I was shocked by last week's exchange between Fox News host Bill O'Reilly and esteemed syndicated columnist George Will on "The O'Reilly Factor."
It was probably one of the most dramatic and angry exchanges ever witnessed on-air between two members working for the same network. It was the first time I had ever seen a paid commentator accuse the network’s top news host of being a liar and purposely misleading people.
Will is a highly regarded commentator and paid analyst for Fox News. The world knows O'Reilly as the king of cable news, the man who put Fox on the map, who has dominated cable news ratings for almost two decades.
The controversy at hand involves O'Reilly's newest book, "Killing Reagan" — one in a slew of runaway bestsellers he has co-authored.
Will and other historians like Craig Shirley have made legitimate criticisms of the historicity of O'Reilly's book. Newsmax has published those criticisms.
The crux of the controversy is O'Reilly's assertion in "Killing Reagan" that the president, after being almost fatally shot in 1981 by John Hinckley, spent the rest of his presidency addled with diminished mental acuity and a lack of engagement in running the federal government.
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Will vociferously denies this claim. He even cites his wife who worked in the White House down the hallway from the Oval Office.
So far, so fair. I am not a historian, and I have not researched the Reagan years as one, but I have spoken to many, many people close to President Reagan and who served in his administration.
Not everyone felt he was engaged as some Reagan loyalists like to think. My take is that Reagan was 70 to 80 percent engaged. But this does not diminish the fact Reagan was a lion, a great visionary who created the greatest economic boom in American history as he brought down the Soviet Empire.
Reagan was able to compensate for his shortcomings with a very strong partner in Nancy. He also surrounded himself with very strong, highly competent individuals. So strong that the Reagan White House years were marked with incredible factional infighting, with press leaks practically an everyday occurrence. We have not seen anything like it since.
No one knows for sure how much the gunshot affected the president.
Reagan's Secretary of State Alexander Haig himself told me that the president was a different man after he was shot and that the near fatal event negatively impacted his ability to govern. (I recently read Yehuda Avner’s “The Prime Ministers” wherein he recounts Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s first visit in 1982 with President Reagan at the White House. Avner writes that the Israeli team was stunned by the president’s lack of engagement and knowledge.)
For sure, liberals have picked up on some such criticisms. And O'Reilly himself cites a 1987 memo prepared by former White House aide James Cannon for James Baker claiming that Reagan may not be competent to be president. The memo suggested that the 25th Amendment potentially could have been invoked to remove Reagan from office.
Michael Reagan has pointed out to me this was a narrative promoted by some "Bush people" during his dad’s White House years. Obviously, Reagan was competent, though his engagement may have been less than expected. I would take an 80 percent Reagan over a 100 percent Obama any day.
So, O'Reilly's assertions are not off the charts. In fact, there is a bit of old news here.
It is important to remember that O'Reilly never claims to be a historian. His genre of books are from a journalist's perspective on past events, giving his breezy take on what happened when great individuals died, or in Reagan's case, nearly died. Boris Johnson's recent "The Churchill Factor" had a similar “I’m-a-journalist-giving-you-my-take-on-history” approach.
But the real story is not about O'Reilly's book but George Will's seemingly personal jihad against O'Reilly.
Will has gone well beyond offering legitimate criticisms of the book. He has attacked O'Reilly’s integrity as a journalist. O'Reilly stated during their TV exchange last week that Will had agreed to speak with him by phone before he completed his article on the book.
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Interestingly, Will accuses O'Reilly of not talking to people involved before publishing his book.
While I have disagreed with O'Reilly on numerous issues through the years, I don't think that there's any evidence he is a person that seeks to mislead people or is an “expert” in such activity, as Will asserts.
O’Reilly is probably one of the most highly-scrutinized media figures of our time. While he sometimes has strong and passionate opinions, he has always been a straight shooter and fair-minded.
Will’s very appearance on O’Reilly’s show testifies to that.
But for Will, a paid Fox commentator, to allege on that same network, and media outside that network, that the network's lead news show host and personality is a liar and is purposely misleading people, that is an allegation hard for me to digest.
Last Friday Will appeared on Fox's “Special Report with Bret Baier” declaring O'Reilly the “Loser of the Week” and describing him as “unhinged.” (Somehow I could never see George Will going on ABC's "This Week" to criticize their host George Stephanopoulos.)
This week Will began his most recent column: “Were the lungs the seat of wisdom, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly would be wise, but they are not and he is not.”
Criticism of O'Reilly's book is totally appropriate. But Will’s primary assertion that O'Reilly is “something of an expert on willfully misleading people” and guilty of “extreme recklessness” is simply not substantiated by the contents of O'Reilly's book or his long track record as a media personality.
By making such a claim, Will is guilty of the very thing he is accusing O’Reilly of doing.
I run my own network. It's called Newsmax TV and we encourage a healthy dialogue among anchors, commentators and guests. Disagreements make for great television. But what George Will said crossed the line.
If George Will was a paid commentator on my network and made such claims about our lead news host, I would have promptly gotten Will on the phone.
Here's how the brief conversation would have gone: "George, you are a respected columnist and I respect your opinions. You have every right to criticize Bill and his book. He knows you do and he had the cojones to put you on his own show to hear them out. But you did something more than that.
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"You went after him personally and said he's a liar, and that he's made a career of misleading the public. You have used other outlets to attack him. If you feel so strongly about our lead news host, shouldn't you just do the honorable thing and resign from the network?"
After that I would expect Will would do the decent thing and resign from a network where he collects a nice paycheck, in part, thanks to the very host he is crusading against. If he didn’t quit, I would terminate his contract, killing George Will.
End of story.
Christopher Ruddy is CEO and editor of Newsmax Media Inc. Read more Christopher Ruddy Insider articles — Click Here Now.
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