Bill O’Reilly’s Macho Moment in On-Air Confrontation with Laura Ingraham

He belittled Laura Ingraham in a Fox News clash. Can’t men and women fight fair on TV? By Lauren Ashburn.

From left: Corbis; AP

Watching Laura Ingraham—arguably one of the smartest female commentators around—twisting in the wind on Bill O’Reilly’s show was painful. No, make that maddening.

When she challenged his use of the phrase “thump the Bible” to describe opponents of same-sex marriage, you would have thought she had called the Fox News host an ax murderer. Ingraham could barely get a word in Tuesday night as he interrupted, scolded, and treated her like a dunce—all for suggesting that that O’Reilly had offended people with his choice of words.

The radio talk-show host, appearing via video link from West Palm Beach, Florida, was expressly invited to debate O’Reilly on the Bible swipe that had drawn criticism from one of his antagonists, Rush Limbaugh. No sooner had Ingraham gently said, “I don’t think you really needed to say that”—and disputed his denial that he was feuding with Rush—than O’Reilly cut her off.

“Can I finish my sentence?” Ingraham pleaded.

“No, because you made two statements that are fallacious, and I’m going to correct them,” O’Reilly lectured.

Ingraham rolled her eyes, put her head down, and looked exasperated. At another point she said, “Why are you yelling at me?”

“Don’t you understand the difference between private beliefs and public policy?” he demanded.

“I guess I’m not that well-educated,” said Ingraham, a former Supreme Court clerk.

O’Reilly did give her an uninterrupted stretch to make her point before grilling her again. Ingraham responded to the onslaught by trying to smoothe things over—saying “I adore you.”

O’Reilly disagreed Wednesday night with a viewer who wrote in, denying that he had been “rude” to Ingraham and “shouted her down.”

“I stopped her initially, because she mischaracterized what I said about Bible thumping,” O'Reilly explained. “I wasn’t rude in any way. I was direct—I’m always direct.”

O’Reilly is a famously bombastic interviewer, but there was something different in the way he talked to Ingraham. And he is hardly alone.

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Women who do battle on television are frequently subjected to a level of condescension that men aren’t. I’ve been there in the hot seat as bullies try to steamroll female panelists. And while I happen to enjoy the combat, sometimes, as we saw on Fox News the other night, it ain’t pretty—and leaves viewers with a bad taste.

O’Reilly, of course, knows what makes good television; there’s a reason he’s the king of cable news, with the highest ratings in the business.

Some men raise their voices when the argument heats up, and if women try to match their decibel level, they risk sounding shrill. If a male anchor tries to hammer some point over and over, women often try to defuse the situation with a little humor or softer language while holding their ground. If a woman came on as strongly, she would be seen as a bitch.

There is something about women standing their ground that reminds some of these guys of their first wives, and a dismissive tone creeps into their voice.

What is really grating to viewers is the constant interrupting of female guests. Admittedly, there’s a double standard here. If a man cuts off another man, that’s fine on television. If he cuts off a woman repeatedly, he comes across as rude or, worse, piggish. And it’s a PR problem.

But that rarely stops them. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough apologized for wagging his finger at co-host Mika Brzezinski during an on-air spat. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews apologized to former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers in 2008 for repeatedly cutting her off in a way she complained was disrespectful.

In case you haven’t noticed from your own experience, men and women fight differently. When O’Reilly famously clashed with Geraldo Rivera and Alan Colmes, things escalated into a shouting match. Even O’Reilly knows he would look bad if had shouted at Ingraham the way he did at Geraldo. Instead, while O’Reilly did give his fellow conservative one uninterrupted stretch to make her point, he almost belittled her. “I’m disappointed in you,” he told Ingraham at one point.

To be fair, female hosts have, on occasion, talked over or cut off guests. When a conservative columnist challenged the premise of a segment on MSNBC, host Tamron Hall accused him of insulting her “in my house” and cut off his mike. And there are certainly men who are forceful without being badgering.

The difference between how men and women run their talk shows is striking. Rachel Maddow at MSNBC, Erin Burnett at CNN, Greta Van Susteren at Fox News, and even Laura Ingraham on her radio show (and as a substitute for O’Reilly) conduct spirited debates mostly without vitriol or bullying. But for the most part, it’s as if the gender stereotypes throughout history haven’t changed: men as warmongers, women as peacemakers.

Or women as sluts. How can we forget that MSNBC’s Ed Schultz once called Ingraham a “right-wing slut,” or that Limbaugh used the same word to describe Sandra Fluke? Both men apologized.

As in any business setting, if a woman wants to be at the table, she’s usually playing on the boys’ playground. But on TV, the public is watching. And until the networks see fit to have more women serving as hosts, that’s the cold reality.

Until then, wouldn’t it be nice if more men could go mano a mano with women without hitting below the belt?