Aug 8, 2004  •  Post A Comment

A chill ran up my spine when the call came. Would I be a guest on “The O’Reilly Factor” two days hence? The producer said they had heard me on radio and read my columns in TVWeek and wanted me to expand on my views about coverage of political conventions.

I told him I would have to check, but I instantly knew I was going to do it. It was an irresistible invitation to go a few rounds with the undisputed heavyweight champion of American news talk. To face all of my fears and push aside my natural paranoia, to take the risk that I might end up O’Reilly roadkill. His was an electronic bully pulpit that he used to praise the chosen and punish fools who dared to disagree.

It wasn’t about going on TV. I’ve been on-camera many times, commenting on everything from Bruce Lee to trends in TV. I usually handle it calmly. But this meant going into the center ring with the lion of his time. This made me nervous.

This was Mr. Bill the killer interviewer, the most dangerous man with a microphone currently prowling prime time. His strong views, quick temper, ready wit are all packaged with smug arrogance he uses to dissect his many victims.

Co-workers and friends were immediately concerned. One network exec e-mailed me: “You are a brave man.” My fellow editors helped me guess which questions might be asked and which topics to expect.

I kept wondering whether I was somehow being ambushed. About a week earlier, I had written a column about the unusually aggressive methods employed by Fox News Channel public relations personnel, including the selective blacklisting of journalists they don’t like. I was sure the story did not make them happy at FNC. But because it was accurate and included their response, there wasn’t much for them to complain about. However, I had a vision of Super Bill riding to the rescue to save the good name of his fellow Foxies.

Things became clearer the next day when another producer called for my “pre-interview.” This producer knew nothing about my radio work but said Mr. O’Reilly had read my column about Fox News PR and wanted to discuss it.

Then the truth came out. It seems Mr. O had selected five articles from various journalists that he felt were an attack on him and Fox News. All five had been invited to appear. The others were from The Miami Herald, The Dallas Morning News the Daytona Beach, Fla., News-Journal and The Louisville, Ky., Courier-Journal.

I know this because the Fox producer faxed copies of their articles. He said Bill would discuss them. Since I was the only one appearing, it was clear my job was to be the straw horse for all the ills of the media.

Was it worth it? Although “The Factor” has the largest audience in cable news, it is still only about a fifth of what the lowest of the three network evening news shows draws every day. Its power is not in size but in the loyalty of its audience. Fox attracts ratings not just with its news but also with its philosophy. Its “fair and balanced” slogan is a sly wink to let viewers know that Fox will “finally” provide balance to the so-called liberal media.

It all began with Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corp. and overlord of Fox. His accomplishments in business over 25 years are nothing short of awesome. The network and stations were always just part of his plan. He told me around 1988, during an interview for my book “Outfoxed: The Inside Story of America’s Fourth Television Network,” that future expansion would include sports and news. Sports, he explained, guaranteed carriage on every cable system. News, Mr. Murdoch said, was important because it provided a platform of influence on public opinion. A news organization commands attention and respect. Little did I know then the sharp rightward turn Mr. Murdoch’s plans would take, or the impact it would have on all news.

The Fox News Channel is modeled on the British/Australian tradition of publications and broadcasters having clear political affiliations. In London newsrooms, there are special editors who pass political judgment over every story. This is in sharp contrast to the American tradition of news presented as responsibly and evenly as possible. The American journalist recognizes his biases, but he or she works to be fair to all.

That’s not the mantra at Fox, no matter what the drill sergeant-style flacks may claim. Choices are made as much by who they don’t book as by who appears. The new documentary “Outfoxed” makes the case better than I ever can, so I won’t belabor the point.

My appearance turned out to be the quickest seven minutes of my life. By the time I was in the chair being wired with earpiece and mike, I was aware the whole setup was an opportunity for Mr. Bill to rage against the media machine that spit out those stories he didn’t like. They weren’t present, so he vented in my direction.

I wasn’t having any of it. I wasn’t from Daytona or Miami. I would stand by every word in TVWeek, and our story about the toughest PR crowd in the biz, but not the others.

Fox PR has to be tough, Mr. O told me, because everyone attacks Fox. Why should they be nice to journalists who write lies about Fox, even as it soars to the top of the ratings?

What bothered me, I replied, was not just the idea of blacklisting a journalist. I had been through that with numerous companies in Hollywood, including a famous studio with a mountain in its logo. However, those were commercial enterprises, not journalists. What bothered me was that a news organization would treat other journalists that way.

As I finished making my point-with Bill O trying to talk over me-music came up, drowning out my last words. That musical shove served to remind me who was in charge, and it wasn’t me.