Michael Hoyt, left, of The Columbia Journalism Review is interviewed by Dan Bank of “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Video: Confrontational segments from 'The O'Reilly Factor'
April 16, 2009
Gotcha TV: Crews Stalk Bill O’Reilly’s Targets
By BRIAN STELTER
When Bill O’Reilly’s camera crew ambushed Mike Hoyt at a bus stop in Teaneck, N.J., a few months ago, the on-camera confrontation and the microphone in his face reminded him, oddly enough, of the “60 Minutes” interviewer Mike Wallace.
Mr. Hoyt, executive editor of The Columbia Journalism Review, was well-versed in the venerable art of the on-camera, on-the-street confrontation, perfected by Mr. Wallace and other hard-charging television journalists in decades past. Now, in an appropriation of Mr. Wallace’s techniques, ambush interviews have become a distinguishing feature of Mr. O’Reilly’s program on the Fox News Channel.
Mr. Hoyt, one of more than 50 people that Mr. O’Reilly’s young producers have confronted in the past three years, said the interviews were “really just an attempt to make you look bad.” In almost every case Mr. O’Reilly uses the aggressive interviews to campaign for his point of view.
Mr. O’Reilly, the right-leaning commentator who has had the highest-rated cable show for about eight years, has called the interviews a way to hold people accountable for their actions. “When the bad guys won’t comment, when they run and hide, we will find them,” he said on “The O’Reilly Factor” recently.
In recent months the ambushes have come under increased scrutiny, partly because the targets have changed. While most of the initial subjects were judges and lawyers whom Mr. O’Reilly perceived to be soft on crime, many of the past year’s subjects have been political and personal opponents of the host. Mr. Hoyt, for instance, was criticized for assigning an essay about right-wing media to a writer with a liberal background. Hendrik Hertzberg, a senior editor for The New Yorker, was confronted for what Mr. O’Reilly described as taking a “Factor” segment out of context. And Amanda Terkel, a managing editor at the liberal Web site ThinkProgress.org, was interviewed about a protest she helped organize against Mr. O’Reilly.
Ms. Terkel’s case generated immense attention on the Internet last month partly because she called it an incident of stalking and harassment. ThinkProgress discussed taking legal action but instead decided to lead a mostly unsuccessful effort asking advertisers to boycott Mr. O’Reilly’s program.
The Fox News producer responsible for most of the ambush interviews, Jesse Watters, refused repeated interview requests. But the network did make David Tabacoff, the program’s senior executive producer, available to comment. Mr. Tabacoff — who started a telephone interview by asking, “This is going to be a fair piece, correct?” — said the interviews are “part of the journalistic mission” of “The O’Reilly Factor.” He called the program an “opinion-driven show that has a journalistic basis.”
“We’re trying to get answers from people,” he said. “Sometimes the only way to get them is via these methods.”
The attitude, as summarized by Mr. Watters in a BillOReilly.com blog post: “If they don’t come to us, we’ll go to them.”
A Fox spokeswoman said the interview approach was first used in 2002. It became a staple of “The O’Reilly Factor” in 2006. Since then Mr. Watters, a 30-year-old who worked for a Republican candidate for New York attorney general, Dora Irizarry, before joining Fox in 2003, has approached high school principals, lawmakers, journalists and celebrities whom Mr. O’Reilly has accused of being dishonest. He conducts background checks, uses Google Earth’s mapping software to scout the locations and tries to identify a public place where he can surprise the person. Some interviews require days of waiting in trucks and hotels.
When the subjects don’t answer — at least not to the satisfaction of Mr. Watters — the questions become more provocative and emotional. Last summer Mr. Watters asked Gov. Jim Douglas of Vermont about that state’s criminal statues and asked, “About how many dead girls are we going to tolerate here?”
Sometimes the questions are statements. While trying to provoke a Florida judge last month Mr. Watters seemed to speak on behalf of the victims of a sexual molester, saying, “You owe that family an apology.”
While Mr. Watters has never been injured on the job, there have been some close calls. In Virginia Beach, while confronting Meyera Oberndorf, the city’s mayor, about its laws toward illegal immigrants that Mr. O’Reilly calls too lenient, Mr. Watters said the mayor’s husband tried, unsuccessfully, to seize the microphone. “This will be great TV,” Mr. Watters recalled remarking to the camera operator and sound technician in a blog post.
Rather than “60 Minutes,” the confrontations may bring to mind the liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, who documented his attempts to ambush the chairman of General Motors in his 1989 film “Roger & Me” and later asked members of Congress to enlist their children to serve in Iraq in 2004’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
Mr. O’Reilly has rejected the comparison, saying on Fox in 2006 that Mr. Moore is “doing it to put it in his movie and exploit it,” while “I’m doing it because there’s no other way to hold these villains accountable.”
Some subjects of the interviews strongly disagree. “They weren’t interested in my views,” Mr. Hoyt said of the January incident. “They just wanted to have me looking surprised or irked or whatever.” After several minutes at the bus stop, the camera crew tried to board the bus with Mr. Hoyt, disembarking only after the driver demanded that they leave.
In some cases the subjects of the interviews seek help from the police. Matthew Dowd, who has since retired as a Kansas judge, said Mr. Watters “kind of jumped me” outside a restaurant two years ago, prompting his wife to call 911. In at least three other instances, subjects called the police.
For some journalism practitioners Mr. O’Reilly’s tactics are unsettling. “Nobody should hijack the power of journalism or use the public airwaves (or cable signals) simply to settle personal scores,” Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit that supports journalism education, said in an e-mail message.
Ten of the last 12 people confronted by Mr. O’Reilly’s crews were either outwardly liberal or had criticized Republicans. Fox staffers insist, however, that Mr. O’Reilly is not partisan, and Ron Mitchell, an “O’Reilly Factor” producer, said that “if you go over the dozens and dozens of these, the primary balance is not about left or right.” (In October, for instance, Mr. Watters approached the ousted Merrill Lynch chief executive, E. Stanley O’Neal, outside his apartment.)
Regardless, some people criticized by Mr. O’Reilly have learned how to avoid added embarrassment when it is their turn in front of Mr. Watters’s microphone. When he confronted Rosie O’Donnell at a book signing to ask about her views of 9/11 conspiracy theories — she had said on “The View” that it was impossible that World Trade Center 7 could have fallen the way it did “without explosives being involved” — a member of her entourage placed his hand over the camera lens. Ms. O’Donnell told her employee to stop, adding, “That’s what they want you to do.” Mr. O’Reilly played the tape the next weeknight.