The cable talk show host of The O'Reilly Factor spoke in
his first book of having a "working class" background. Michael
Kinsley of the on-line magazine Slate challenged him on this, and the
anti-spinmeister went ballistic.
Putting their obvious personal animosity aside, the entire
brouhaha boils down to this: Kinsley doesn't challenge the facts O'Reilly
presents about his upbringing, only the label he attaches to them. I
would suggest that O'Reilly uses a definition of "working class"
different than that of most people.
"Working class" is formally defined as follows:
upon it for support;
laborers; operatives. Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary
The part of society consisting of those who work for
wages, especially manual or industrial laborers. The American
HeritageŽ Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition
The class of people who work for wages usually at manual
labor. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary
The class of people who are engaged in manual labor, or
Two indications of being "working class" are,
therefore, working for wages, and the type of job (manual labor).
O'Reilly's father was an accountant. An accountant is
not doing manual labor.
As for working for wages, it would seem clear that not
everyone who works for wages is working class, if the wages are high enough.
But if a person's wages are similar to those for doing manual labor, then
perhaps the appellation "working class" could be applied to such a
person, even if manual labor is not involved.
Under this analysis, an accountant who worked, for example,
at a non-profit organization might, conceivably, be paid so little that he
could be considered working class, even if his job itself isn't manual
labor. But one has to assume that an accountant for an oil company who
commutes to New York City every day from suburban Long Island, such as
O'Reilly's father, would be paid wages far above those accorded manual
If such was not the case, O'Reilly can produce evidence
as to his father's working-class-level salary during those years. Otherwise,
the assumption that his father's salary was far above "working
class" must stand.
And further on this point, O'Reilly has already stated that
his father's salary was at one point $35,000 a year. Not realizing he was
hoisting himself on his own petard, O'Reilly apparently didn't think to
compute that in today's dollars, that would be about $100,000, hardly a
salary level associated with the "working class."
It seems, therefore, that the creator of the "No-Spin
Zone" has himself done some spinning about his past. Maybe it's
unconscious, and O'Reilly honestly believes that if he wasn't wealthy, if
his family wasn't "rolling in dough" when he grew up, he was from
the "working class." But that's just not the way most people think
about these things.
Most generously to O'Reilly's position, he may have
been "lower middle class" as opposed to "upper middle
class," but only someone with spin doctor skills, if not conscious spin doctor intent, would insist on labeling an
oil company accountant "working class!"
* * *
UPDATE # 1:
Further regarding what
"working class" means, and O'Reilly's intentions in using that
term to describe his background:
From what a few readers have
written, they take "working class" to mean anyone who works for a
If we re-define "working
class" to mean anyone at all who works for a living, that renders the
definition virtually meaningless, since it encompasses everyone from the
minimum wage earner, to O'Reilly's oil company accountant father, to Bill
Gates. Only the retired, the unemployed, and those on welfare would be
When O'Reilly claims he was from
a working class background, he didn't mean just to say that his parents were
not retired, unemployed or on welfare.
In journalism, "working
class" has always had, and still does have, the traditional meaning as
indicated in the dictionary examples above, and by this additional
definition sent in by a reader:
The socioeconomic class
consisting of people who work for wages, especially low wages, including
unskilled and semiskilled laborers and their families. American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition,
Compare with two definitions for
A class occupying a position
between the upper class and the lower class; especially : a fluid
heterogeneous socioeconomic grouping composed principally of business
and professional people, bureaucrats, and some farmers and skilled
workers sharing common social characteristics and values. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary
The socioeconomic class
between the working class and the upper class. American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition, 2000
An oil company accountant is a
middle class job.
O'Reilly has been a journalist
for decades. He knows the impression he gives when he uses the term
He knows that many, if not most
people, like myself, understand the long-time meaning of "working
class." O'Reilly does seem to be deliberately downgrading his past to
make himself seem a more suitable spokesmen for "the little guy".
He really does seem to be "spinning" like a top.
UPDATE # 2:
On July 9, O'Reilly harshly
criticized his guest James Wolcott for repeating in a Vanity Fair
article the claim that O'Reilly's father made $35,000 in the 60's.
O'Reilly stated that his father's salary had "topped out at $35,000 in
1980, when he took a disability settlement after 30 years at the
company." O'Reilly was so proud of his performance that he posted a
transcript on his show's web site.
Doesn't O'Reilly have any
researchers on his staff? $35,000 in 1980 translates in purchasing power to $82,000 in
2005. That's at least a solid middle-class salary.
Looking a little more
closely: In 1980, the median income (the income which half the people earned
less than, half the people earned more than) was $21,000. So accordingly to O'Reilly, in 1980 his father
earned 67% more than half the people in the country. That hardly
sounds like the working class school of hard knocks O'Reilly tries to evoke.
Bear in mind that the median
income while O'Reilly was growing up was $3,319 in 1950, $5,620 in 1960
and $9,867 in 1970.
is now claiming that during his father's long career as an accountant with
an oil company, his father was paid disproportionately far, far lower wages
than the $35,000 he retired with, and then all of a sudden in 1980 his
salary mushroomed to upper middle class levels, O'Reilly really should give
us all a break and get off his "working class background"
And if O'Reilly is claiming such disproportionality, he should tell us what
his father's salary was in those earlier years, not leave us guessing.
UPDATE # 3:
On August 21, O'Reilly replayed his on-air confrontation with Michael Kinsley over whether
O'Reilly's background was "working class."
After the taped replay,
O'Reilly stated that his father retired in 1980, when O'Reilly had been out
of the house for ten years, as if that wins the argument for him. As
shown directly above in Update #2, it does no such thing.
O'Reilly needs to give
us his father's income for 1950, 1955, 1960, 1965 and 1970. This would
allow a solid determination to be made as to whether O'Reilly was really
middle-class or not.