Bill O'Reilly goes ballistic on Alan Colmes. Preplanned?

Fox News host Bill O'Reilly started yelling at guest Alan Colmes earlier this week when discussing President Obama and budget cuts. It was an odd development that points to deeper issues. 

Mark J. Terrill/AP
Television personality Bill O'Reilly (r.) talks with actor Adam Carolla as they watch a Los Angeles Lakers game in February in Los Angeles.

Veteran Fox News host Bill O’Reilly had a real shout-down with regular guest Alan Colmes on the “O’Reilly Factor” earlier this week. The pair were discussing President Obama’s fiscal proposals – specifically, whether the White House has proposed budget cuts to any specific programs. Mr. Colmes opined that he had. Then Mr. O’Reilly went ballistic like a North Korean missile test, jabbing his finger and turning up the volume while the smile on Colmes’s face suddenly went fixed.

“You are lying! You are lying!” yelled O’Reilly.

This exchange has had some resonance in Washington for substantive reasons we’ll get to a moment. But our initial reaction to the whole thing was whether O’Reilly preplanned the exchange.

This does not mean we’re charging journalistic impropriety. O’Reilly is a seasoned pro whose show is the engine that drives Fox ratings. He’s apologized for the personal attack, saying he wished he hadn’t used the word “liar.”

But we’re wondering whether he and his producers had planned an amped-up discussion of the fiscal subject and things just went a little too far.

After all, it’s not like the “O’Reilly Factor” is free-flowing. The genial and generally liberal Colmes is a regular guest who often plays the role of the Washington Generals to O’Reilly’s Harlem Globetrotters. In other words, he’s supposed to provide some opposition and then lose. The only question is the score, not the outcome. Why get angry when it’s your show and you’re going to win?

Second, the tantrum has brought lots of attention to the main point O’Reilly wanted to make. He’s a moralist about the US debt, decrying the trillions-piled-on-trillions as a burden that he says will debase the currency and crush the US economy.

“This spending issue is vital for all of us, and that’s why I’m raising my voice,” said O’Reilly on an apology segment broadcast Wednesday.

Last, the controversy has been great for his network. O’Reilly has been defended on most Fox programs but also skewered by Fox’s Kirsten Powers, who told O’Reilly to his face that he’s “100 percent wrong,” and Mr. Obama has offered specific Medicare cuts.

Maybe O’Reilly doesn’t believe Obama would really make those reductions, or maybe he doesn’t think they’re enough. But it’s wrong to deny their existence, she said.

As far as Fox News chief Roger Ailes is concerned it doesn’t matter which of his employees is right there. It only matters that the dust-up has provided buzzy content for an array of programs. As Joe Concha writes on Mediaite, this is why Fox dominates cable news ratings.

“The audience revels in being able to witness a family fight on an almost-daily basis,” he writes

As to substance, folks are continuing to argue about this in D.C. because it appears to confirm a deep fear on both sides.

Liberals believe that many Republicans exist in a closed news loop that only feeds their beliefs. Thus the GOP does not realize that Obama has in fact proposed cutting Social Security benefits by changing the way inflation is calculated and reducing Medicare costs by increased means testing of benefits. Ezra Klein at Wonkblog wrote perhaps the definitive post about this earlier this month.

Conservatives meanwhile believe Democrats don’t understand the economy and don’t take debt seriously. They think Obama’s main aim is to recapture the House in 2014 and destroy the Republican Party. In fact, that’s what Colmes and O’Reilly were talking about just before they moved on to fiscal stuff and the resultant explosion.

Hmm ... so maybe O’Reilly was actually boiling after all?

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