Since he joined the Fox News Channel as the anchor of “The O’Reilly Factor” in 1996, Bill O’Reilly has been the exemplar of cable news personalities. His style of challenging inquiry, the ease he shows in his role behind his desk, and the frank honesty of his editorializing has set a standard for other cable news programs that are similarly anchored by an opinionated presence.
Unlike other political pundits though, O’Reilly did not come to Fox through politics; O’Reilly has always been a newsman. And that keeps him grounded in his traditional upbringing, able to hold an ear to his audience. “Whatever I have done or will do in this life,” O’Reilly wrote in his first best-selling book, The O’Reilly Factor, “I’m working-class Irish American.”
O’Reilly, now 64, has done quite a bit, including producing a best-selling book almost each year of the last decade. Killing Jesus, his most recent, spent 6 weeks at number one on The New York Times best seller list.
Born in New York in 1949, Bill grew up in Levittown, Long Island, the paragon of post-war, blue-collar suburbs. His father traces his lineage back to at least the early 18th century in County Cavan, and his mother’s side is from Northern Ireland. Bill recognizes the impact that heritage has on his upbringing and his current ideologies and practices.
“My people were Kennedys, McLaughlins and O’Reillys, and because I had that strain going back 80 or 90 years since my people came over, those lessons I was taught as a child made a tremendous impression on me,” he told our partner publication, the Irish Voice, in 2008.
“Whenever you get people in a working-class environment you get people who have a tremendous loyalty to their country, who are opposed to dramatic change. They don’t want it; they don’t know why it’s necessary. They have a strong loyalty to tradition. That’s still there.” He knows his audience because he is his audience.
He attended St. Brigid’s grammar school and later moved to Chaminade High School, a private boys high school on Long Island. He attended Marist College, earned a degree in history and later, a Master of Arts in broadcast journalism from Boston University.
In a 2003 interview with NPR, Bill extolled his Catholic education: “What you learn from Catholic school is discipline; you learn manners; you learn to respect other people and authority; you learn to perform. You learn that there is a higher being; you are on earth for a specific purpose . . . I was a wild unruly youngster. I believe that if I didn’t have that kind of strict education I’d be in a penitentiary right now.”
But that unrulyness is part of the etiology of Bill’s success. His appeal is that he is at times unpredictable and a-partisan, to both the pleasure and chagrin of some of his viewers. Bill isn’t one to make up his mind easily, preferring to take in all the facts, free of spin, before making up his mind. But once it’s made, it’s hard to dissuade. “To this day I’m an independent thinker; I’m an independent voter; I’m a registered Independent,” he said in the same interview. “I basically look at the world from the point of view of ‘Let’s solve the problem.’ Whatever the problem is, let’s find the solution to it. And if the solution is on the left, I grab it. If it’s on the right, I grab it.”
His goal with his show, he says, is not to convince viewers to his way of thinking, or his specific solution, but to open up dialogue. While he is firmly Catholic, he refuses to use his show as a platform for evangelizing the type of faith-based conservatism that airs on other conservative talk shows. “My mission isn’t to convert you,” he told Newsweek in 2011. “It’s to protect you.”
O’Reilly has a daughter, Madeline (born 1998), and a son, Spencer (born 2003), with his former wife, Maureen E. McPhilmy.