Bill O'Reilly invited me on his Fox News show Wednesday night because he was upset that I called him a "right wing buffoon" in my Huffington Post article about Pete Seeger's appearance on the Colbert Report. If I'd called him a "conservative pundit," I doubt he would have asked me on the O'Reilly Factor.
The reference to O'Reilly in my Huffington Post article was an after-thought. I was praising Stephen Colbert for inviting Seeger on his show and I suggested that Colbert lead a campaign to get Pete nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. I wrote that: "Colbert's show -- including his faux campaign for president, his Super PAC, and his nightly send-up of Bill O'Reilly's right-wing buffoonery -- brilliantly satirizes the absurdities of America's corporate-dominated political culture. By heading a campaign to get Pete Seeger the Nobel Peace Prize, Colbert would actually demonstrate that the forces of social conscience can triumph, against the odds."
Soon after my Huffington Post article appeared online, O'Reilly's producer contacted me to ask if I'd like to appear on the show to discuss the article. Once I got the invitation, I called a number of my friends, all of them media savvy, two of whom had been on O'Reilly's show, to ask for their advice. Some of the advised me to reject Bill's offer. Bill controls the microphones, the camera, and the agenda, interrupts his guests (particularly his occasional liberal guests), and heaps abuse and scorn on them. Others encouraged me to go on the show but advised me not to get distracted by his bullying and to stay "on message," no matter what he said or how often he interrupted me.
I decided to accept Bill's invitation. I thought he might want to discuss my idea about a Nobel Peace Prize for Pete Seeger. I figured Bill would attack Pete for having been a Communist and for his history of left-wing activism, so I came prepared with a list of Pete's many political and cultural accomplishments, as well as the fact that Pete was a World War Two veteran (compared with O'Reilly's lack of military service), had been married to the same woman for 70 years (a true examplar of "family values"), and was single-handedly responsible for cleaning up the Hudson River.
But it was clear from the get-go last night that Bill didn't want to talk about Pete Seeger. He wanted to talk about why I called him a "right-wing buffoon" and paint me as an example of the alleged left-wing bias rampart on America's college campuses today.
I figured that Bill would ask me to explain why I called him a "right-wing buffoon." I had three possible ways to respond.
- One was to say, "Bill, you're doing it right now. You invited me on the show to discuss Pete Seeger and other progressives in my book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, but now you want to talk about YOU. I don't really want to talk about you."
- A second response would have been to give Bill examples of his many over-the-top lies and distortions from a right-wing perspective. I came to the studio in Burbank -- where I was staring at a blank camera, while Bill could see me from his New York studio -- with lots of examples which I could have used. (You can find them on Media Matters for America and other websites). These include (but aren't limited to) his lies about Obama's health care plan, the stimulus package, ACORN and Shirley Sherrod. But I decided not to go there, because then we'd be talking about HIM.
- So instead I tried to turn the tables and told Bill that a "buffoon is in the eye of the beholder," and that many people who are outside the mainstream, who challenge the status quo, are called "buffoons." Many of the people in my book were called similar names -- as well as utopians, impractical dreamers, unAmericans, subversives, and socialists -- when they called for women's right to vote, a minimum wage, and Social Security. I told Bill that he should take it as a compliment to be in that company!
I have to give Bill credit. Although he smugly patronized me by calling me "Doc," insulted my intellectual integrity, and disparaged the Huffington Post, he mentioned my book -- and showed a copy of its cover -- several times, and even called me an "honest guy." Several times, when I kept talking even though he was trying to interrupt me, he backed off and let me finish. He clearly had the upper hand in controlling the "debate," but he let me have my say.
More interesting than my back-and-forth with Bill was the immediate reaction to my appearance on his show.
Within minutes of going off the air on O'Reilly I started getting emails from Bill's fans, most of them saying exactly the same thing in exactly the same words. This suggests that this immediate flurry of emails -- most of whom from people who didn't include their names -- was somehow orchestrated. It is hard to believe that it could have been random. Most of them accused me of being a typical left-wing college professor poisoning the minds of the next generation, and most of them spewed with vitriol and hatred. Here's an example:
You FUCKING CLUELESS ASSHOLE.......being a typical liberal you couldn't give O'Reilly an example of your propaganda bullshit. I get so sick of pieces of shit like you and your ilk. It is shame you weren't at the midnight showing of Batman in Aurora. It's stunning how your kind loves to suck Obamao's dick (does his semen taste good? The earthquake that's gonna cause california to fall into the ocean can't come soon enough. But in the meantime more and more of cali cities are gonna file bankruptcy. How are those socialist programs working out? I'm no republican(libertarian) but I get sick of them not using your boy's, Saul Alinsky, tactics. How's it feel? See you in hell asshole!
This is the kind of person who watches O'Reilly, listens to Limbaugh, and supports the Tea Party. I didn't go on the O'Reilly Factor thinking that I'd persuade most of Bill's loyal viewers, like the nut-case who wrote that email, about the importance of Jane Addams, Martin Luther King, Saul Alinsky, Ella Baker, Betty Friedan, and Pete Seeger.
But I was pleased to also get a handful of emails from O'Reilly watchers who said they'd buy the book. In fact, my publisher informed me that within minutes of my appearance on the show, sales of the book jumped dramatically, based on its ranking on Amazon.com. So, thanks, Bill!!
Also, some other more mainstream media outlets saw the show and asked to interview me about the book.
Was it worth spending five minutes on the O'Reilly Factor, taking Bill's abuse, and having to read the outpouring of hate email from the kind of deranged people who represent the small right-wing fringe of American politics?
I'm not sure. Except that my 15-year old daughter told me that she was proud of me. That made it worth it.
Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His latest book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, was recently published by Nation Books.