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Bill O'Reilly Caught Spinning

Definition of Working Class
Update #1
Update #2
Update #3

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.

Definition of "Working Class"

"Working class" is formally defined as follows:

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 are dependent upon it for support; laborers; operatives. Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary

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 laborers.

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 living.

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 excluded.

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, 2000

Compare with two definitions for "middle class":

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 "working class."

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.


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.

Unless O'Reilly 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" schtick. 

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.

Why not copy the web address of this article and email O'Reilly with it, demanding he either put up or shut up, and provide the income informationHis address is:

bill oreilly factor no-spin

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