roger Ailes, at Fox.

O’Reilly: “Not in his mind, I’m not.”

Phillips: “Well, in the survey you were. You’re ahead of the presidents of ABC and CBS News. Are you concerned that somebody could read that, see that and say, ‘Bill O’Reilly— big media.’”

O’Reilly: “I am big media. I’m a big shot. I got 400 radio stations. Most powerful prime time news program in the country, perhaps the world because we’re worldwide.”

Phillips: “Syndicated columnist.”

O’Reilly: “Syndicated columnist.”

Phillips: “Best-selling author. And yet you play against the big media.”

O’Reilly: “Well, I don’t play against it. I mean, I’m not affected by all of this.”

Phillips: “With all of these things and you’re still an outsider?”

O’Reilly: “In my own mind I am.”

Phillips: “Success is not going to change Bill O’Reilly.”

O’Reilly: “Well, look. Everybody changes. Nobody stays the same. But I’m not gonna go Hollywood, and do stupid stuff. I mean, you know. It’s not gonna happen.”

Phillips: “Your success is without question. Are you happy?”

O’Reilly: “I’m a happy guy in the sense that I am satisfied that I’m doing what I should be doing in life, but I’m not Donald O’Connor. You know, clicking my heels and doing tap dances because I have a mission. I have a mission here. You know, I have to do stuff. So I’m preoccupied a lot of times with that mission rather than going home and counting my money or something like that, you know? So I always tell people, look, happiness in life is defined by if you’re using your life, the one life you have, sorry, Shirley McClaine, for good. For good. If you’re using— if you’re doing good things then that’s the most you can hope for. So be happy with that.”

Phillips: “What’s next for you?”

O’Reilly: “Death, I think. Death is pretty much next, right? Look, I’m gonna continue to do news analysis until I die. That’s it. That’s what I’m gonna do. And—”

Phillips: “Is it Fox forever?”

O’Reilly: “It’s Fox unless they misbehave. Do something. Fox has been so good. I mean, it’s like I worked with you at ABC and I liked it over there. I liked it. But it was very corporate. Here, it’s more the Wild West. I love the Wild West. I should have been in the Wild West. And let me tell you something, if the Wild West, if it were me and the guy who wrote that book, there’d only be one of us standing right now.”

Bill O’Reilly’s new book, “Who’s Looking Out For You?” hits bookstores this week.

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