In recent years, "The O'Reilly Factor" has adopted an old tradition from "60 Minutes"-era TV journalism: the ambush interview. In this piece we originally aired in June, we spoke with Gawker's investigations editor John Cook who says Bill O'Reilly uses the ambush to settle personal scores. Plus, OTM producer PJ Vogt describes shadowing Cook as he tried to ambush an ambusher.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.
JESSE WATTERS: Just had a few questions for you.
ANGELO TARANTO: I just don't appreciate…
JESSE WATTERS: Why are you trying to ruin Christmas for the children?
ANGELO TARANTO: Just…
JESSE WATTERS: Angelo, you’re banning candy canes from the holiday sale. Don't you think that’s crazy?
BOB GARFIELD: That’s producer Jesse Watters from FOX News' O’Reilly Factor launching into an ambush interview of a school superintendent in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Ambush interviews are an O’Reilly specialty. That’s when the show producer, camera crew in tow, stalks and then corners a subject who has declined to come on the show, although some victims say they were never asked to begin with. In the clip you just heard, the target was a superintendent who had refused to allow religious decorations to be displayed in an elementary school’s holiday gift room. Earlier this year, before frightened Chelmsford school officials were captured on national TV, some media watchers had already noted one similarity among O'Reilly’s targets. They were all pretty obscure. Writing in The New York Times, reporter Brian Stelter named a few of the relatively small fish caught in O'Reilly’s net. There was Mike Hoyt, editor of The Columbia Journalism Review, circulation, 20,000. There was Hendrik Hertzberg, a New Yorker staff writer who’s not quite a household name. And then there was the ambush of a relatively unknown blogger named Amanda Terkel.
JESSE WATTERS: Did you actually ever hear the Radio Factor segment in question?
AMANDA TERKEL: Yes.
JESSE WATTERS: So what was the Mel Gibson component to Bill’s analysis?
AMANDA TERKEL: I don’t believe I highlighted the Mel Gibson component.
JESSE WATTERS: Do you know what the Mel Gibson component was?
AMANDA TERKEL: No.
JESSE WATTERS: Why not?
AMANDA TERKEL: Because I didn’t highlight it.
JESSE WATTERS; Because you didn’t hear it, did you, because you’re just dishonest.
BOB GARFIELD: Of course, while The O'Reilly Factor can lay claim to the title of “Ambush Central” it certainly did not invent that technique. For that honor, most people credit, or blame, CBS’s 60 Minutes, and specifically Mike Wallace.
MIKE WALLACE: Come on out.
MAN: No. Just, just…
MIKE WALLACE: You don’t want to talk to me?
MIKE WALLACE: Why are you so reluctant? Why are you so reluctant?
MAN: You better get over here, Mike. You want to just get right over here.
MIKE WALLACE: I don’t understand. They must be ashamed of somethin’!
BOB GARFIELD: This past summer we spoke to John Cook, investigations editor for the media gossip site Gawker, who said that there is a significant difference between today’s ambushes and the ambushes of yore.
JOHN COOK: The classic ambush style, usually there was some kind of public issue at stake. For instance, when Mike Wallace was going after someone who’s renting an apartment and they're discriminating against African-Americans, there’s something of consequence at stake. And many of the ambushes that Jesse Watters has done for Bill O'Reilly are really about sort of carrying out Bill O'Reilly’s personal vendettas against people who wrote things about him that he didn't like. And also, when 60 Minutes does it, they actually try to get the person under civilized circumstances to speak to them; they actually try to interview them. Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker and Amanda Terkel of ThinkProgress say they never had any idea that Bill O'Reilly wanted to talk to them. BOB GARFIELD: So let's hear what that sounds like. [CLIP]: BILL O’REILLY: So after he refused to come on The Factor, we sent Jesse Watters out to see him. JESSE WATTERS: Are you going to apologize to Mr. Gingrich? MAN: [LAUGHS] No. Are you going to apologize to me? JESSE WATTERS: For what? MAN: [LAUGHS] For, for - for invading my - pleasant morning. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: So what’s gained by this kind of confrontation if you’re FOX News Channel? JOHN COOK: Well, the theater is great, especially for FOX’s audience, to have some egghead liberal caught unawares and looking freaked out and frightened and confronted with the righteous ideas of Bill O'Reilly through his messenger, Jesse Watters. So it makes for great television, and it made for great television when Mike Wallace was doing it and when other people do it, as well. And that’s one of the reasons anybody does these things. BOB GARFIELD: Now, this technique can only work, and the theater only works properly, if the ambush-er has the presumed moral authority in the confrontation, as Mike Wallace did. By the time he shows up, you've already seen how bad the bad guy is who’s been avoiding him. When Jesse Watters bothers Amanda Terkel on vacation or whatever, does he have that kind of audience sympathy, even Bill O'Reilly’s audience? JOHN COOK: I think he does or they wouldn't do it. I think by and large with Bill O'Reilly’s audience there’s a deliberate attempt to create heroes and villains or, whatever, “patriots and pinheads,” as Bill O'Reilly puts it. I know in Amanda Terkel’s case and, if memory serves, in Hendrik Hertzberg’s case, as well, it wasn't the first time that they had been mentioned on the show. They mention them over a period of days and then there’s this confrontation. And I think that’s sort of getting the audience used to the idea of these people as enemies of Bill O'Reilly, as liars, as people who are spreading mistruths about him, and he's going to go out there and set things straight. BOB GARFIELD: All right, so you decided [LAUGHS] to give Jesse Watters a taste of his own medicine. How did you go about doing that? JOHN COOK: Well, it’s sort of because after the Amanda Terkel ambush, that got a lot of publicity and there was a lot of interest in this, and The New York Times did a story on Jesse Watters and Bill O'Reilly’s ambush interviews. And there was something in there that leapt out at me, which was Jesse Watters declined repeated requests for an interview for this story, which I found, obviously, odd, given that part of his job is to force other people to answer questions for Bill O'Reilly, irrespective of their desires. [OVERTALK] BOB GARFIELD: Well, you didn't find it odd. JOHN COOK: [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: You found it - JOHN COOK: Well, I - BOB GARFIELD: - you found it hypocritical and predictable and just absolutely delicious. So [LAUGHS] - JOHN COOK: Well no, but I would say actually that I would think that if Jesse Watters sort of had his head screwed on straight, he would realize that the smartest thing he could do is just openly answer questions about it and try to inoculate the issue, whether it’s to The New York Times or to us. But you’re right, it presented an opportunity. So we decided we had some questions for Jesse Watters. So, we drove out to his house at 6 o'clock in the morning, with a video camera, and waited for him to leave. And I consider it ungentlemanly to sneak up on someone the way he does, so we came up with an idea where we would be out there and at 7 o'clock in the morning we posted to Gawker a photograph of me outside Jesse’s house saying, we're here, we'd like to talk to you. And we have a pretty reasonable assurance that someone within FOX would see that, because I know the FOX publicity people read Gawker fairly religiously, and they've emailed me within seconds of things that I've posted going up. So we had a pretty good idea that he would be aware. So we waited for him and he dodged us that morning because we're pretty much amateurs. And [LAUGHS], and we didn't anticipate the urgent need for a bathroom break. [BOB LAUGHS] I'm sure that’s something that Jesse figured out long ago in his career of ambushes, but we're newbies. BOB GARFIELD: Two words for future reference, tag team, okay? JOHN COOK: [LAUGHING] Right, right. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so the gag is pretty funny, but I'm just curious how far into Jesse Watters’ personal life are you willing to intrude to pay off this joke? JOHN COOK: One of the ambushes that Jesse did was a guy named Bill Arkin who’s a columnist for The Washington Post’s website and also an analyst for NBC News, and he had written something that Bill O'Reilly didn't like. And Jesse wound up tailing him for about an hour and a half across state lines. And when he found Bill Arkin and approached him, he was on some kind of family outing, with young children, and Jesse walked right up to him and stuck a microphone in his face. That was pretty objectionable to me. It’s clear from Jesse’s M.O. that that’s deliberate. They don't get ‘em when they're coming out of the car at their house, ‘cause they can go back in. They wait for them to get in the car and then drive somewhere, and they get them in a public space where they're unable to escape. BOB GARFIELD: And most flummoxed? JOHN COOK: Yeah, especially if you’re not someone who’s accustomed to that kind of attention and that’s why they do it that way. So I'm not going to go on his property, but if and when we get him, we have to do it in a public place where he’s out with his wife or something having dinner, you know, if that’s what it takes. I don't see any real barriers for me to doing that. BOB GARFIELD: That’s John Cook of Gawker. He decided to have another go at ambushing Jesse Watters, so we sent OTM producer PJ Vogt to go along for the ride. Okay, PJ, what happened? PJ VOGT: Well, we got up at 4 o'clock in the morning and we drove from Brooklyn. It was me, John Cook and Gawkers’ video guy, Richard Blakeley. I actually recorded it, so I can let John set the scene. JOHN COOK: We're in Huntington, New York and we're parked outside Jesse Watters’ house. It’s 7: 17 a.m. on a Saturday, and Jesse’s car is here and his garage door is open, which is a very encouraging sign. PJ VOGT: When we first got there we were really excited because the garage door was open, so we immediately had this theory that Jesse and his wife Noelle, that they had left it open because they were packing the car or something and they were going to come out any minute. And we sat there for almost three more hours. We were in this big black SUV with tinted windows, which [BOB LAUGHS] John had [LAUGHS] rented because he thought it was less conspicuous than his regular car. [BOB LAUGHS] About 9: 45, the garage door started to roll down, and a couple of seconds after that, you can hear Richard, the video guy, and he’s really worried that she’s going to see us. And John’s whispering and trying to convince him that we're safe because there’s these tinted windows on our SUV. RICHARD: There’s – it’s Noelle, it’s Noelle. Windows. JOHN COOK: [WHISPERING] Don't worry. It’s tinted. She won't be able to see in. RICHARD: [WHISPERING] Well, she’s coming by, she’s coming by. JOHN COOK: Oh, my God, she’s going to walk right by. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so you’re staking out somebody’s house in this gigantic SUV with the tinted windows. How are you feeling at this point? PJ VOGT: Unbelievably excited. The thing I learned about ambush interviews [LAUGHS] working on this piece is whether or not they're good journalism, they're extremely, extremely fun. And then like a minute after that, after Noelle had come out, the garage door rolls back up and Jesse Watters himself comes out, and then all hell broke loose. [LAUGHTER] In this next piece of tape, if you listen, you can hear John say, oh bleep, sorry. That was us getting tangled up each other as we sort of fell out of the car, and him slamming [LAUGHS] the car door on me. MAN: It’s Jesse. MAN: Oh, my God. MAN: Let's go. MAN: Wait. All right, wait, let me get my - MAN: Just go, go, go. Go, go. MAN: You go. MAN: No, go. MAN: Go. [REMARKS/RUSTLING SOUNDS/OFF-MIKE COMMENTS] MAN: Oh! MAN: Oh! JOHN COOK: [BLEEP] Sorry. MAN: Sorry. JOHN COOK: John Cook, from Gawker, how are you? Mind if we ask you some questions? JESSE WATTERS: How you guys doin’? PJ VOGT: Not bad, how about yourself? JESSE WATTERS: Not bad. PJ VOGT: Do you like stalking people? [SOUND OF CAR STARTING] Hi, Noelle. Do you mind if we ask you some questions? Why won't you - answer our questions? Are you scared to answer questions? Can we use your bathroom? [SOUND OF CAR] PJ VOGT: There ends my stalking adventure. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so you guys are kind of the gang that couldn't shoot straight. [LAUGHS] After sitting there for five hours, you can't get out of the car - PJ VOGT: [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: - and he gets away. PJ VOGT: [LAUGHS] Yeah. Well, John considered it a success because he felt like he made his point. I think the first thing that it’s worth noting is that he broke, or at least bent, two of the ground rules that he laid down in his interview with you. We didn't post a picture on Gawker sort of warning that we were outside, and when we did ambush him, we ended up cutting across his property, which John had said he was reluctant to do. Also, by the time we got there, Jesse was just totally laughing at us. He saw us fall out of the car. So I'm not sure the operation totally succeeded. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] I've got to ask you this, PJ. You’re doing this story because the presumption is that the FOX News Channel’s style of ambush is gratuitous and sleazy, and yet, you've confessed that you were very [LAUGHS] excited about the whole thing. How do you square this circle? PJ VOGT: Oh, I don't know. I kept – when we were on our way up there, I kept trying to interview John and I kept asking him some variation on the question, did he worry that he was like the rogue cop who had broken so many rules chasing the criminal that he'd become the criminal? And he didn't feel like he had, but honestly, I, I think we tiptoed over to the dark side. BOB GARFIELD: All right, PJ. Well, welcome back to the side of good. PJ VOGT: Thanks, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: PJ Vogt is a producer for On the Media.