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Is Bill O’Reilly More Gun-Shy About Hostile Guests?

On March 17, something happened on “The O’Reilly Factor” that has become more unusual: Bill O’Reilly hosted former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, who spent several minutes vehemently disagreeing with him.

Once, that wouldn’t have been cause for mention. The Fox News Channel host has always mixed it up with guests, usually, like Frank, from the liberal side of the political aisle. Yet since he was accused of inflating his war-reporting credentials, the sight of such naysayers within the host’s “no-spin zone” has seemingly grown more rare.

Fox News may be privately celebrating that it’s weathered the allegations against O’Reilly, whose program has marched on without a hitch. The host himself has been vigorous not only in defending himself (despite a few clarifications) but also eager to call out his critics, such as retaliatory broadsides celebrating the collapse of MSNBC. He has also derived satisfaction from touting his ratings success. “I got even more viewers” after the controversy, O’Reilly told David Letterman during an appearance on Tuesday, part of the promotion for the new National Geographic Channel movie based on his book, “Killing Jesus.”

Still, watching for the last few weeks, there has appeared to be a subtle change in the extent to which “The O’Reilly Factor” has curtailed outside voices and potentially confrontational interviews, relying more heavily on Fox News contributors as guests.

Whether this has been a conscious decision or byproduct of the questions about his anecdotes from his reporting days is difficult to say. In addition to the Frank interview, “The Factor” has featured a smattering of Democratic strategists and a representative from a liberal think tank. (A Fox News spokeswoman didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

For the most part, though, O’Reilly’s guest roster has felt particularly tilted toward those on the Fox payroll. And while that includes names like Juan Williams and Kirsten Powers, who often express polite disagreements with the host — and O’Reilly will challenge conservatives, as he did Wednesday with Andrea Tantaros on Fox News’ “Outnumbered” — the list is skewed toward the likes of Charles Krauthammer, Bernard Goldberg, Dennis Miller and other Fox regulars apt to echo what O’Reilly says.

Whatever the motivation, cutting back on dissenting points of view could suggest tacit concerns that O’Reilly’s form of verbal sparring is more vulnerable to jabs from someone who, when pressed, might blurt out something like “That’s about as accurate as your ‘war zone’ reports from the Falklands.”

Both MSNBC and Fox News tip the scales toward those who fall within their ideological wheelhouses. Yet one appeal of “The Factor” has historically been the way the combative host can steamroll antagonistic guests, capitalizing on his “My show, my rules” advantage. Frank noted as much when he chided O’Reilly for interrupting him. O’Reilly replied that they only had five minutes for the interview, to which Frank shot back, “You get four of them.”

Given the way O’Reilly characterizes many of his critics with colorful invective, such as “smear merchants,” and sees the Mother Jones piece and subsequent reporting as the work of an “assassin” on the far left, it’s not a surprise that he may be more wary after this latest interlude. The effect, however, looks to be insulating the host from those who might challenge — or worse, seek to embarrass — him.

Under the circumstances that’s hardly surprising, and as O’Reilly has noted, the audience doesn’t appear to be complaining in any way that impacts the bottom line. Nevertheless, “The O’Reilly Factor” has become a blander experience, despite the occasional glimpse of O’Reilly at full strength — interrupting guests and rolling his eyes at their responses.

Critics can debate, as they always have, whether that approach is worthy of the “fair” part of Fox’s slogan. But if the alternative is receding into what amounts to a Fox-approved bubble, then what O’Reilly’s show could be sacrificing is some of its balance.

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