I watch Bill O’Reilly on FOX News from time to time. He’s extraordinarily obnoxious, but so are some of the hosts on other national news outlets. And I certainly don’t watch him to get the “news.” It’s more about trying to hear arguments and perspectives from a spectrum of vantage points. I can’t usually keep him on for more than 10-15 minutes, again, due to his staggering obnoxiousness. And I’ve never once considered taking the time or space to write an article about his behavior. What would be the point? But this week, thanks to a tough reporter’s conduct ― and O’Reilly’s response to her toughness ― I’ve been given three reasons all wrapped up in a single word: “unruly.”
If you missed it, O’Reilly sent out a tweet on Tuesday describing NBC anchor/reporter Andrea Mitchell as “unruly” at a State Department photo-op. Why “unruly?” His tweet included this additional headline from his website: “The NBC News host shouts question after question at Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, then seems proud as a peacock at her display.”
Before we get into the reasons why O’Reilly’s public announcement provides a trifecta of valuable lessons, let’s take a closer look at what actually happened. In this video, you’ll see U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appearing for cameras with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin. You’ll hear Mitchell asking Secretary Tillerson about China’s announcement that there would be consequences for U.S. deployment of anti-missile defenses in South Korea. You will then hear and see press aides moving in front of Mitchell, and repeatedly saying “thank you, thank you.” Mitchell continues, asking: “Mr. Secretary, are you sure that the Trump administration will be strong against Vladimir Putin? Can you assure us that Russia will not move further into Ukraine?” The press aides continue to try to shuffle Mitchell out, as she voices seven words of protest: “We haven’t had any time in here.” Tillerson and Klimkin awkwardly smile during this 45-second, three-question clip. The Secretary, who was confirmed five weeks ago by the Senate, and has not taken questions from the press since, does not add any answers to his smiling.
Set aside politics and partisanship. It doesn’t matter where one sits on the ideological spectrum in order to absorb three important lessons from O’Reilly’s statements about Mitchell’s reporting in this photo-op. All that you need is an open mind and common sense.
Lesson #1: It’s sexist. It is sexism. Full stop. And “political correctness” has zero to do with this. Merriam-Webster defines sexism as: 1) prejudice or discrimination based on sex, especially: discrimination against women, 2) behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.
This is what O’Reilly did. It’s 2 + 2 = 4 stuff. Not complicated. If you’re a super-nerd who watches presidential press briefings, you instantly know what I’m talking about. Or even press conferences that U.S. presidents give as they’re traveling. Very frequently, after the president, or any elected official making public remarks, prepares to leave the press event, reporters will typically shout additional questions. Sometimes, the speaker will even move back to the gaggle of questioners, and answer the question. The press corps is composed of men and women. Males and females. Boys and girls.
You will NEVER hear O’Reilly call out any of these reporters for being “unruly.” Even he knows that this is their job. He’s done it himself. What Mitchell did was just harder, because she didn’t have the protective shell of a large group of reporters lobbing extra questions at the same time, giving each other cover. And this is why the press aides trying to get rid of her were more bold than they usually are. So why did O’Reilly call Mitchell “unruly?” Would he have said that about FOX anchor Bret Baier? Bill Hemmer? Tucker Carlson? Sean Hannity? Color me skeptical. Make that doubtful. Make that certain. I’ve watched the news for a long time.
I don’t have daughters. I’m not sure I’ve ever written about sexism before. But again, in this case, O’Reilly’s obnoxiousness is a gift. It’s such a clear cut case, you scarcely need to explain it. What he did was sexist, and it has been communicated to a collective audience of millions. And the lesson is very simple: Don’t be sexist. Which leads us to...
Lesson #2: Hypocrisy. It’s everywhere, in different forms and degrees, and we’re all guilty of it on occasion. We’re human beings. But when there are cases of hypocrisy committed by public voices who have enormous potential influence, they are particularly odious. And that’s what we have here. Whether it was a man or woman O’Reilly was criticizing, the level of hypocrisy can scarcely be measured with existing technology. It’s arguable whether Mitchell was “unruly” in the first place. Many would say she was trying to get questions answered, and was trying to be heard. Many would say that “unruly” is part of the job ― especially in the face of powers who are silent.
But for O’Reilly to call ANYONE “unruly” is beyond rich. For this broadcaster crossed that threshold a long time ago, and fully embraced behavior that is regularly rude and offensive. Just flip on his show sometime. He says interesting things sometimes, and he does challenge authority. But he’s as rude as they come. To see just how rude, let’s take a look at video showing two instances of the O’Reilly approach. The first is a classic of this news anchor yelling at his staff. The first time I saw it, I was torn between worrying the man was going to have a heart attack ― and laughing hilariously.
So we can see how he has treated the people who work for him. How about if he was interviewing the president of the United States? Would he respect either the person or the office in this kind of situation? We actually learned the answer to this question, six years ago on Super Bowl Sunday. O’Reilly was granted an interview with President Obama, and in the course of 10 minutes, he interrupted the commander-in-chief a total of 48 times.
Hypocrites are awful. Let’s do as we say. Let’s teach our kids to think before they make a decision or take an approach to treating others. O’Reilly insults a veteran journalist for asking three questions of the Secretary of State - in a setting that was set up for the press to attend. But O’Reilly’s treatment of his guests, his staff and the president show you what’s true about him. Hypocrite.
Lesson #3: Journalism is largely about asking hard questions in order to provide the checks on power that our country desperately needs. This is precisely why the freedom of the press is protected right up front in the Bill of Rights. On some level, O’Reilly knows this. Being a sexist hypocrite and being dumb aren’t necessarily the same thing. The “check on power” thing is exactly how O’Reilly would justify his rude interruptions of the president.
No matter a person’s politics, Andrea Mitchell’s five-decade career in journalism makes her a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. Not only because she’s been doing it for that long, but because she works so damn hard to get to the truth and hold powerful people accountable. And that’s what she was doing in that press avail with the Secretary of State.
Nearly 20 years ago, when I was a local news reporter at NBC in California’s Central Valley, I remember the moment I realized the full power of television journalism. The governor at the time was Gray Davis, who’m I’d covered during the election campaign. Once elected, one of his press aides tried to negotiate questions with me prior to an interview about criminal justice I was scheduled to do with him. Of course, he got no questions. And when Davis sat down with me to do the interview - this time as governor and not as candidate - his nervousness was laid bare the minute the record light went on. It was palpable. The camera is an equalizer, and the best broadcast journalists use this power to hold power accountable.
Reporters understand that sometimes the news is in the question - not the answer. Because you don’t always get an answer. The relationship is adversarial. Mitchell wasn’t unruly. But even if she was, so what? If any presidential administration is going to put the Secy. of State in a photo-op - they should expect questions. And if the president of that administration has put a muzzle on the department head who’s in front of the cameras, they should be prepared for that person to look dopey and/or phony if they refuse to answer questions. This is the “big leagues.” It ain’t Single-A ball.
One tweet. Two broadcasters. Three lessons. None of them are earth-shattering, but it’s always good to take note of reminders.
It would be great to see O’Reilly at least publicly apologize to Mitchell. It’s not likely, and I seriously doubt that she cares much - if at all - about receiving one. In her MSNBC show the following day, Mitchell signed off with the most equanimous slap-down one could imagine, saying with a smile: “And that does it for this ‘unruly’ edition of ‘Andrea Mitchell Reports.’” More proof that the fairer sex is also the classier one. Is that sexist?