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Remembering the O’Reilly who didn’t do fires

The day Bill O’Reilly was fired, a former colleague at Channel 3 News in Hartford asked if I recalled any sexual harassment allegations during O’Reilly’s very brief time with us as a reporter/anchor decades ago.

I said I didn’t. Our differences with O’Reilly were purely journalistic. 

O’Reilly was about 30 when we hired him out of Scranton. It was a good career move for him. There are 210 television markets in the United States, with New York the largest and Glendive, Montana, the 210th. Hartford-New Haven was around the 25th back then and Scranton was about 30 markets smaller.

I assigned O’Reilly to co-anchor the 11 o’clock news with Don Lark, a far more experienced anchorman who had come to the station from Detroit. In addition to his anchoring duties, O’Reilly also served as a general assignment reporter, a position he didn’t enjoy because the news decisions and assignments were mostly made by others. And even at that point in his career, O’Reilly did not appear interested in the views of others. There was never, however, any indication of bias in his work or attitude. That didn’t fly in those days.

The beginning of the end of O’Reilly’s employment with the Washington Post-owned CBS affiliate occurred one evening when a large fire broke out in Springfield, Mass. That city had stations affiliated with NBC and ABC, the other principal sources of news and entertainment in that pre-cable era, but we were the only CBS station serving western Massachusetts. A large fire in that area therefore merited our attention.

I was called at home and told the only reporters that night were doing stories some distance from Springfield, so I told the producer to send O’Reilly, leaving Lark to anchor alone.

The producer asked me to hold on and quickly returned to tell me, “Bill says he doesn’t do fires.”

Now, a reporter telling his editor he “doesn’t do fires” is akin to an army private telling his sergeant he doesn’t make beds. And my reaction was probably similar to that of the sergeant upon receiving word his subordinate declined to make his bed — only more vigorous.

Decades later, my sons still recall the night old dad erupted on the telephone, using language new to their very young ears. O’Reilly also got my message and was in my office at 9 the next morning when my monologue continued.

Had I known then that firing Bill O’Reilly would develop into something of an art form, I would have kept notes. But all this happened in 1980 or thereabouts, and after all those years, details tend to fade. Ego is never in short supply among news anchors, but O’Reilly’s was exceptional even then—along with a tendency toward bullying those who worked with him. Those things, I do remember. 

We’d hear about Bill from time to time. There was a famous story about him causing conflict in a newsroom by leaving his pay stub in the Xerox machine so a more experienced anchor could learn he was making less money than Bill.

Despite his difficult relationships with other human beings, Bill became a success. He was very good on TV, and after many short stays in many stations, he found his calling as the smirking host of Inside Edition, one of the first TV gossip shows that began obliterating the line between fake news and the real thing.

But he found his true home at Fox, the conservative cable news outlet founded by Rupert Murdoch as an alternative to the reputedly liberal biases of the existing cable channels — biases sometimes evident but never to the degree that one-sided reporting would become the norm at Fox.

The statements by Fox paying tribute to O’Reilly were revealing. Howard Kurtz, the network’s media specialist, referred to him as “an especially talented broadcaster, whose blustery, sometimes confrontational style kept putting people in the seats.”

Rupert Murdoch described the man he’d just fired as “one of the most accomplished TV personalities in the history of cable news.” 

All true, but there was no reference to O’Reilly as a journalist, reporter or newsman.

Walter Cronkite was never called a “personality.” 

 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at dahles@hotmail.com.