On the Brink of a Feud With Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly Backed Down

A new book claims he did so on orders from Roger Ailes. Are conservative critiques of talk radio suppressed?
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Almost no one remembers Bill O'Reilly's searing attack on Rush Limbaugh-style talk radio hosts in 2008. But it happened. "These idiots," the most popular conservative TV personality in America said. "I mean, they're misleading you. They're lying to you." As he explained it, "most talk radio is conservative-dominated ideologues; Kool-Aid drinking idiots." They're rich guys with "big cigars," he continued, causing many to believe he was singling out Limbaugh. "Walk away from these liars, these right-wing liars," he warned. "Walk away from them! They're not looking out for you."

The response was swift.

Talk radio's Mark Levin, a volatile man as prone to sudden, unexpected outbursts of anger as O'Reilly, hit back. "These blowhards," he said. "You get arrogant, stupid people who get paid a lot of money to be on radio and TV to be arrogant and stupid. And one of them ... is on the Fox News Channel, my favorite cable channel. And he has a fledgling radio show that has no ratings, and he'll be off radio soon because he's a failure. It's the non-factor: Bill O'Reilly." He went on to call O'Reilly a "moron, phony journalist" who is "utterly unencumbered with information."

Amazing, right? Even titans of right-wing media believe that other titans right-wing media are disingenuous hucksters! As someone who's been making that same critique since around 2008, when that exchange took place, I can't help but chuckle at all the times I've been denounced by conservative bloggers for pointing out the very truths spoken by O'Reilly and Levin: that high profile conservative entertainers regularly violate the trust of their conservative fans. Limbaugh does, in fact, mislead on a weekly basis. O'Reilly is, in fact, curiously unencumbered by facts on occasions when they get in the way of something that he "knows" to be true.

It's just that conservatives don't usually admit that about their entertainers. It would benefit the rank-and-file to hear about it when someone "on their side" is cynically or carelessly feeding them bad information. But conservatives who know better often stay silent. The truth is willfully suppressed. 

That last bit is the most difficult to prove. Plenty of conservatives admit, off the record, that the right is hurt by the false or misleading information that right-leaning media broadcast every day. Almost all are reluctant to speak up. Some conservative reformers know that their vital ideas won't get a hearing among an already skeptical rank-and-file if they criticize certain right-wing icons, or else doubt that criticizing them is a worthwhile project quite apart from its consequences.

Why waste time on blowhards?

Others would like to speak up, but don't want their careers to suffer, or to wade through a week's worth of vicious emails, attacks from bloggers that border on libel, and other unpleasantness.

Who can blame any of them?

In aggregate, however, their individual decisions ensure that hucksterism goes mostly unchallenged, that the most popular conservative entertainers aren't pressured or shamed into dispensing better information, and that the rank-and-file operates at an ongoing information disadvantage. (For an example of that information disadvantage and its consequences see November 2012.)

What Bill O'Reilly said about conservative talk radio in 2008 was brave, insofar as he was offering a critique he believed to be important and true, even though multiple incentives aligned against him doing so. It would've been big news, and might have had a huge impact, if hours after uttering that critique on his radio show he had said the same thing on his Fox News show, a vastly bigger platform. I'd never given much thought to why the conservative entertainer backed down and aborted his critique, and I'd long since forgotten about the whole intra-conservative spat. But Joe Muto, a former Fox News staffer who has just published a tell-all book, claims he knows the rest of the story. Here's the relevant excerpt, as it's posted over at Salon:

The cigar and private jet stuff was a thinly veiled swipe at Rush Limbaugh, someone O'Reilly has never liked, but also a figure who had a lot of fans at 1211 Sixth Avenue, including Roger Ailes and Sean Hannity. When word filtered to the Second Floor that O'Reilly planned on repeating some of his radio rant on the TV show that night, the order came back quickly: Absolutely not. But O'Reilly put his foot down. Neither Stan Manskoff nor Bill Shine could dissuade him, and it took a phone call from Roger himself to put the matter to rest.

Bill took the call in his office, politely but insistently pleading his case to Ailes, but Roger held firm. Bill reluctantly agreed to toe the party line, excused himself from the call, gently hung up the receiver, then loudly yelled a string of expletives that could be heard all over the seventeenth floor. But after he got it out of his system, he spiked the Limbaugh reference from the TV show.

So there you have it.

If his account is accurate, it's the quintessential illustration of rot at the core of conservative media. O'Reilly, a broadcaster with more clout than any other on-air personality at Fox News, and one of the most prominent conservative pundits in America -- a guy who wrote a book titled Who's Looking out For You? -- thinks, or at least thought, that America's most popular conservative entertainer, Limbaugh, lied to and misled his conservative audience, and that he was doing harm to his listeners and America itself at a moment of crisis. O'Reilly basically said so on the radio. He reportedly wanted to say so on television, too. But Roger Ailes wouldn't let him.

Rather than risk the consequences of disobeying, O'Reilly reportedly censored himself. Perhaps he thought Ailes had the right to determine what airs on his network. Or that the disagreement wasn't worth losing his hefty salary, or his ability to daily broadcast a television show he believes to be valuable. If the anecdote is accurate, it nevertheless stops short of revealing O'Reilly's motive, and that's okay, because I'm not here to insist that this is a demonstration of farsighted prudence, servile cowardice, or something in between. All I'm saying is that conservatives who regard Limbaugh as a destructive force, right up to the most powerful figures in the movement, can always find lots of reasons to back away from criticizing him. And that helps explain why, over the years, Limbaugh has become a less responsible broadcaster, and a bigger liability to conservatives: He's never been reined in by peers, who seldom criticize him in a way ties his intra-conservative prestige to broadcasting defensible content.

Having known several journalists on the left and right who've criticized powerful people "on their own side" without untold millions to fall back on, I'd personally have more respect for O'Reilly if he followed up on his 2008 critique. Lord knows talk radio hasn't changed, and his words, though prompted by a disagreement over the financial crisis, were general. But I fear that no one who shares my instincts on these matters would've made it to a prime time show on Fox. Ailes is a smart man, and presumably a good judge of who won't cross lines in the sand that he draws. So the status quo persists, where the only people willing to tell rank-and-file conservatives the truth about their favorite entertainers are people rank-and-file conservatives don't trust.

Today, O'Reilly is eager to convey this message: There's no feud with Limbaugh. Does he protest too much? Or is he no longer upset by the way talk radio daily abuses the trust of its audience?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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