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October 15, 2003

Gross vs. O'Reilly: Culture Clash on NPR

By Jeffrey A. Dvorkin
Ombudsman
National Public Radio


On October 9, Terry Gross, longtime host of NPR's Fresh Air aired her interview with populist political talk show host Bill O'Reilly. The e-mails and phone calls of outrage are still arriving.

The interview was taped the day before on October 8. The ostensible reason was to talk about O'Reilly's latest book, Who's Looking Out For You? The book is about, among other things, the claim that America is in the midst of what O'Reilly calls a "cultural war between left and right." And he says the battle is being fought in bookstores by pitting sales of his book against those by liberals.

'Openly Hostile!'

In the Fresh Air interview, the tone was intense from the beginning. By the end of the interview, O'Reilly said he found Gross' line of questioning objectionable and hostile. He walked out of the interview, but not before he accused Gross of conducting the interview "in attack mode" and "full of typical NPR liberal bias." He also told her to "find another line of work."

Knowing that the interview would air the next day, O'Reilly used his October 8 television program to alert his viewers about what would happen the next day on NPR (Bill O'Reilly's Web site).

Here is the interview as it aired on NPR's Fresh Air.

As Gross mentioned in the interview, Bill O'Reilly was invited on Fresh Air in part because of his new book. She began by asking O'Reilly to respond to accusations made against him in a book by Al Franken, the politically liberal comedian. Franken's book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, is devoted in part to going after O'Reilly's credibility and his conservative opinions. In his book and on Fresh Air, Franken accuses O'Reilly of mistakes, distortions and outright lies.

Gross interviewed Franken two weeks previously on her program.

For some listeners, the interview with O'Reilly was a continuation of Franken's anti-conservative and anti-O'Reilly attacks.

'Biased and Prejudicial... '

Listener Michael Moritz's e-mail was typical of the more restrained comments:

NPR, you're not going to like this, but I have to say that O'Reilly... was correct: throughout the first 50 minutes of the interview, Terry Gross was clearly focused on discussing the popular left-wing (mis)perception of O'Reilly, misguided though it is, and not substantively dealing with his new book. I thought her interview was extremely biased and prejudicial. I was very disappointed with her transparently obvious agenda -- she's usually much more capable.

From Daniel Kennedy:

Terry needs to apologize to Bill for that interview. She's a much better interviewer than what I just heard from her. I was embarrassed for her. Bill worked up a real head of steam at the end, but he had taken it for long enough. We never did really hear about his book... P.S. I like BOTH of their shows and listen/watch when I get a chance.

'Bullying... hostility'

Robert Black was one of the few who thought Terry Gross' interview worked:

Thank you for the excellent O'Reilly interview. He quickly demonstrated his bullying tactics and hostility, proving himself to be an ass.

In my opinion, Terry Gross did a very tough interview. It was quite unlike many interviews on NPR where the tone is civil but often unchallenging of the guest.

Danny Miller is the executive producer of Fresh Air. I asked him if he thought the critics have a point:

Terry was tough on O'Reilly, not unfair. And I think O'Reilly drove the interview directly towards the conclusion he was hoping for. He was looking to butt heads. He's obviously still really steamed that the case against Franken was thrown out of court -- and came to our interview with the expressed goal of demonstrating his belief that NPR has a liberal bias, and that Fresh Air (like Franken) was out to defame him. On his own show he said: "I'll go on this program [Fresh Air] just to show you what they do, to expose what they do. Cause I knew what was going to happen... " It's pretty difficult to for an interviewer to maintain a high level of rapport with someone who wants to prove that you're out to get them.

O'Reilly is one of the most controversial and powerful broadcasters in the country -- Terry asked him about how he uses that power to pursue issues, and settle scores with his critics. Terry wouldn't have been doing her job if she didn't address that (which is why she brought up the Janet Maslin and
People magazine pieces). And O'Reilly is smart enough to know it.

Even so, I agree with the listeners who complained about the tone of the interview: Her questions were pointed from the beginning. She went after O'Reilly using critical quotes from the Franken book and a New York Times book review. That put O'Reilly at his most prickly and defensive mode, and Gross was never able to get him back into the interview in an effective way. This was surprising because Terry Gross is, in my opinion, one of the best interviewers anywhere in American journalism.

Although O'Reilly frequently resorts to bluster and bullying on his own show, he seemed unable to take her tough questions. He became angrier as the interview went along. But by coming across as a pro-Franken partisan rather than a neutral and curious journalist, Gross did almost nothing that might have allowed the interview to develop.

By the time the interview was about halfway through, it felt as though Terry Gross was indeed "carrying Al Franken's water," as some listeners say. It was not about O'Reilly's ideas, or his attitudes or even about his book. It was about O'Reilly as political media phenomenon. That's a legitimate subject for discussion, but in this case, it was an interview that was, in the end, unfair to O'Reilly.

The "Empty Chair" Interview

Finally, an aspect of the interview that I found particularly disturbing: It happened when Terry Gross was about to read a criticism of Bill O'Reilly's book from People magazine. Before Gross could read it to him for his reaction, O'Reilly ended the interview and walked out of the studio. She read the quote anyway.

That was wrong. O'Reilly was not there to respond. It's known in broadcasting as the "empty chair" interview, and it is considered an unethical technique and should not be used on NPR.

I believe the listeners were not well served by this interview. It may have illustrated the "cultural wars" that seem to be flaring in the country. Unfortunately, the interview only served to confirm the belief, held by some, in NPR's liberal media bias.

It left the impression that there was something not quite right about the reasons behind this program: Bill O'Reilly often loves to use NPR as his own personal political piņata; and NPR keeps helping him by inviting him to appear.

A letter to Terry Gross from Prof. Rosa Maria Pegueros summed it up well:

I have been enjoying and learning from your show for more years than I can count, but I have to make one small criticism. Please consider it a word from a friend.

I was astonished that you had Fox's Bill O'Reilly on. I have never been able to tolerate more than a few moments of his programs. Having had a few students who came in quoting him and putting his opinions in their papers, I do know his opinions, but all his on-air shouting is unsupportable. That being said, I really think you were baiting him. Not that what you were saying was wrong or inaccurate but I had to wonder what possessed you to choose him? I guess one could say that he walked into enemy territory but I think it couldn't end any other way. Either you were going to corner him and make him admit the things that have been written about him or he was going to walk out once he realized what you were doing. I heard you do something similar with Gene Simmons. I can't believe that you didn't know how he'd react to your questions.

These louts and loudmouths deserve being embarrassed in public, I guess. But to hear you do it is somewhat unsettling. I would expect that if YOU ever went on his program, he'd do something similar to you. I guess what I'm saying is that I expect them to be that way and am generally glad that you aren't.


Listeners can contact me at 202-513-3245 or by email at ombudsman@npr.org.

Jeffrey Dvorkin 
NPR Ombudsman 



   
   
   
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