Rachel Tensions

So Bill O’Reilly’s latest journalistic crime is…plagiarizing himself!

As MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow noted on March 6, O’Reilly and his allies at Fox are attempting to deflect criticism over O’Reilly’s flights from fact by pointing to O’Reilly’s ratings dominance. Maddow observed that O’Reilly’s ratings success does not let him off the hook when it comes to serious questions about his credibility.

This is not the first time O’Reilly has pointed to his ratings in an attempt to blunt criticism over inaccurate claims. Four years ago, in the midst of a firestorm over Fox’s ugly coverage of the Shirley Sherrod “controversy,” O’Reilly suggested that his large viewership disproved claims about whether or not he and his colleagues at Fox were telling the truth. Maddow called O’Reilly out back then:

Mr. O‘Reilly, you and FOX get great ratings. It is so awesome how great your ratings are. You have very big ratings…[D]on‘t tell Susan‘s mom, who‘s very sensitive about these things, but we are actually—this show is actually out-rated by all kinds of shows. Deadliest Catch kills us, head to head. That‘s about fishing…We also get killed by a show called The Closer, about which I know nothing except that it also kills us in the ratings.

We also get smaller ratings than WWE Wrestling, which is apparently on the USA Network, which means it’s a corporate cousin of ours. So, goody for the shareholders even if it‘s not goody for us.

Of course, all of those shows also kill Mr. O‘Reilly‘s show in the ratings, as well as everything else on FOX, as do SpongeBob, reruns of NCIS and Hannah Montana Forever, which is totally understandable.They are much more watched than The O‘Reilly Factor. [This] is totally immaterial to the discussion at hand, because when you got all “Kicked your network‘s butt!” and “Madam!” on me, you weren‘t really trying to tout your network‘s ratings. You were trying to take the attention off me saying that your network, FOX News, continually crusades on flagrantly bogus stories designed to make white Americans fear black American, which FOX News most certainly does for a political purpose even if it upends the lives of individuals like Shirley Sherrod, even as it frays the fabric of the nation, and even as it makes the American Dream more of a dream and less of a promise.

You can insult us all you want about television ratings, Mr. O‘Reilly, and you‘ll be right that yours are bigger for now and maybe forever. You are the undisputed champion. But even if no one watches us at all, except for my mom and my girlfriend and people who forgot to turn off the TV after Keith [Olbermann], you are still wrong on what really matters and that would be the facts.

After a second ratings-based rhetorical assault by O’Reilly in August 2010, Maddow returned fire:

Talking about me on David Letterman‘s show this week, Mr. O‘Reilly says, quote, “Speaking with far-left MSNBC news commentator, Rachel Maddow on his program, Dave listened as she put forth the preposterous theory that Fox News wants to frighten white Americans by reporting negatively about black Americans.”

“In the past, paranoid, dishonest rants like that would have been dismissed as fringe-speak. But not anymore. Without a shred of evidence, a guest on Letterman‘s “Late Show,” which by the way, gets trounced in the ratings by Fox News Channel every night, defines an entire news organization as a racist enterprise and Letterman goes along.”

Mr. O‘Reilly‘s repeated insistence that Fox News must be right because Fox has high ratings is a many-splendored thing particularly because this week, if you believe Mr. O‘Reilly, this week means we‘re all wrong and only [Shark Week on the Discovery Channel] is right…

I am not interested in playing cable news insult ping-pong with Mr. O‘Reilly. But as much as he keeps insisting that I‘m no one worth arguing with, that I‘m an uber-leftist–he also called me that in his column, and a loon twice now–and [that] a slightly larger percentage of one percent of the population watches his show than the proportion of one percent of the population that watches my show, for all he complains about how unimportant I am, my criticism that Fox News scares white people on purpose to politically benefit conservatives, damn the consequences for the country, that criticism appears to have struck a nerve over at Fox. It appears to have gotten under Mr. O‘Reilly‘s skin. Good.

You have to think that on some level, O’Reilly is deeply jealous of Maddow–resentful over the fact that Maddow has earned credibility that he will never have, that Maddow is respected by people who will never respect him, that Maddow will be remembered long after O’Reilly has been forgotten. Underneath his bombast about ratings is a fear that those ratings will never translate into trust.

I hope Maddow keeps prodding at O’Reilly, and continues to cast a spotlight on his false claims and Fox’s bizarre defenses thereof. Ratings may rise and fall, but truth sticks around forever.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.