The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 10, No 3 (2006)

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Children &
Their Culture


The O'Reilly Factor For Kids: A Plunge Into "The No Spin Zone"

Katie Sciurba


Katie Sciurba began studying children's literature as an undergraduate at UC San Diego. She earned her MFA in Children's Writing from The New School and an MS in Education from Mercy College. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D in English Education at New York University, and she is the author of the forthcoming picture book OYE, CELIA!: A SONG FOR CELIA CRUZ.


The following article was offered as an opinion by the author, who is researching celebrity writing for children and wanted to do a little self-expression in a non-academic form. In a world that is increasingly polarized, media celebrities can be used to support the propaganda of extreme thinkers of all types.

"To many book critics, librarians and other professionals...it's galling to see celebrity children's books make any money. These critics say that the greatest flaw of celebrity books is that they generally construct their stories around a message."
Karen MacPherson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Bill O'Reilly, a celebrity as revered for his "excellence in reporting", for his conservative punditry, as he is despised for being "no one whose opinion you truly value", smiles from the cover of his children's book (The O'Reilly Factor For Kids flap copy, 2004, The San Francisco Chronicle, 2005). He is one among several celebrity non-writers (singers, actors, provocative dancers, TV personalities, and comedians) who has convinced publishers to buy, produce, and sell their children's books en masse. Whether or not iconic figures such as O'Reilly are capable of writing a book that captivates -- or is good for -- children is seemingly irrelevant, as their books are almost guaranteed to become bestsellers. As long as there is an adult following of the celebrity author, publishers will make money.

On the cover of The O'Reilly Factor For Kids: A Survival Guide for America's Families, O'Reilly dons a cozy pullover sweater and a collared shirt that bring out the blue of his twinkling eyes, as opposed to the all-business blue suit, blue shirt, and blue tie he wears on the cover of The O'Reilly Factor: The Good, the Bad, and the Completely Ridiculous in American Life. These two books, although intended for different audiences (teenagers vs. adults), are essentially comprised of the same moralistic rules for living -- a code for life developed by the celebrity, Bill O'Reilly. On his early evening Fox Television Program, "The O'Reilly Factor", O'Reilly makes his moral standpoint abundantly clear. Any interviewee who opposes the United States president, the war in Iraq, or any right-wing American value is subject to badgering. The show host once ridiculed an anti-war guest whose father had died in the attacks on the World Trade Center by telling him that he was dishonoring his deceased dad. Although O'Reilly claims to put "no spin" on his reporting, his tone and mannerisms are much more welcoming with interviewees who support his viewpoints. The way audiences feel about O'Reilly is almost always reflective of their political stance. The more liberal the viewer of "The O'Reilly Factor", the more damning the opinion will be.

The newspapers, magazine articles, television programs, and reviews that covered the release of The O'Reilly Factor For Kids, from whichever lens they chose to do so, were alike in that they focused more attention on the persona attached to the name and face on the cover of the book than to the text of the book itself. This fact supports the notion that celebrity authors are appealing to publishers more for their fame, which drives "bigger marketing campaigns" and higher revenue, than for the books' literary merit. This argument, made by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 's Karen MacPherson, is one that several children's book critics support. Celebrities often pen sub-par children's books, which include, but are in no way limited to, forced rhyme and overly moralistic tales. These books, however, sell by the millions, most likely because of their mass appeal to adult consumers who are fans of the given celebrity author.

The question, which dangles so elusively over The O'Reilly Factor For Kids, is whether or not it is possible to separate O'Reilly's (in)famousness from the advice he doles to teenagers. If we discuss this children's book within the framework of O'Reilly's public reputation as a celebrity, is it simply another piece to gall critics? Or does it have a legitimate leg of merit to stand on?

After 201,000 copies of The O'Reilly Factor For Kids: A Survival Guide for America's Families were sold between July 31, 2004 and August 1, 2005, Fox Television personality Bill O'Reilly, and his co-writer, Charles Flowers, were honored with Book Standard's Bestseller Award for Juvenile Nonfiction. The Book Standard is a "one stop on-line information center" that serves as a comprehensive guide to the publishing market, often providing the inside scoop on high-profile book deals. (The Book Standard, 2005). The honors that they bestow upon authors are directly linked to their sales track records. The sales of The O'Reilly Factor For Kids outdid those of Shel Silverstein's perennial favorite and another Bestseller Award Winner, Where The Sidewalk Ends, by approximately 38,000 (Business Wire, 2005). Impressive indeed, especially considering the fact that the O'Reilly-Flowers collaboration was not released by HarperCollins Entertainment until September of 2004, two months into the award-qualifying time period (www.harpercollins.com).

Upon bestowing the Juvenile Fiction Bestseller Award to O'Reilly and Flowers, Book Standard managing director, Jerome Kramer, stated, "It's a true celebration of the consumer choice: No politics, just numbers, which means the consumers have chosen the winners". Although the Business Wire article credits the "reputable" Nielson data collection system as the entity responsible for winner selection, the fact that Mr. Kramer offers up "No politics" as a disclaimer suggests that the book is highly political. Although the "consumers" certainly had to have "chosen" The O'Reilly Factor For Kids, one must question the politicized motivation behind that choice.

This "Survival Guide for America's Families" is broken down into various sections with such titles as "Bullies", "Your Money", "Sex", and "The Dressing Game". Each of these chapters offers the teenager a piece of advice. For example, in "Sex", O'Reilly writes, "[Q]uite a few of you like to pretend that you're in the Clinton White House. I mean, you casually practice oral sex, even in your teens....Listen to me: No matter how much you know about bodies, positions, practices, and preferences, you are nowhere near having the combination of maturity and insight that meaningful sex requires". This condescending, un-teenager-like tone permeates the entire book. Following each of these segments is a section entitled "My Story", in which the teenager learns about Bill O'Reilly's experience with the given topic. In some instances, O'Reilly himself has done exactly what he is telling the teenager not to do.

In an attempt to pinpoint consumer motivation, I turned to the customer reviews of The O'Reilly Factor For Kids posted on Amazon.com. "Several people have complained that this book is only to sway kids to the Republican viewpoint. No mention is made of the kids being swayed to the liberal point of view every single day in their public schools, all the way through college. Thanks to Bill O'Reilly for countering that!" writes Patricia E. Cox of Louisville, Kentucky (Amazon, 2005). Her "review" goes on to mention that one of her four children attended one such liberal school and was given a test to determine her political affiliation. After the daughter was marked a Democrat, Cox exclaims, "I'd like to have seen those questions!" Cox does not, however, explain the ways in which O'Reilly's book itself so graciously represents her Republican preference.

Similarly, M.G. Mora from San Leandro, California declares, "Great! What a great example to children. This guy's hateful and right wing comments and now he wants to spread his views to children? We're in deep trouble! (Amazon, 2005). Like several other posters who had "yet to read this book", it seems as though M.G. Mora jumped to a preemptive conclusion, based on the ideologies proffered by the figure looming behind the book.

The majority of the Amazon Customer Reviews speak about The O'Reilly Factor For Kids the way that reviewers speak about his show, "The O'Reilly Factor". If they happen to support his political stance, they rave about him -- even if they have not read or purchased the book. If they are anti-O'Reilly, they dismiss the book as a piece of propagandizing trash. The fact of the matter is that this book was published, and children somewhere, are reading it. For positive or negative critiques of this book to be legitimated, shouldn't commentators delve into the text?

Forgetting for a moment the fact that O'Reilly's face is plastered on the book, his tone is not exactly the kind that would invite teenagers to approach him with intimacy concerns. However, his chapter on "Sex" continues. "Thanks to certain priests in the Catholic Church and to other sources, you also know more about deviant behaviors". He quickly cuts to a tidbit on the AIDS pandemic. As a Catholic and former altar boy, O'Reilly is hardly making a statement against the Catholic Church or the priesthood itself. The attack is more centered on the "deviant behaviors" exhibited by certain priests. While this may reveal O'Reilly's disgust with pedophilia, this statement is located in a chapter titled "Sex", not in his chapter titled "Other Adults". The "deviant behaviors" comment seems, instead, to be a thinly veiled criticism on homosexuality, especially since AIDS is the subsequent topic of discussion. If this example of "deviant behaviors" were included in the "Other Adults" chapter, one might assume that O'Reilly is trying to warn teenagers against harm that adults might cause them. Boys might be cautioned to stay away from Catholic priests who make them feel uncomfortable. However, the tone of this comment is not as serious as it might be if it were directly addressing pedophilia. At least a reader can hope. O'Reilly is stating, somewhat offhandedly, that certain Catholic priests have simply made teenagers more aware of "deviant behaviors". This may or may not be thought of as propaganda, but it certainly does not counter O'Reilly's conservative perspective. Homosexuality is "deviant", according to O'Reilly, because it challenges the institution-slash-sacrament of marriage -- an institution-slash-sacrament in which clear male-female gender norms are defined.

In addition to relaying his interpretation of healthy sex -- perhaps waiting until the age of 20 as O'Reilly himself did, he informs us -- the author gives advice about how teenagers should dress in a chapter called "The Dressing Game". Oddly enough, only one paragraph is dedicated to boys. The rest of the chapter is strictly for girls. For example, he says, "But I do know that you know how to 'read' what spaghetti straps, lowriders, and navel rings mean and don't mean. You know which girls and boys are dressing to advertise their availability and which ones aren't". Although he lumps boys into this reprimand, he never once specifies what boys do to "advertise their availability". This is a clear double standard, perhaps reflective of O'Reilly's general outlook on the way women are perceived. This statement also raises a "blame the victim" alarm. If women are advertising their availability to strapping young men, how could those strapping young men ever be blamed for exploiting them?

"And guys, if you exploit a girl, it will come back to get you. That's called 'karma'," O'Reilly says in his "Sex" chapter. He explains the virtues of waiting to have sex, as he did, until one is mature enough to handle it. He also defines healthy sex as a "combination of sensible behavior and sincere affection". Are teenage readers supposed to take this advice seriously, coming from a celebrity who never flat-out denied sexual harassment allegations against him?

In October of 2004, one month after the release of The O'Reilly Factor For Kids, Andrea Mackris, an associate producer on "The O'Reilly Factor" filed a sexual harassment law suit against O'Reilly, claiming that he "had an obsessive interest in vibrators, phone sex, and, most persistently, erotic scenarios involving pairs of women" (The New York Times, 2004). Times writer Frank Rich, continued, "Only in America could Mr. O'Reilly appear on 'Live With Regis and Kelly' to plug his new moralistic children's advice book...just as old and young alike were going online to search thesmokinggun.com for the lewd monologues attributed to him in Ms. Mackris's 22-page complaint". In addition, the article makes mention of the fact that O'Reilly hooked up with "hot" Italian women on a trip to The Vatican, while his pregnant wife remained at home in Long Island. This image is incompatible with the authorial O'Reilly.

In a particularly interesting diatribe, Cinoreah of California writes a response to the anti-O'Reilly postings on Amazon: "All these people are doing is trashing an author whose TV and radio shoes they don't like and this is totally unfair". (She is among those who have not yet read the book.) She continues, "I was planning on buying two copies of this book for my granddaughters before reading the reviews, but I am MORE determined to do so now after reading the trashy comments of some here. You O'Reilly haters/bashers just helped to make him some more money. Bwahahahahahaha..." (Amazon, 2005). Mind you, once again, she based her decision to purchase the book on her feelings about O'Reilly -- not on her take of the text. I am going to assume, here, for the sake of her two grand daughters that she is unaware of the sexual harassment case against the author whose pockets she is fattening just a bit more.

As someone accused of such lewd conduct, were O'Reilly a schoolteacher or working with children in any other capacity, parents could have requested his removal. Not so with children's book authors. Especially not when those authors have fans that support their work without ever having read the material. Thus, O'Reilly is the winner of a bestseller award. And the only thing his "haters/bashers" can say is that O'Reilly is spreading his views. Regardless of his political affiliation and whether or not we agree with what he says on "The O'Reilly Factor", we need to ask ourselves whether or not this is an appropriate role model for children.

In Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War On Journalism, a documentary critique of the Fox Network, there is a memorable sequence comprised of many cuts in which Bill O'Reilly tells various guests, "Shut up!" In the documentary, he is also depicted as a domineering interviewer who cuts people off mid-sentence if he does not agree with what they are saying. Yet, in The O'Reilly Factor For Kids, the commentator writes, "As for Bill O'Reilly The Bully, it was a one time episode". He recounts a little league episode, in which he taunted a fellow teammate. He makes no mention of the popular impression others, like the creators of Outfoxed, currently have of him, though.

In his chapter, "Striking a Compromise", O'Reilly tells his teenage reader; "The O'Reilly you see on TV is a man doing a job. I believe everything I say. I am trying to get powerful people to tell you the truth. I argue, strongly and, I hope, clearly to get a story across....I do let my guests have the last word unless, of course, they make a last-ditch attempt to mislead you". By referring to his show, with the implication that his "final word" is synonymous with "the truth", O'Reilly, himself, makes a very poignant statement: People who do not agree with me, "mislead you". Therefore, it can be deduced that those who do not agree with the point of view of O'Reilly, the television personality (liberals, in other words), do not deserve the same compromising consideration that like-minded others receive.

In an October 2005 interview with Hannah Storm, moderator of CBS's The Early Show, O'Reilly broached the topic of bullying, with respect to his book. The following is an excerpt from the show's transcript:

O'REILLY: Out on my -- where I live on Long Island, they took a survey. Eighty-three percent of all teens know somebody who's been bullied or been bullied themselves: 83 percent. So it's an epidemic. And the schools are cowardly, most of them, and teachers and the administrators won't get involved because they say, 'Well, that's off campus. It's not happening here.'
STORM: Unless there's a physical threat. Sometimes you can...
O'REILLY: Yeah, but it is happening there...
STORM: Right...
O'REILLY: ...OK? Because the kids who are doing the cyber bullying, like 'Jane is a slut', OK?
STORM: Mm-hmm.

O'Reilly continued to cut Ms. Storm off, interrupting her questions and assuming what her responses would be before she finished her statements. The bullying conversation ultimately concluded with the fact that teenagers who feel helpless about bullying situations should seek the help of an authority figure. Aside from questions related to general themes presented in the book, Storm did not refer to the text. O'Reilly did so indirectly, however, but only by paraphrasing what he had written in his book for teens. (He mentions the same exact statistic about Long Island in his chapter on bullying.) Never once does Storm pull out a section of his book and ask him to explain what he meant. Never once does she ask him about his writing process or ask about how he became inspired to write about bullying. Nor does she compare O'Reilly's statements about bullying to his behavior on "Fox's The O'Reilly Factor". Perhaps, she simply was unable to get the pertinent questions out before being cut off.

Mike Naylor of Quincy, Pennsylvania writes, "I wanted to see what I should have been taught growing up....I particularly like the part on bullying. Especially the advice that Bill's dad would have given to Bill" (Amazon, 2005). It is a bit difficult to tell whether or not this review was meant to be tongue-in-cheek or not. It does, however, prove the point that many people are incapable of separating O'Reilly from the "bullying" idea they have about him after witnessing the performance on his show.

Some people, however, refer to O'Reilly's mannerisms as "straight-talk" or as "no-nonsense guidance". These descriptors are mentioned in Sharon Neal's School Library Journal review with respect to O'Reilly's reputation. The reviewer goes on to state that The O'Reilly Factor For Kids is exclusively suitable for parent fans that wish to buy this book for their kids. In his chapter on bullying, O'Reilly refers to himself as a "straight-talker", too. The problem, however, is that the line between straight talking and bullying is so fine that O'Reilly haters do not see the difference.

"Does the name Bill O'Reilly conjure up an advice maven for kids?" questions Ilene Cooper of Booklist. "Didn't think so." With that as an opening line, it is easy to see the direction in which the rest of her review travels. Although she does go on to make specific connections to the text of The O'Reilly Factor For Kids, she begins her write-up by judging the book's author -- and the image he is best known for which, incidentally, is not as a children's book author.

O'Reilly and celebrities in general, are often criticized for appealing more to the adult consumer than to the children they are writing for. In this case, O'Reilly's book is so similar to his tone and the viewpoints expressed on his evening show that the question of teenage appeal is a large one. Hannah Storm brought the following questions up during that Early Show discussion:

STORM: Teen-agers, do they watch your show? Because you respond to a lot of e-mails here.
O'REILLY: Not that much...
STORM: Do they listen to you on the radio?
O'REILLY: I think, you know, parents try to steer their kids into what they like, and so we get a lot of teens watching the program because the parents are forcing them to watch the program.

Woven throughout The O'Reilly Factor For Kids are a number of emails, apparently written to Bill O'Reilly by his teenage fans. One example reads as such: "It seems that nearly 95% of the kids at my school don't care about anything but what they hear rappers talk about -- Edgar in Illinois." Would a teenager say this? Would a teenager email O'Reilly for the heck of it to tell him this? It's just a bit suspicious.

In the aforementioned Booklist review, Cooper writes, "Each chapter begins with quotes from kids who have written into his show (!)". Her exclamation point seems to reiterate the incredulity of the emails.

Teenagers, who are not the target demographic of "The O'Reilly Factor", will not view him as a role model. As Gerard "Gerard" from California put it, "[O'Reilly's advice] is like advice from a grandpa trying to be hip. I really can't imagine any kids being so into Bill O'Reilly that they would want to try and drag themselves through this dry read." (Amazon, 2005). This reviewer is a self-proclaimed O'Reilly fan, too. He mentions that "The O'Reilly Factor" is "a political show for adults" that he watches quite frequently. The book is described in Booklist as being "authoritative", in School Library Journal as "preachy", and in Amazon Customer Reviews as "patronizing", "poorly written", and "beyond worthless".

And although O'Reilly admits that teenagers do not watch his show, unless they are forced to, there is a sole voice that may or may not represent the kids out there. In spite of what all of the adults reviewers -- both professional and amateur -- say about O'Reilly's book, there seems to be at least one kid who likes it:

First of all, anyone who hasn't actually read this book and has picked it up in a bookstore/library and skimmed through it shouldn't talk trash about it. I might add that I am 13, perhaps the only actual kid giving a review for a kids book (anyone else find that odd?) I've also read 'No Spin Zone' by O'Reilly. Don't think I've been raised to like O'Reilly or something, weird as it may seem., but I've read 'Dude, Where's My Country?" by Micheal Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11 is my favorite movie/documentary. Anyone looking to buy this book for their kid and not just take shots at O'Reilly should look at the select few people that gave this book 5 or 4 stars. They all seem to have actually read it. Now direct your attention to the 50-60 people who gave it 1 star. Note: They haven't bought the book, and they are not in the target audience! What position are they in to critisize it? This is a great book to try to get kids more informed about our society.

(*Note: Copied verbatim from Amazon, including spelling mistakes.)

However, Shaen "real life child" from Belmar, New Jersey has done exactly what the adults have done -- talk more about O'Reilly and/or his political affiliations than about the book itself. Aside from teaching young Shaen valuable lessons about "our society", we do not know what he liked about The O'Reilly Factor For Kids -- the book.

What we do know is that celebrities are awarded certain powers and privileges that the average human does not have. They are also subject to a public scrutiny that most average humans are not. Because their faces and the messages they transmit via airwaves are so familiar, consumers feel that they know them and that they can trust or distrust them based on the image that they are paid to project as entertainers.

Bill O'Reilly can enter a given family's living room any night of the week. From the television set, he relates his political opinions. He is technically a commentator, after all -- not a reporter. Yet, viewers hold steadfastly to their support or loathing of this man, based on the conservative ideology that he spreads from the hyper-reality of the Fox Network. Perhaps if he wasn't as famous as he is, the sexual harassment allegations against him could have been dismissed. But because he is such a public figure, who tries to uphold such a clean image, they are extremely important, especially because the very nature of his children's book is moralistic. What has rarely been discussed is whether or not O'Reilly is the person to deliver these moral messages to children -- and whether or not these children have positive responses to the book.

Maria Salvadore, an expert in children's literature stated, "Because the message in celebrity books weighs more heavily than the story, even the best of them is good only for two or three readings before a child will become bored with the message" ( Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2004). The message of The O'Reilly Factor For Kids: A Survival Guide for America's Families rings loud and clear. In fact, the book is one gigantic advisory message -- given by a man whose credentials include winning two Emmy Awards and serving as a national correspondent for ABC News. As long as those credentials continue to impress the parents who buy the books their children read, it doesn't really matter how good the book is or isn't nor how enjoyable to teens the book is or isn't.

Is this book really a "Survival Guide for America's Families", or is it simply another celebrity book children's literature must endure?

It all boils down to how one spins Bill O'Reilly.

References

"Amazon Customer Reviews". 2005. 7 December 2005 http://www.amazon.com/.

"Bill O'Reilly talks about some advice he gives to teen-agers in his new book, 'The O'Reilly Factor For Kids'". 2005. CBS News Transcripts: The Early Show. 17 October 2005. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from LexisNexus Academic November 30, 2005.

Cooper, Irene. "Review: The O'Reilly Factor For Kids ". Booklist 2004. New York, American Library Association.

MacPherson, Karen. "Critics authors chafe as more celebrities join ranks of children's authors" Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 3 November 2004. http://www.post-gazette.com/.

O'Reilly, Bill. The O'Reilly Factor For Kids: A Survival Guide for America's Families. New York: HarperEntertainment, 2004

O'Reilly, Bill. The O'Reilly Factor: The Good, the Bad, and the Completely Ridiculous in American Life. New York: Broadway Books, 2000.

Morford, Mark. "Bill O'Reilly is nuts. Should you care? Or just move on?". The San Francisco Chronicle, 16 November 2005, San Francisco. Retrieved from LexusNexus Academic on November 30, 2005.

Neal, Sharon A. "Review: The O'Reilly Factor For Kids". School Library Journal 2004. San Diego, Reed Elsevier.

"The Bestseller Awards, 2005". The Book Standard 2005 http://www.thebookstandard.com/.

"The O'Reilly Factor For Kids: Winner of the 2005 Juvenile Non-Fiction Bestseller Award presented by The Book Standard and Nielsen Bookscan". Business Wire. 2005. Business Wire, Inc. Retrieved from LexusNexus Academic on November 30, 2005

Rich, Frank. "The O'Reilly Factor For Lesbians". The New York Times 24 October, 2005. New York. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/ on November 30, 2005.

 

Katie Sciurba


Volume 10, Issue 3 The Looking Glass 2 September, 2006

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"The O'Reilly Factor For Kids: A Plunge Into 'The No Spin Zone'"
© Katie Sciurba, 2006.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680