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The smear hunter

Back when he introduced his Fox News Channel program, Bill O’Reilly waged a charm offensive to woo reporters. Today, the lanky host claims he’s shunning the print press, while presenting himself in a new if miscast role — that of a victim.

No one in the world of cable talk wields a bigger stick than O’Reilly, and few figures are more polarizing. Yet while he strikes a different pose from Fox colleague Sean Hannity by resisting an ideological label in his “no-spin zone,” he also stands apart by virtue of a strange self-absorption, one that increasingly sees “smear merchants” and enemies doing “evil” around every corner.

Even allowing for O’Reilly’s accomplishments — having built an empire from scratch, on a network initially given little chance of succeeding against MSNBC — it’s difficult to escape this angrier, more preoccupied on-air drift that’s been more apparent since a sexual-harassment lawsuit against him, subsequently settled, made him fodder for latenight comics last year.

In the time since, he has revealed himself as a heavyweight rendered vulnerable by a classic glass jaw, lashing out — sometimes wildly and with marginal provocation — at those he views as having wronged him.

O’Reilly’s intense reaction to criticism has gone beyond righteous indignation and, if he is to be believed, threatens to truncate his TV career. Having once spoken of political ambitions, he seems to have given up that idea and speaks of a further retreat from the public eye.

He recently told Newsday that he might retire when his contract expires in a couple of years, and that the assaults on him are “tremendously wearing and debilitating.” The host also referenced Howard Cosell’s bitterness at the end of his career in saying, “I’m not going to let them get me.”

While looking inward is hardly new for talk hosts, few major gabbers on the left or right spend as much time firing back at those who badmouth them as O’Reilly does.

“If you listened to him talk about us, you’d think that we were just calling him names,” says Paul Waldman, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a left-wing Web site devoted to flagging bias and inaccuracies that monitors O’Reilly’s show. “He’s getting increasingly hysterical on what he perceives as attacks on him.”

O’Reilly, 56, also uses his media pulpit to single out those who cross him — exposing them to the same kind of abuse and threats from faceless nut cases that plague him and anyone else in the public square.

Antagonizing O’Reilly, in fact, has become an instant ticket to national attention. The latest additions are Denver Post columnist Cindy Rodriguez and the Dallas Morning News’ Macarena Hernandez, who claimed O’Reilly’s rhetoric on closing the U.S. border was indicative of the mind-set that led to the murder of Mexican immigrants.

O’Reilly’s response: An on-air broadside against Hernandez, coupled with a plea to boycott the Dallas Morning News.

I actually debated writing this column — not due to fear of retaliation, but because baiting O’Reilly has become such a transparent ploy, a front-of-the-line pass to the most chic media Web sites.

No one has exploited this strategy better than comic-turned-radio host Al Franken, whose taunts triggered a misguided Fox lawsuit that catapulted his book, “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right,” onto the bestseller rolls.

On the air, O’Reilly has argued that he cannot let the attacks against him go unchallenged. By letting critics get under his skin, however, he empowers them. Last week, he devoted two segments to “smear sites,” then rattled off what sounded like an enemies list of liberal columnists that, he said, use the Web sites as a resource.

“He probably does drive traffic to our site and give us more attention than we might have otherwise,” concedes Media Matters’ Waldman.

From my encounters with O’Reilly when he launched his program, I couldn’t help but admire his marketing savvy and pluck. Genial in person in a way that contrasted with his combative on-air persona, his campaigning on the show’s behalf included sending along occasional notes and a copy of his novel, “Those Who Trespass.”

In the interest of full disclosure, we also had a fleeting run-in in 2000, when I appeared on his show. Producers rushed me on to discuss “breaking news” about Rudy Giuliani’s then-wife Donna Hanover filing for divorce, maintaining that as a reporter I possessed more credibility than O’Reilly’s next guest — a former porn star lobbying the adult-film industry for medical benefits.

At first bemused, then angered by the fact he had switched topics (I was there to discuss TV, and New York City politics wasn’t exactly my beat), I left the booker a nasty message and wrote about what happened. O’Reilly dismissed the complaint as “ridiculous” on air.

Back then, being a guest on what he likes to call “The Factor” was tantamount to entering the witness-protection program, but his popularity has since mushroomed to nearly 3 million viewers a night — success that has rendered him a ripe target for those with axes to grind. As the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you.

O’Reilly declined an interview request, having stated on his Oct. 25 radio program that he has sworn off dealing with newspapers. “I’m not going to talk to the newspapers anymore, ’cause I don’t get a fair shake from them,” he said.

While O’Reilly’s premature retirement would hardly be a tragedy, it’s a good bet that both his fans and News Corp. accountants would like him to continue, angrily or otherwise. And strictly as a practical matter, his radio and TV programs are considerably less entertaining when he contorts the discussion away from political topics and into this “Woe is me” mode.

Like a lot of fighters, O’Reilly seems to prefer working out with a live opponent, and there are doubtless elements of theatricality, showmanship and populist crusading in selecting his foes. Nor have recent excesses as yet diminished the bottom line, with “The Factor’s” ratings remaining cable’s standard-setter.

Still, O’Reilly appears to have gone from using villains as motivation to seeing them everywhere — unable to distinguish legitimate critics from the “assassins,” “weasels” and “Kool-Aid drinkers” he regularly derides.

So wherever his act ends and the reality begins, Fox News’ golden boy needs to get a grip. Because at this point, he’s dangerously close to punching himself silly.

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