DECEMBER 3, 2001
When titans collide
© 2001

Friday last I had the opportunity to interview Bill O'Reilly.

Although the purpose of the interview was to talk about his new best selling book, "No Spin Zone," we briefly discussed the dust up over the Drudge Report story about O'Reilly allegedly taking on Rush Limbaugh. I told him I thought both he and Matt Drudge were used by the smarmy industry 'suits' who fed industry gossip to Drudge.

Bill responded that he was sure Matt was used, but if I could explain how he was used he'd like to know.

Unfortunately, we didn't have time for me to respond or engage him in the discussion. So here is how I would have responded.

I have had occasion over time to interview both Matt Drudge and Bill O'Reilly. They are both good interview subjects. In addition to being professionals, they both have huge egos and no diffidence in articulating strong positions.

In some ways this brouhaha resembles stories of General Patton and Field Marshall Montgomery. You pick who is who.

The soap-opera-ish controversy over O'Reilly's alleged move into radio crescendoed when Drudge reported, "O'Reilly has been secretly pitching a daily 2-hour syndicated radio program."

Drudge wrote, "In recent weeks, O'Reilly's interest in doing radio increased dramatically, insiders reveal. O'Reilly moved from wanting to do a daily short-form commentary -- in the spirit of Paul Harvey -- to a long form strip, positioned opposite Limbaugh, 'I can take him on, I'm not going to be doing politics,' O'Reilly told one top executive."

I asked Bill specifically about that quote and he denies ever having said it.

According to Drudge, "O'Reilly's negotiations with syndicators intensified after Rush Limbaugh announced he had lost his hearing."

"It is not clear if O'Reilly views the Limbaugh franchise as weakened and vulnerable, or if the timing of the O'Reilly move is simply a natural progression of his media success. "

The initial online copy was apparently exacerbated by a decidedly bitchy tone when Matt talked about it on his radio program. O'Reilly got really PO'd ("I have to say, I've never, ever been as angry") and called into his own Fox News show, where John Kasich was filling in, and excoriated Drudge -- even suggesting he was jonesing for an 18th century duel.

"If this was 200 years ago, there'd have to be a duel, and believe me, I'd win. Vicious stuff. Totally ridiculous. ... It's really disgraceful in my opinion," O'Reilly said.

The reason that I think both guys were used is this: Any broadcast executive that feeds Drudge alleged "insider" talk can expect Matt to post it to the Drudge Report. Buddabing-buddaboom! That is what Drudge does.

O'Reilly is a strong personality. The words tenacious, arrogant, ego and principled are often used in describing him.

It was a slam-dunk sure thing that, if or when the salacious implication that he was attempting to exploit Rush Limbaugh's hearing loss for professional gain were printed, he would respond with both guns blazing, and he did.

Hey, I don't blame him. Frankly if it had happened to me I wouldn't just grouse about it, I would slap Matt's funky hat off his head and give him a very short lesson. I guess Bill is either classier than I or has more at risk.

Both men were used. Both did what they were expected to do. They hit all their cues on the button. And although Rush has responded with classic grace and class, the reality is there is an elephant in the living room no one will talk about.

The Limbaugh syndicator (Premier) has a huge investment in him. It will do whatever it can to maintain its franchise and maximize the return on its investment -- and it has.

Believe me, my thoughts and prayers are with Rush and his family.

Meanwhile, no one wants to be the bastard to say it, but the reality is Rush has fallen off his pace.

He is one of the most talented and successful broadcasters ever. However, in the wake of his hearing loss the cruel fact is, he ain't what he used to be.

It is painful to listen to a brilliantly quick talent fall seconds off the pace. His formerly sharp, quick retorts to callers -- notwithstanding whatever whiz bang technology is exploited -- are slow, and becoming a dim memory.

Rush Limbaugh could probably successfully continue for years just commenting and ranting. He doesn't need (and should avoid) callers to do his thing, but it won't ever be the same.

However, talk-radio audiences are incredibly loyal. Even if a talent equal or superior to Rush were to find a national stage it would still take years to erode the Rush audience. Dittoheads are not going to jump ship for anyone quick.

Frankly, the timing would have been good for O'Reilly to enter the ether of radio to position himself for the day when Rush decides enough is enough and chooses on his own not to hang on like some past their prime boxers.

O'Reilly could be the next king of radio and win the trifecta of TV, radio and books. However, as I see it, those smarmy Machiavellian suits have killed or at least significantly delayed that potential by pouring gasoline on the controversy.

Regardless of whether Drudge was spot-on or disseminating whole cloth fiction, an O'Reilly nationally syndicated radio launch has been torpedoed for the time being.

Bill told me, "I don't need radio." And that is true. But he probably wants it.

Edward Albee once said, "What is gained is loss. "