The Slatest

The New York Times Fell for Bill O’Reilly’s Bogus Origin Story

Bill O’Reilly attends the Hollywood Reporter’s 2016 35 Most Powerful People in Media event at the Four Seasons restaurant on April 6, 2016 in New York City.

Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images

The obits for Bill O’Reilly’s career are still pouring in from all corners of the press. At the New York Times, media columnist Jim Rutenberg filed a piece on his downfall that included an abridged version of the origin story O’Reilly has peddled for years:

Mr. Ailes, the founding chairman of Fox News, envisioned a news network that would speak for those forgotten Americans who thought the rest of the media was talking down to them while abetting a liberal takeover of their country.

He found one of those concerned citizens in the person of a midcareer, midlevel broadcaster named Bill O’Reilly, of Levittown, Long Island. With a white working-class background, and a perfectly perched chip on his shoulder, Mr. O’Reilly was the ideal personality for Mr. Ailes to build his network around.

As our Mike Pesca pointed out on Twitter today, this characterization of O’Reilly’s background, pushed regularly by O’Reilly himself over the years, is false. As the Times itself has reported previously, O’Reilly grew up in Westbury—not far from the ur-suburb of Levittown, Long Island, but a different and more affluent place altogether. There, in the 1960s, he was raised on the income of his father, an oil company accountant O’Reilly has written “never made more than $35,000.” When his father retired in 1978, the median household income in the U.S was just over $15,000. So $35,000 then was the equivalent of around $134,000 today adjusted for inflation.

In 2001, Michael Kinsley took a scalpel to O’Reilly’s revisionism. “It’s the only kind of snobbery,” he wrote, “with any real power in America today: reverse snobbery. Bill O’Reilly pretends (or maybe sincerely imagines) that he feels the sting of status from above. But he unintentionally reveals that he actually fears it more from below. Like most of us.”