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.

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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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