Q&A: Bill O'Reilly

The Fox News anchor unloads on Sean Penn, MSNBC

You can't deny Bill O'Reilly's success. On Tuesday, the fiery host of Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor" will mark his 100th consecutive month as the No. 1-rated cable news show. A former schoolteacher who first gained national prominence as the host of "Inside Edition," O'Reilly boasts three Emmys and several best-selling books.

The Hollywood Reporter: What's the most fun you've had on the air?

Bill O'Reilly: That's a tough one. I think it's the three interviews I did with President Bush. That's the hardest interview for any journalist, to interview a president, because you can't cross a certain line, and presidents all come in with what they want to say. To get them out of that rehearsed deal is very hard. The three interviews I did with Bush were instructive because I went up to that line. And then my interviews with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during the campaign were fun because it was a chess match.

THR: Why did candidate Obama take so long to agree to an interview with you?

O'Reilly: I could be wrong, but I think Obama is not a confrontational guy. So why would he get in a confrontational interview situation where he knows he'll be challenged? Look at his interview history. Very rarely has he done that. He did it with me because he wanted to disrupt the Republican convention and get a lot of attention. He succeeded in doing the latter.

THR: What's the angriest you've been on the air?

O'Reilly: There was an attorney for people who oppose Jessica's Law (to punish sex offenders) that really got me. If you can't protect little kids, we should just pack it up as a country. And after 9/11, a kid in his 20s whose father was killed at the Twin Towers. I was all set to do a sympathetic interview, but the kid started saying the USA attacked the towers and killed his father. I just said, "Oh my God. Do you realize how many other people are suffering tonight in addition to you? How could you possibly say that?" I was very angry at that kid. And the Barney Frank thing (in which O'Reilly called Frank a "coward" during an October debate over Fannie May and Freddie Mac). But I really wasn't angry; I just needed to scold him because he was blaming everyone else, even though some of this economic mess is his fault.

THR: But Frank used your scolding in an ad campaign. So that backfired, no?

O'Reilly: That didn't backfire at all because I don't care if a congressman is re-elected or not. That's not my job. If people in his district like him, that's fine. I'm not trying to get him out of there, I'm trying to hold him accountable. That interview was seen by tens of millions of people, so I held him accountable.

THR: What are your favorite TV shows?

O'Reilly: I don't watch a lot of TV, but I'd say "60 Minutes" is the one I normally check in with.

THR: How about CNN, your favorite competitor?

O'Reilly: I think Wolf Blitzer does a nice job, and Anderson Cooper is an honest guy.

THR: When your streak of being the No. 1 cable news host ends, who do you think will beat you?

O'Reilly: It's hard to speculate. We're so far ahead now, and my competitors have been around long enough so that they have already been sampled. So it would have to be somebody new.

THR: What's the latest in your ongoing beef with NBC?

O'Reilly: They're dishonest people who do a lot of damage. They put out a product -- MSNBC -- that is hateful, and they're doing it solely to make money.

THR: You said MSNBC. What about NBC?

O'Reilly: (Jeff) Zucker is in charge of the whole deal, so that delineation doesn't wash. It's that brand. Now, I have a lot of respect for the "Today" show because they do a very good job. But if you look at that NBC operation, they're all left-wing idealogues.

THR: NBC leans more left than ABC and CBS?

O'Reilly: Absolutely. ABC does a really good job, and CBS is trying.

THR: What's wrong with being left wing?

O'Reilly: Nothing, if you're upfront about it. CNN leans left, but I have no beef with them because they're pretty much up front about what they do and they're not hateful. I respect CNN.

THR: Which way does Fox News lean?

O'Reilly: Traditional right. But if you do the math about guest bookings, it's 50-50, and guest bookings really tell the tale.

So why do so many liberals hate Fox News?

O'Reilly: Because we beat their brains out and their representatives can't stand up to us, so of course they're not going to like the situation.

THR: Critics say the only reason you attack NBC is because Keith Olbermann and others there have attacked you. What say you?

O'Reilly: False. If the powerful are dishonest and peddling hate, we will expose them. Look, GE was the last company doing business with Iran while they were killing American military personnel in Iraq, and I'm not supposed to get upset about that?

THR: Who else in the media are you critical of?

O'Reilly: The New York Times, and the Associated Press at times, for slanting their hard-news reporting. If it's on the editorial page, fine. Thomas Friedman is a brilliant guy. I got no problem with him. It's a problem when you let it bleed over and you try to deceive and you skew your reportage to attack. Fox News is the best example. If you look at the favorable stories about us, it isn't close to the number of positive stories about other networks. Why is that? We're the best. We're the most watched. Why don't we get the same treatment as CNN, MSNBC or whatever? It's truly ideological.

THR: What do you think of Keith Olbermann?

O'Reilly: We win that time slot by an enormous amount, so I don't need to think about him.

THR: How about Helen Thomas?

O'Reilly: I like Helen. Anybody at her age doing what she does, that's great. But when she says something stupid at a presidential press conference, like "so-called terrorists," I have to do a little satire on her.

THR: Jon Stewart?

O'Reilly: Very funny, very smart. He's a left-wing guy, but he admits it, so I got no beef with him.

THR: Katie Couric?

O'Reilly: I like Katie. She's been unfairly criticized. If CBS owned-and-operated (stations) had Oprah Winfrey, Katie would be No. 1 or 2. It's all about lead-in afternoon viewing patterns, and CBS does not have them.

THR: Why are actors such frequent targets of "The Factor"?

O'Reilly: My job is to watch the powerful. A performer has a forum that other people do not, and all we ask is that they be fair. If they believe something and use their TV show, movie or concert to spout off about it, that's fine. But if we have some questions about their beliefs, I think they should answer them -- and not be drive-by people.

THR: Who are these drive-by people you speak of?

O'Reilly: I take it case by case. We took on George Clooney over the 9/11 charities, and we were absolutely right, but Clooney does a good job with Darfur. We took on Bruce Springsteen for things he has done at concerts because we want to know what his frame of reference is. These are powerful people, and we're not going to give them a free ride. If there was somebody screaming right-wing stuff, we'd do the same thing. But there is no one like that because if they do that in Hollywood, they're not going to work, which is an interesting story in and of itself.

THR: Do you have examples of right-wingers who can't get work in Hollywood?

O'Reilly: The best one is Ron Silver, who went on the record saying as soon as he got out of the liberal mindset, it was more difficult for him in Hollywood. And that's the perception. I have heard it from a dozen directors, actors and producers.

THR: Are there actors whose political opinions disturb you so much you won't see their movies?

O'Reilly: Just Sean Penn.

THR: Someone will read that and accuse you of encouraging a new blacklist era.

O'Reilly: Not at all. He's a great actor, and if you hire him, you'll get a good performance. I'm just not going to give a guy who gives aid and comfort to people like (Iran president Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chavez and Saddam Hussein, when he was alive, my 10 bucks. That's my right as an American.

THR: Do you advocate other Americans do the same?

O'Reilly: No. It's a personal decision. I don't tell people how to vote or how to spend their money. I don't tell people how to do anything. In America, you decide for yourself. We don't endorse anybody here or promote a political party, which is why we've been so successful.

THR: What's the top problem you'd solve, policywise, to improve America?

O'Reilly: The federal government has been derelict for the past six years in looking the other way when things went wrong with the economy and Iraq. And alternative energy should have been on the fast-track a long time ago. So we could spend three hours talking about the government's lack of foresight.

THR: What's the reaction you get at a restaurant or a Starbucks or some other public place?

O'Reilly: I get preferential treatment, although I don't want that. I very rarely have problems. Look, I'm 6-foot-4, and I don't look like I'll be receptive to bad behavior.

THR: Do you need bodyguards?

O'Reilly: On occasion, if I have to go into a large crowd and be stationary.

THR: What's the worst reaction you have ever had in public?

O'Reilly: Nothing. Never in 12 and a half years of doing this. We have had death threats here, and Fox security people are excellent. We know that the far-left loons bait on the Internet, and they would do damage if they could.

THR: Any of those death threats result in arrests?

O'Reilly: We've had a few people convicted of crimes. I'm not going to get into descriptions.

THR: What do you think when you see tapes of your first season?

O'Reilly: It's embarrassing. I've been doing this 12-and-a-half years, we've been No. 1 for around eight. We started something new and daring, and I put myself on the line, so of course you're going to look foolish sometimes. When I look back now I say, "Oh my gosh, did I actually look like that?"

THR: Do you want the new president to succeed, or are you in the Rush Limbaugh camp?

O'Reilly: I do. I like Obama and admire what he has accomplished. He's in a little bit of trouble right now. I hope he can get out of it. I'll keep an eye on it and tell the folks what's going on.

THR: What are your favorite movies?

O'Reilly: "Godfather" and "Godfather II"; M*A*S*H; the original "The Producers." I'm a big movie guy.

THR: And favorite actors?

O'Reilly: Clint Eastwood is No. 1. I admire him because he's a self-made guy. Gene Hackman, because I've never seen him give a bad performance. Al Pacino, particularly the early stuff.

THR: What's your favorite Eastwood movie?

O'Reilly: "Unforgiven." That thing was layered 15 different ways. A great film. He deserved the Academy Award for that.

THR: How does one go from high school teacher in Miami to No. 1 cable news star?

O'Reilly: I did it the hard way. I went back to school, got a master's degree from Boston University in broadcast journalism. I took a job in Scranton, Pa., and I worked hard. I took chances and did what I had to do. It's the great American story. That's why "Bold Fresh" (his latest book) is so successful, because if I can do it with my personality, so can anybody.