Quite a while back I was the producer on a show, the anchor of which was a powerhouse in the business and certainly a legend in his own mind. From my very first day on the newscast I was told that I didn't need to change a thing or really exert any creative influence whatsoever given that the show had sat atop the ratings pile for years. "Don't fix what isn't broken," my new boss said. This direction, though, was given as much to appease my main anchor as it was to maintain the numbers. A whole lot of people besides my news director told me that a good part of producing the show was making sure our star was happy at all times; they spoke of him in hushed tones, as if he were an angry god whom you simply didn't want to risk offending.
It didn't take long to realize that the show they'd given me was kind of boring. I was always a producer who valued format over talent and as far as I was concerned, despite his massive paycheck, our celebrity anchor wasn't enough to make the show quick and propulsive. So I started making minor changes. Nothing huge, just a few tweaks here and there and a couple of out-of-the-ordinary decisions in the control room. One night after a particular broadcast was over, our main anchor stomped after me as I walked back into the newsroom, excoriating me for making a change he didn't agree with, and growled, "You listen to me, boy." At that I spun on him. "Don't you ever call me 'boy,'" I said, closing the distance between us quickly. "I worked hard to get here and you will fucking show me respect." He retreated to his office while those in the newsroom who heard what had happened just stood in shocked silence.
The TV news business has always been filled with pompous assholes drunk on their own sense of importance and the self-mythology they create and demand that others embrace and respect. The classic anchorman archetype, parodied so well by Will Ferrell, is largely dead or dying at the local level. For the most part it's a relic of a bygone era from before the rise of new media and before news outlets realized they didn't have to spend millions of dollars and tolerate day after day laziness and the narcissistic abuse of their staff to get the exact same ratings. But some of those kinds of personalities have been grandfathered into the new paradigm; they're usually people doing nationally broadcasted shows whose presence their programs absolutely rely on and whose audiences are about the same age as them and are, as such, equally miserable pricks. At the top of that pile sits the king of the old school news anchor bullies -- Bill O'Reilly. The Fox News blowhard is one of the last of a dying breed simply because very few news organizations are still willing to put up with the kind of crap he's handed out throughout most of his career.
Just about everyone has seen O'Reilly's infamous behind-the-scenes meltdown, which happened while he was host of Inside Edition in the early '90s. In the clip now preserved forever in internet amber, O'Reilly's nostrils flare and he thrashes at his scripts as he demands to "do it live" because he's confused over a basic TV direction -- "play us out" -- shouting and swearing at his staff. Every time I watch that video I picture what happened after it ended: O'Reilly storming into the newsroom and chewing every bit of meat off some poor bastard producer who probably didn't do a damn thing wrong. I can imagine that producer being told the same thing I was in my dealings with my own problem prima donna: Just let him have what he wants; stroke his ego; he's the star. But producers aren't supposed to be babysitters, so, well, screw that. All that kind of behavior does -- the backing down and the "yes-manning" and the tolerance of abuse -- is reward bad conduct and allow for its perpetuation. If you don't stand up to a bully, he'll usually go right on being a bully. The way to stop him is to knock him on his ass. And that's what somebody should've done to Bill O'Reilly: figuratively punched him in the mouth.
Imposing presence or not, the reason he's now threatening reporters and shouting insults at critics and engaging in ad hominem attacks against those questioning his reporting history is that enough people behind the scenes played his enablers. Maybe it was upper-management forcing his immediate staff to treat him with kid gloves or maybe those who were able to talk tough to him simply accepted the idea that his quick temper and fits of insane rage were just Bill being Bill. Either way, he never should've been allowed to be a one-man wrecking ball throughout a good portion of his career.
There isn't a damn thing wrong with being passionate when you work in a newsroom; I threw things, punched holes in walls and used more profanity as a news producer and manager than your average MMA fighter. But I was hit on the nose with a rolled up newspaper enough early on that I learned very quickly never to direct it at the staff and to contain it when it mattered. I learned that there were limits. Ironically, one of the best pieces of advice I ever got on how to throw your weight around effectively came from former NBC Miami General Manager Don Browne, the guy O'Reilly invited onto his show earlier in the week to back up his story about the Falkland Islands. He told me that the more powerful you became the smaller the weapon you needed to swing to get what you wanted. When you were just starting out, maybe you needed a sledgehammer -- but when you were on top, all you needed was a scalpel. (The funny thing is, Browne didn't always heed his own advice; he would come right out and tell you he could be a monstrous bully.)
You can draw a direct path from O'Reilly's epic outburst at Inside Edition 20 years ago to his threats just a few days ago against a New York Times reporter writing about the scandal currently swirling around him. You can see the same kind of behavior in his barely contained rants against the person who dared to even question the self-aggrandizing tales he's told about being "in a war zone, in the Falklands" when he was really a thousand miles away. You can see it in "Fox News Mole" Joe Muto's descriptions of life working on The O'Reilly Factor. The willingness to scream and shout at people when things don't go his way is a manifestation of the same hubris that led Bill O'Reilly to claim to be a tough guy who saw nuns executed in El Salvador and an intrepid journalist who was there when a figure in the Kennedy assassination killed himself.
Then there's the brand new accusation against O'Reilly, the one that challenges his account of covering the L.A. riots in 1992. O'Reilly said as recently as this week, "We were attacked by protesters, where bricks were thrown at us," and that "concrete was raining down on us." But his colleagues at the time dispute that, claiming it simply never happened. They also say that O'Reilly arrived to one of their shoots in a limo, the windows of which were washed by the driver while O'Reilly interviewed people who'd lost their homes and businesses. Fox News is of course defending O'Reilly, but what's really interesting is who he was working for at the time of the L.A. riots: Inside Edition. Not to dismiss their claims, but you have to imagine that some of the same colleagues who were there for his unhinged behavior are now calling him out for allegedly lying. Because when you treat people badly, guess what? They don't back you when you need it. I have no doubt that on his way up the mountain O'Reilly left plenty of scorched earth in his path. Because somebody always let him get away with it.
A few days after that confrontation with my anchor, I got a phone call at my desk. It was him. Since we'd had it out, he hadn't spoken to me beyond the absolute least required to get the show done. But now he called me to his office. He just looked at me and said two words: "We good?" "I forgot about it by the time I got to the parking lot," I responded. I knew he had already reached a point where he was untouchable and unstoppable so nothing I said or did was going to make much difference in the long run. Don't change a thing, my superiors had told me. Don't fix what isn't broken. But it was broken. The damage had been done a long time ago and was beyond repair now.