Producer's Notebook: Ambushed
By: Jesse WattersApril 25, 2007
What separates The Factor from other shows is our ability to hold people accountable. When public figures make controversial decisions but refuse repeated interview requests or don't return our phone calls, Bill sends me (or another producer) "into the field" to get answers on camera.
"If they don't come to us, we'll go to them," Bill likes to say. Factor fans enjoy these segments on the show, so here's a sense of how I feel confronting some of them--prosecutors, judges, legislators, and mayors who have no idea I'm coming.
Before I go into the field, O'Reilly explains how he wants me to approach each interview. He always tells me to be polite, respectful and succinct. Sometimes he'll have very specific questions he wants asked and other times he'll give me parameters and allow me to formulate the questions. Before leaving I do two other things. One, I try determine a specific public place and time where the person is going to be so I can meet them there unannounced. Two, I speak with Fox News legal counsel and review what state laws I need to be aware of. No matter where I am, when someone asks me to leave private property, I am obligated to do so immediately.
Mike Nifong, Duke lacrosse prosecutor
A few months ago when the Duke case was clearly crumbling around the prosecutor, Bill sent me to Durham for the weekend to confront the "Group of 88," professors who were still siding with the stripper against their own students. The professors told the Duke community that "what happened to this young woman" was a "social disaster," caused by an atmosphere "that allows sexism, racism, and sexual violence to be so prevalent on campus."
"While you're down there, pay Nifong a visit," Bill said to me.
I'd played lacrosse in school and had been following the case against the players particularly closely. Nifong was a "big fish" and I wanted to catch him. The Durham DA had done our show the first week the story broke, but had been dodging us ever since, ignoring our questions and invitations. But since I spent Saturday knocking on professors' doors, I only had one day, Sunday, to find him--a lot of pressure.
Room service forgot to bring my breakfast Sunday morning so my personal fuel tank was low. The crew and I were parked outside of Nifong's home very early and I only had gas station coffee to go. I was also edgy because I didn't like how far I had to park my car from his house, and was worried about the distance I had to cover when the time came to approach him. After a few hours, that time came.
"That's him!" I said aloud. I always experience a jolt of energy at this kind of moment, whenever I spot the person I'm looking for. I saw Nifong moving around in front of his property with his dog. But timing was critical. We were pretty far away in the car and he was still close to his front door, so I made the decision to wait until Nifong wandered closer towards the street.
This was an intense moment. If I ran up to him too soon he could turn right back into his house and lock the door, but if I waited too long I might not get another shot at him. Finally, I took a deep breath to relax, and gave the "go" sign to the crew.
I opened the car door and jogged across the DA's front yard. "Jesse Watters, Fox News!" I yelled. "Are you going to apologize to the Duke players?" Nifong was scurrying back in his front door faster than I thought he could. I had a bad feeling as I turned around because I hadn't asked all of my questions and hadn't gotten him on camera long enough.
"He's coming back!" said my audio technician. As luck would have it, Nifong had forgotten his dog, and had to march back down his driveway. "Get off my property!" he shouted, walking towards the camera. As I said before, legally and ethically I had to leave his property once asked. But as I backed up I leveled another questions at him. "Do you feel bad about prosecuting these players?" Leaning down to grab his dog's collar, Nifong pointed his finger at me angrily and said, "I only discuss the Duke case in the courtroom!" I watched him lead his dog back up the driveway. It didn't register until then that I had gotten him on camera in his bathrobe and slippers. As serious as the legal circumstances were, I couldn't help but smile.
David Howard, Vermont district judge
Convicted felon Andrew James admitted to molesting a 4-year-old boy and Judge David Howard gave him probation. O'Reilly was outraged. The judge wouldn't come on the show, he wouldn't explain his sentence to our producers, and he refused to issue a written statement, so I drove up to Bennington, VT to confront him. I was parked outside his house on a Saturday morning. I even called his house, introduced myself and asked for an interview. The judge declined and hung up the phone.
An hour later I saw Howard pull out of his garage. The crew and I followed in our car. I felt great. It was an ideal situation. I don't like approaching people on their property because they can tell me to leave, slipping inside and closing the door. Then they know I'm in the neighborhood and the element of surprise is gone. So we kept a safe distance in the car--not too far to lose him, but not too close to tip him off. As we drove I practiced asking my questions out loud.
The judge's car pulled into a recycling dump. I waited in the car until I saw Howard leave his. I felt calm. The drive had given me time. The crew and I approached the judge. He was tossing his wine bottles into a bin below. The sound of breaking glass punctured the air. I came up right behind him. He never saw me. "Hey Judge, Jesse Watters, Fox News, can I talk to you about that sentence?" He turned around, looked at the cameras and shook his head. "No," he said, walking past me back to his car. I asked him questions about the sentence but he turned his back on me. I added, "Don't you believe in punishment?" He didn't even try to finish his recycling. He just shut the back hatch of his station wagon, got into the driver's seat, and drove off. I'm used to people not answering my questions, but it's always frustrating getting stonewalled.
Sheldon Silver, New York state legislator
Bill had labeled Sheldon Silver "the worst politician in America." The Speaker of the House in the NY State Assembly, Silver had blocked Jessica's Law and civil confinement legislation for sexually violent predators. Factor producers had invited him on the show for two straight years but he was always "busy." I'd been watching his schedule for 6 months and even waited outside his Manhattan apartment one morning. But I hadn't caught up with him yet.
In a reference to Moby Dick, my colleagues had teased me that Sheldon Silver was my "white whale." Then I discovered he'd be meeting with Governor Eliot Spitzer one morning before a budget press conference in Albany. "I'm not going to let Silver get away," I told myself.
I waited in the lobby of the capitol building. Bill had told me to press Silver hard so I'd been studying the legislative history of Jessica's Law the night before. There were three possible entrances that he could arise from. I kept swiveling my head around, looking for him. Then there he was.
I introduced myself. "Do you have a minute?" I started pressing him and he finally responded. "O'Reilly doesn't know what he's talking about. Colbert is right." (I assumed he was referring to Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert.) But I stayed with it and continued challenging him about blocking sex offender bills while citing statutory language.
When he couldn't stop me, he tried to lose me. At the last minute he darted down a maintenance hallway! I couldn't believe it. I hustled around and stayed with him, continuing to pepper him with questions. He began to just repeat the same thing over and over again. We came to an elevator. "Are your ties to trial lawyers influencing your votes, Mr. Silver?" He gave me a political answer about always protecting the interests of the people, not the powerful. The elevator "dinged." He stepped in but so did the crew and I.
It was at this point I realized the absurdity of what was happening. This was Silver's worst nightmare. After hiding from The Factor for years, he was now trapped alone in an elevator with their producer and a film crew. Since I'd prepared for this for so long, I didn't let up. I always try to be polite, but firm. It's a delicate balance. "Why don't you believe in stiff sentences for child rapists?" I asked. We got off the elevator and he walked down another hallway into his office. I followed him all the way in the lobby and thanked him for talking with me. I'd finally caught my white whale, and it was quite a catch.
Meyera Oberndorf, Mayor of Virginia Beach
Factor fans surely know about Mayor Oberndorf. Her city, Virginia Beach, is a "sanctuary city." Police are not allowed to ask aliens about their immigration status or report them to federal authorities, except under serious circumstances.
After a drunk illegal immigrant smashed his car into two teens, it was discovered he'd been arrested in the area three times in the last several months for various alcohol-related crimes and an identity theft charge. But no one had ever reported him to the feds. This was a highly emotional story, so I had a feeling I'd be traveling.
I'd personally called the Mayor before we reported the story and her office told me she wouldn't be talking to The Factor "until tomorrow." "She's still celebrating the holiday," I was told. Even the next day, when we invited her on the show, her office informed us that she wouldn't be coming on the show "that night... or anytime in the future." Bill dispatched me to Virginia Beach to confront the Mayor on Monday morning. He was doing the entire first segment of the show that night on sanctuary cities. Getting the Mayor on camera was crucial. I'd produced the story from the very beginning and knew every detail of the case. I was confident.
I didn't think I'd get access to Mrs. Oberndorf at City Hall, so I arrived at her house at 7:00am. At 7:30am, a silver Mustang pulled into her driveway. I hopped out of the car with the crew right behind me. Before the Mayor could even leave her car, I was right there alongside her. "Do you have anything you'd like to say to the families of the two teens killed by the drunk illegal alien?" She stayed in the passenger seat with the door ajar and answered the question. I asked her why Virginia Beach was a "sanctuary city," and she didn't seem to have any idea what that meant. She then said she wouldn't appear on The Factor because she didn't want to be attacked "like a wild animal." We went back and forth for a few minutes. My questions were strong. I was trying to elicit an emotional response from her but her answers were flat, even unresponsive.
While I'd been talking to her, I noticed her husband had exited the car and was hovering closer and closer to me.
I had ended the interview, thanked the Mayor and was leaving her property, when all of a sudden her husband got angry. "Give me a business card!" He demanded. "I don't have one on me," I replied, "I'll show you my ID in the car." Then, as I was walking out of the driveway, I felt something grab at my microphone. The Mayor's husband had come up behind me and was trying to wrestle the mic away from me. I swung around fast. "What's the problem, sir?" I asked. He started pointing and yelling, so I stuck the mic at him, but kept my distance. "O'Reilly is a liar! We're not a sanctuary city!" The guy was out of control. I didn't feel particularly threatened, but you never know what can happen.
I challenged him. Virginia Beach was a "sanctuary city." He kept yelling. "I'm calling the police!" As I got back into the car, I thought to myself that of all the times I'd confronted people on camera, this was the first time anyone had gotten physical. "This will be great TV," I said to my crew, and we drove off. I delivered the news to my producers back in New York.
Field producing for O'Reilly is filled with emotions. The grind of waiting for someone in a car for hours, the balance between being polite yet aggressive, and the pressure of the interview... it's intense. Instinct, timing, and luck all play a major role, as does proper preparation. The window of opportunity is small in these situations. I've learned how to be decisive and logical. I've also learned how to be patient and pragmatic. I'm always nervous. I'm always alert. But I've learned how to be calm at the same time. This type of journalism is challenging, and the impact of these interviews can be big. Aggressive reporting is risky. But it's also rewarding.
Jesse Watters has been a producer for The OReilly Factor since 2003. Before joining Fox News, Watters worked on political campaigns and in finance. He received a B.A. in History from Trinity College (Hartford, CT) in 2001. Watters was born and raised in Philadelphia and moved to New York in 1995.