To the uninitiated, Bill O'Reilly could be just another middle-age white guy on TV, his tie perfectly knotted, and making the most of his thinning hair. Until he opens his mouth.
Five nights a week on The O'Reilly Factor, the Fox News Channel show that he hosts, he unloads on some of the biggest names in politics and pop culture.
"I've taken the biggest sacred cows down in the last four years," he says.
He's been called "arrogant," "obnoxious," a "know-nothing blowhard" and a whole lot worse. But in five years, O'Reilly has overtaken CNN's Larry King with the top-rated primetime news program on cable.
Attacking Celebrities' Response to Sept. 11
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, O'Reilly has been blasting charities for not getting money to survivors fast enough. And last week he unleashed a blistering attack on Hollywood celebrities who participated in fund raisers, but wouldn't talk to him about the alleged problems.
"The majority are phonies," he said on his show, "much more interested in their own images than solving any social problems."
That drew a scathing letter from actor George Clooney, who participated in the America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon, which raised $266 million for the September 11th Fund.
"Your accusation that the fund is being mishandled and misused … is nothing short of a lie," Clooney wrote. "The money is going out to the right people, and to make certain of this, the United Way is taking some time."
That the United Way is taking its time is precisely O'Reilly's beef. "Many of the grieving families, most of the ones we've spoken with, have heard nothing from the September 11th Fund and confusion is everywhere," he responded to Clooney, adding, "Are you getting the picture here George?"
Negativity and Anger Seem to Sell
With one No. 1 best-seller under his belt, O'Reilly is out with a follow-up entitled The No-Spin Zone, the term he uses to describe his show.
"The no-spin zone means you come in and talk to me," says O'Reilly. "Don't lie. Answer the question."
So each night, those who dare enter O'Reilly's "no-spin zone," and those who dare to disagree feel the wrath. O'Reilly seems to be cashing in on a culture where negativity and anger can sell.
"He has created a currency in not caring whether you call him a jerk," said Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News. "It's the opposite of what most people think talent is about. Talent is about wanting everybody to love them. Bill does not appear to have that need. He seems to have missed that gene."
His anger and moral indignation, says O'Reilly, is an outgrowth of his working-class sensibility. He's just looking out for the little guy, he says, whose taste he says he shares — despite his annual salary of more than $4 million.
"Just because I earn a large salary doesn't mean that I have to change my lifestyle, the way I think, my point of view, my friends," he says. "I don't have to do that. I'm not the Jeffersons, movin' on up to the East Side."
Asked what he's so angry about, he says, "That the people who make this country work, the millions who get up at 6 o'clock in the morning, get home at 6 at night … They don't have a lot of power … And the people that they give power to to represent them, more often than not sell them out."
He calls this "un-American" and "corrupt."
Bravado, Bombast — and Credibility
It's unclear whether Bill O'Reilly was born angry. He remembers a happy childhood in a middle-class neighborhood on New York's Long Island. He worked his way up the TV food chain, from local news to the networks. First CBS, then ABC, saying he never quite fit in because of his refusal to compromise his principles.
For a while, O'Reilly abandoned hard news altogether, anchoring the tabloid news show "Inside Edition." But then in 1996, he was chosen to play the angry guy on the fledgling Fox News Channel, and cable TV has never been the same.
In the end, for all the bravado and bombast he uses to engage his audience, O'Reilly realizes the real key to success is credibility. More important than being perceived as working class or as the angriest man on television, O'Reilly wants to be known for being fair.
"I'm not trying to convince anybody to do anything. I want them to make up their own mind," he says. "And I think I'm fair. If I am not fair, hit me with it … Let me have it. But I think I'm fair."