Keith Olbermann Details Feud With Bill O’Reilly, Warns of ‘Billo’ Comeback

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Don’t assume this is Bill O’Reilly’s Last Loofah.

Obviously, nothing would please me more than to be wrong about that. But everything from industry gossip to his own angry farewell statement to the tectonic changes in video news consumption implies that I’m not.

If he wants one, he’ll get another show.

About 15 months ago there was a rumor going around the news business that the younger Murdochs had reached the tipping point with Billo and would let him go, and that just as quickly one of the other cable news operations would pick him up. After the most successful sponsor boycott since the stampede away from Don Imus in 2007, that scenario seems less likely but hardly impossible. Imus himself was back on the fringes of cable within eight months, and two years after that he was doing his same old show on Fox Business Channel. That lasted six more years.

Even if those incongruously released emails revealed that behind the scenes O’Reilly was belligerent and condescending and had to be dragged crying and screaming to the gallows, he was publicly polite to Fox in the kind of way I know from personal experience only a gigantic payout can ensure. His otherwise bitchy little statement put out after Fox pulled the plug (and presumably after the Pope failed to intervene on his behalf) included something O’Reilly has emphasized in every program and public appearance he’s ever made — a boast about the size of his ratings. It blamed “unfounded claims” and the “unfortunate reality many of us in the public eye must live with today.” It thanked “all my dedicated viewers.” None of this was in the past tense.

Even if he’s too radioactive to leap on to MSNBC just at the moment (don’t laugh; they just hired Greta Van Susteren. They once hired Rita Cosby), he doesn’t need to. He can just make up his own network. I did.

Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump watch the Yankees play the Twins in 2009. O’Reilly was a frequent visitor to Yankee Stadium. JUSTIN LANE/EPA/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

I thought I had an idea of the changing landscape when I decided to return to politics and news a year ago. As somebody who only half-kiddingly used to join my producers in referring to the daily 4 p.m. release of the prior night’s Nielsen Ratings as “crack,” I thought it was odd that the cable news audience numbers of 2016 were struggling to stay competitive with what the same outlets had produced in 2012, and exhibited existential-threat levels compared to 2008, even with the addition of the out-of-control firehouse that was the Trump campaign. Where were those viewers? Where are they now as the cable execs trumpet huge growth without emphasizing that it’s growth from 2015, a year so bad that most of the moguls (even at Fox) probably thought about switching over to cartoons and zombie shows?

They’re watching all the stuff we’re all doing online. “The Resistance” commentaries I’m doing for GQ? The numbers fluctuate but they’re averaging well north of 3.5 million views each. On his final Monday night O’Reilly had 3.15 million viewers and the average audience of CNN and MSNBC combined was just over 2.7 million. Are these things Apples and Oranges? In many pertinent ways: Yes. And all of a sudden the polarities have reversed and you can sell a lot more News Apples than you can sell News Oranges, and O’Reilly was damned good at selling News Oranges.

Is he going to make somebody a profit of $100 million a year, as he was supposedly personally doing for Murdoch? No. Is anybody going to pay him $18 million a year again? No. On the other hand, if you have been making $18 million a year for more than a few hours, and you haven’t banked enough of it and you don’t like the work enough to do it for its own sake in an entirely different economic reality — to hell with you.

And this calculus doesn’t even include that reported $25 million payout. That would have been more if Fox hadn’t inserted into his contract tougher language about sexual harassment claims — past, present, or future — as reported by The New York Times. Otherwise, as in the Brian Williams fiasco at NBC, Fox likely would have had to pay O’Reilly every dime of his deal because you can’t fire somebody for cause if you’ve known about the cause forever and didn’t do anything about it. The contract-to-end-all-contracts that the public generally knows under the benign euphemism “mutual agreement” might include a non-compete clause, but no non-compete clause is forever.

If O’Reilly wants it, he can keep his platform. Keep it? What am I saying? If my experience is any guide he can grow it. How many people would watch an O’Reilly commentary — which is what those saccharin “Talking Points Memos” are — every night, on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and some dedicated home-base site? The revenue streams are still fluid (sooner or later, they’ll work themselves out) but I can guarantee you his online audience would be a multiple of the one he had at Fox.

I still get asked if the nearly 10 years (over two terms) I spent gleefully clubbing O’Reilly over the head every night on MSNBC was some kind of publicity stunt or upwards punch or forged rivalry or all three. While on any given night during the cable wars of the ’00s those descriptions might have fit, it was and is my sincere belief that Bill O’Reilly was and is a danger to the democracy. The same chest-thumping, thinly veiled attitude of white superiority, and the subtle undercurrent that if O’Reilly said it should be 1962 again then God Damn It, it was 1962 again, presaged his only public friend Trump’s election. Beyond that, the more we see a president try to operate while his frontal lobe is melting and he’s struggling to remember exactly what he just saw on Fox, the more I’m convinced Trump’s worldview (or more accurately, his worldblink) is based on half-baked ideas O’Reilly threw out over free milkshakes they got in their free seats at Yankee Stadium.

“It was and is my sincere belief that Bill O’Reilly was and is a danger to the democracy.”
Keith Olbermann

I hate to say I told you so on O’Reilly, but I sure as hell did tell you, and on two fronts. And I began bringing up his semi-fascist tone in 1998 during my first tenure at MSNBC (“The Big Show,” “The White House in Crisis”) which led once to O’Reilly going on his show and hilariously and deliberately mispronouncing my name to indicate how little I meant to him. To my knowledge he never said it again on radio or television — incorrectly or otherwise — but memorably in 2006 he threatened a caller to a radio program who had mentioned me by telling him “we have your phone number, and we’re going to turn it over to Fox security, and you’ll be getting a little visit.”

The O’Reilly stuff, and the Ted Baxter voice I used when reading it, only became a regular feature after I returned to MSNBC in 2003. On literally my first full-time day back as the 8 p.m. host, I got a call from one of the young Washington reporters I had helped to break through five years earlier, Norah O’Donnell (the others were Campbell Brown and David Gregory). Norah certainly wasn’t coming from a place of competition or punching up when she said that I should do a regular fact-checking piece on O’Reilly’s sometimes utter detachment from editorial reality. “You could call it ‘Factor Fiction’ or something.”

It also became personal for a friend of mine who I had helped to get a job with Fox News. She put in a few months in the bunker-like subterranean Fox newsroom in Manhattan and seemed to be doing well when she suddenly called to explain she had quit. This was a woman with a legal background that included work in sexual harassment cases, and even with those weapons atypical to the victims of the Bill O’Reillys of this world, three months with him and all the other lechers there had caused her to just walk away. She chose never to work in news again.

To me, that made it personal.

The other points I should get on the record in case I’m wrong and Billo actually does go gentle into that good night, include the following: I will now confirm the story that he was so pissed off by something that happened at Yankee Stadium in June 2007 that he tried to get my baseball media credentials revoked. I was still co-hosting an hour of Dan Patrick’s radio show then, and obviously had legitimate reasons to be in the press boxes of the local sports teams. During a Mets-Yankees Subway Series, O’Reilly got a field pass based on heavy donations to one of the charities of then-Yankee manager Joe Torre. He wandered off the field, through the dugout and the Pyramid-quality tiny hallway behind it, and entered the Met clubhouse. Security pointed out that the Friend-of-Joe-Pass was limited to standing around on the field, and asked him to leave.

O’Reilly’s dust-up with the security personnel from his favorite childhood team (“You don’t have to escort us out. We’re going.”) made it into at least one New York area newspaper, along with the nugget that I had been there the day before and had been in the same Mets’ clubhouse and in long conversation with the team’s then-General Manager Omar Minaya. Not long after that report hit the streets I got a call from a baseball source who told me that O’Reilly was making a stink.

Sure enough, a few days later I got a call from Yankees Media Relations Director Jason Zillo, who said that joining him on the phone was a representative from the Rubinstein PR Agency (which did and does work for both Fox and the Yankees). Only Zillo spoke. For at least 15 minutes. It was a recitation of how he had been asked to explain to me that the Yankees did not give media credentials to “celebrities” and how they’d never give them to, say, Larry King just because he had a television show, and that’s not how they worked at Yankee Stadium and on and on and on and on. I had to stifle laughter several times that day, and again a week later when I called Zillo for a credential and he said sure and I got to the ballpark and asked him what in the hell that call had been about and he said, “Didn’t you hear me? I said ‘I’d been asked to explain to you.’ I never said I was going to take away your credentials.”

So that’s one anecdote, and the other one also involves the Yankees. O’Reilly and I have never actually spoken, but we’ve been in the same place at the same time at least twice, and each time he did the weirdest damn thing I’ve ever seen another adult do. The first was at one of the charity dinners of the aforementioned Torre, who was my first TV interviewee, with whom I worked at a station in Los Angeles, and who remains a friend. Charity dinners deserve that nomenclature for more than just fund-raising. There is also a sense of charity among the participants. You’re all there for a good cause. You leave the pettiness at the door. And that’s especially true at the Torre shindigs in which the term “celebrity” is stretched pretty thin because Joe can sell 100 dinner tables and he needs some kind of name at every one of them. Dozens of us were packed into a small anteroom at The Pierre one night, waiting to be released like spawning salmon to our respective tables, and sure enough — there was O’Reilly.

Keith Olbermann can’t mask his contempt for Bill O’Reilly at a 2006 TCA event in Pasadena. O’Reilly was a frequent target on Olbermann’s MSNBC show “Countdown.” REED SAXON/AP;

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t clamoring to meet him. But I was still kind of surprised when the ballplayers and actors I was chatting with kept saying, “Why is Bill O’Reilly staring at us?” and then I would turn to see, only to catch the tail end of his not-so-subtle twisting away to look in the opposite direction. I also noticed that Billo was keeping at least 20 yards between us at all times, and being diligent enough that, if I inadvertently moved five feet closer to him in order to shake somebody else’s hand, he would move back five feet further to keep that 20-yard cordon sanitaire. And sure enough, the second time I ever saw him, back at Yankee Stadium, he did the same crazy thing, on the field!

I should also remind you that I believe O’Reilly’s desire for revenge against me precipitated Fox’s stalking of GE chairman Jeff Immelt, O’Reilly’s bold-faced lie that GE was manufacturing parts used in anti-American IEDs in Iraq, and the cable news industry’s 2009 equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis during which MSNBC was nearly taken off the air — but all that has been widely covered elsewhere.

Anyway, now O’Reilly belongs to the ages. But just like the animatronic Abraham Lincoln, he can always come back if he wants to. And, who knows? To succeed him Fox has chosen America’s only soon-to-be-48-year-old snotty teenager Tucker Carlson, who was once caught impersonating me to a reporter and whose newscaster father’s only mark on history was the involuntary outing of Dr. Renee Richards. Despite strong starts at each, Tuck was loudly blown out first at CNN and then MSNBC. After a few months of him in the decisive 8 p.m. slot, Fox might even invite Billo to stage a Jay Leno — or at least to come back to Fox Business.

In his 38th year in the business, Keith Olbermann now presents the GQ online commentary series “The Resistance.” His fifth book, “Trump Is F*cking Crazy,” will be published in October by Blue Rider.