If Bill O'Reilly truly loves a good fight, then he's had quite a week.
The Fox News Channel personality's confrontation with David Letterman Tuesday night made for some gripping television. The cranky "Late Show" host told his guest: "I have the feeling about 60 percent of what you say is crap."
That same night, nemesis Keith Olbermann on MSNBC once again named O'Reilly his "Worst Person in the World," this time for battling with two people at The New York Times. That's the 15th time O'Reilly has been cited since Olbermann began his half-facetious, half-serious nightly "award" to wag his finger at bad behavior.
For whatever reason, it seems more people are willing to step into the ring with the host of cable TV news' No. 1 program.
But they'd better beware. Combat may be as essential as oxygen to him.
O'Reilly has already logged many minutes on his TV and radio shows to talk about what he called his "shootout" with Letterman, and posted a video clip on his Web site. He gave a telephone interview to "The View" to say that he didn't feel ambushed.
"I had no problem with the interview," O'Reilly said. "I enjoyed it."
The interview began poorly —— with an uncomfortable silence after O'Reilly said he had "a nice winter solstice" — and went downhill. Letterman disagreed with O'Reilly's contention that de-emphasizing religion during the Christmas season was an example of political correctness eroding tradition.
"I don't think this is an actual threat," Letterman said. "I think that this is something that happened here and it happened there. And so people like you are trying to make us think that it's a threat."
They jousted over peace activist Cindy Sheehan, who O'Reilly said has referred to Iraqi insurgents as freedom fighters.
"It is a vitally important time in American history," O'Reilly said. "And we should all take it very seriously, and be very careful with what we say."
Responded Letterman: "Well, and you should be very careful with what you say also."
Letterman said he was "very concerned about people like yourself who don't have nothing but endless sympathy for a woman like Cindy Sheehan." That's where he issued his content analysis of "The O'Reilly Factor," although he admitted he didn't watch it.
On O'Reilly's TV show the next night, Fox News analyst Juan Williams likened the segment to a knife fight. "In some sense, it's like someone inviting you into their house and you find out you've been invited by, you know, John Wayne Gacy," he said.
A high-profile confrontation like this solidifies O'Reilly's relationship with his fans, said Martin Kaplan, an associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.
"He lives and breathes attention and combat," Kaplan said. "If he were to go on a friendly venue, there would be no story. It's made in heaven for him to be in a fight with Letterman."
O'Reilly has been atop the cable news ratings for four years. His average nightly audience increased from 2.42 million in 2004 to 2.49 million last year, although his ratings dropped among viewers younger than 55.
Kaplan said he believes O'Reilly's Christmas campaign may have backfired on him. "In TV sitcoms," he said, "they call that `jumping the shark.'"
During an interview with Newsday's Verne Gay in October, O'Reilly sounded weary about the scrutiny of his critics and their attacks. He even mused about retiring in a couple of years.
For the past 18 months, the liberal Web site Media Matters for America has assigned a monitor to O'Reilly's radio and TV shows, and alerts critics to alleged misstatements. And Olbermann regularly tweaks his time slot competitor, particularly since starting the "Worst Person in the World" segment last June.
"He's writing this material for me," Olbermann said. "I'm thinking of sending him a check. Day after day he just gets weirder and weirder and weirder."
Olbermann said he's thinking of holding fire a bit lest it seem like an obsession. While he's not a watchdog in a serious sense, Olbermann said that "it's important to me that you provide an alternate perspective to whatever the elite is in a given field.
"I look at them — they're clearly the popular clique, led by the bullies in the school — so if you get an opportunity to point out what stupid thing has been said or what moronic action has been encouraged by them or simply when they have fallen all over themselves in relation to the facts, you should do it," he said.
Olbermann pleads innocent to being holier-than-thou because of his show's willingness to point out its own mistakes. "I'm sure I will eventually make the list," he said. "I will be one of the worst people in the world."
He may already be, at least at Fox News Channel's office. O'Reilly, who didn't want to talk for this article, has referred to Olbermann — although not by name — as a "notorious smear merchant" and pointed out his low ratings. (Olbermann's typical audience is about one-sixth of O'Reilly's.)
Network spokesman Brian Lewis was even more pointed. "Perhaps (NBC Universal chief) Jeff Zucker should think twice about tying his future, not to mention the reputation of (parent company) General Electric, to an unstable ratings-killer like Keith, who uses an NBC property for his personal attacks," he said.
Who will have the last laugh?
It's worth noting that nearly 2.7 million people — about 200,000 above last year's average — tuned in to watch "The O'Reilly Factor" the night after he went toe-to-toe with Letterman, according to Nielsen Media Research. O'Reilly's younger viewership was up 20 percent over his December numbers.