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PLAYBOY: As a former advisor to a U.S. senator, do you ever feel it’s unseemly to be part of the sparring on cable news shows?
O’DONNELL: It’s the nature of these shows. In its successful form, prime-time cable news is op-ed television, which is why CNN usually runs last.
PLAYBOY: Does contentiousness drive ratings?
O’DONNELL: My highest-rated shows were 25 minutes with the vice president, which was not contentious in any way, and any 10 minutes I’ve had with Bill Maher, which were not contentious either. Contentiousness is not what drives the ratings.
PLAYBOY: Yet lots of yelling goes on. Bill O’Reilly is famous for interrupting guests and sometimes bullying them.
O’DONNELL: I don’t think it’s required. The audience is drawn to someone who gives voice to how they feel. It doesn’t have to involve yelling or bullying. But I do think it’s probably satisfying to his audience to see O’Reilly beat someone up.
PLAYBOY: You’ve attacked O’Reilly, recently for his interview with President Obama. What was wrong with it?
O’DONNELL: You have your big Super Bowl moment to interview the president and don’t ask a single memorable question, not one, other than “How does it feel to be hated?” And this was coming from someone who is hated by millions of people. It’s a stupid question because it’s one you could ask any president. They’re all hated. In fact, Obama is hated in lower numbers than most presidents. O’Reilly didn’t ask one worthwhile policy question. He had an interview opportunity with the president, and he completely blew it.
PLAYBOY: You once said of O’Reilly, “I see dozens of guys I grew up with who are just like him—overbearing, argumentative Irish guys.”
O’DONNELL: I can’t take Bill seriously. He’s a character I’ve known since I was a kid. He makes me laugh more than anything else, because he’s this faux character, a character he plays in a series called The O’Reilly Factor—the braggadocio Irish guy who plays as if he’s smarter than you, but in fact he doesn’t know very much and can’t really back up what he says. Everybody from my neighborhood knows that character and thinks that character is a joke. You know, the tough-guy part of it is the biggest fraud of all. Bill’s from Long Island. Sorry, that’s not tough-guy territory.
PLAYBOY: Is Glenn Beck a newer version of O’Reilly?
O’DONNELL: Beck is one of the great showmen of this field.
PLAYBOY: Some people think he’s dangerous, potentially inciting viewers to violence.
O’DONNELL: He doesn’t feel dangerous to me. It’s hard for a man in makeup to feel dangerous.
PLAYBOY: Do you think Beck believes the extreme views he espouses, or is he pandering to his audience?
O’DONNELL: The latter. He follows his audience. He tells them what they want to hear.
PLAYBOY: So extremism sells?
O’DONNELL: Well, maybe Beck’s extremism has to do with a straight decline in his audience over the past year. It’s quite pronounced. His numbers have declined. People are theorizing that it has to do with his going too far, making no sense and cheering for the wrong side—for example, cheering on Mubarak in Egypt. Another thing is that he’s a doomsday guy. “The world is coming to an end” is his thing. You can say that for a limited time, and then it had better come to an end or people will think it’s not worth listening to you much longer. [Editor’s note: Shortly after this interview was completed, Beck and Fox News announced they were parting ways.]
PLAYBOY: Does Rush Limbaugh also pander?
O’DONNELL: Yes. He tells his audience what they want to hear. Even more than that, he plays the character they want him to be. Rush did a horrific physical imitation of Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease. If we have a beloved actor in America, it is Michael J. Fox. He’s bearing his disease nobly and bravely, and you have no option but to admire him. Rush decided to attack him, though, because Fox is a Democrat. Rush did his horrible impression, with his arms moving out of control and all that. His viewers saw Rush do that and didn’t think it was funny. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that Rush Limbaugh deeply regrets what he did, but he will never apologize for it, ever, because the character Rush Limbaugh cannot apologize. That would destroy the character, and that’s all he is—a character, like O’Reilly and the others.
PLAYBOY: Do you worry Limbaugh and other right-wing commentators’ audiences believe them when they encourage rather than refute untruths, such as the so-called birthers’ belief that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States?
O’DONNELL: To me it’s just stupid.