My Battle With Bill O’Reilly

I called him out for misleading comments on drones and media bias. Then he challenged me on the air. Now I’m headed for a showdown.

02.13.13 9:45 AM ET

Bill O’Reilly called me his “old pal,” but he sure didn’t sound very friendly.

In fact, the Fox News host seemed a tad peeved that I had criticized him for a glaring omission about his arch-nemesis NBC. So now I’m headed to the no-spin zone.

In a rare appearance, I’ll be on The Factor on Wednesday night for what I’m sure will be a full, frank and fruitful exchange of views.

O’Reilly questioned the other night whether I’ll actually show up. I tweeted my response: Hell yeah. Otherwise he might call me a pinhead and I’ll have no chance to respond!

I’ve interviewed O’Reilly over the years and given him his due. It’s hardly an accident that he’s had the top-rated cable news show for roughly forever. Bill can be funny (he goes on Letterman and Jon Stewart) as well as aggressive (he’s been known to hammer his guests). O’Reilly sees himself in a perpetual war against the loons of the left-wing media, and isn’t shy about calling out those who find fault with him.
So what is our little spat about?

It started last week when O’Reilly was going off on the media’s failure to make as big a stink about President Obama’s drone war as they did about the use of waterboarding under George W. Bush.

That’s certainly a fair topic for debate. But then, in the view of your humble media critic, he went a step too far.

“Remember the outcry about waterboarding?” O'Reilly asked his liberal guest, Fox contributor Bob Beckel. “You know, everybody jumping up and down? NBC News — I thought they were going to, like, melt down over there. You heard anything on NBC about the drones?”

As a matter of fact, I did hear something on NBC about the drones, and so did everyone else. It was NBC’s Mike Isikoff who obtained a confidential Justice Department memo outlining the legal rationale for deadly drone strikes against terror suspects abroad, including Americans. This kick-started a media debate over the drone program that started under Bush but has been greatly expanded by Obama.

O’Reilly’s answer to the paucity of drone coverage: “They’re protecting the president.”

Now, I didn’t jump on this right away, and deliberately so. I figured O’Reilly was just not thinking about the memo scoop at that moment and would come back and correct the record the following night. Instead, he said this:

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“Now, last night, I talked with Bob Beckel about the difference in analysis on the subject of waterboarding as compared to killing people with drones, a policy that President Obama embraces. I put forth that NBC News and other media places, they were hysterical over waterboarding, but muted over President Obama’s drone attacks, at least until yesterday.

“Immediately, the far left machine cranked up! ‘O’Reilly didn’t say that NBC News broke the drone memo story. He’s a deceiver!’ True! I didn’t say NBC broke the memo story because we weren’t talking about that. Waterboarding versus drone strikes.”

Speaking as a non-member of the far-left machine, I thought O’Reilly missed an opportunity to be gracious. He could have come back, said he should have credited NBC for the exclusive, and moved on to his larger point. Even if he was talking about media analysis of the waterboarding and drone controversies over the years, that distinction was lost on viewers—and NBC was hardly missing in action on the drone story in recent days.

I made that point Sunday on my CNN program, Reliable Sources.

We played the before-and-after O’Reilly clips—fair and balanced, after all. My conclusion: “Bill, the only reason there is a drone debate right now is because NBC News revealed that memo.”

On Monday, my minute-long commentary had somehow become the lead segment for the O’Reilly Factor.

“Are you kidding me, Howard, are you kidding me? Come on, man!” O’Reilly exclaimed. “The double standard of media coverage on waterboarding versus drones has been apparent for years! You don't know that? And don't give me any of this 'O'Reilly misspoke’ business. You know exactly what Beckel and I were talking about, or you should know."

In other words, since I didn’t see things his way, I was either flat wrong or woefully misinformed. Of course, this sort of thing is great fodder for O’Reilly’s show, so why not keep the controversy alive?

I have some other thoughts on the coverage of Obama’s drone war. But I’m saving them for The Factor.