Terry Gross and her warm, soothing voice are legendary for a reason. As the host of NPR’s Fresh Air, Gross has interviewed everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Gene Simmons, always with her signature combination of empathy and intelligence. And part of what makes her such an effective interviewer is that you can’t imagine anyone with Terry Gross’s voice saying anything intentionally hurtful or malicious. Her voice is her superpower, because it makes practically everything sound nice.
But even Terry Gross sometimes has interviews go awry. On The Tonight Show on Thursday night, she described one of those instances, when former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly walked out of an interview early in 2003.
The interview was notably tense all the way through, but everything ratcheted up when Gross attempted to ask O’Reilly about a negative review that People magazine wrote about one of his books. O’Reilly was having none of it.
“I’m getting the feeling in this interview that this is just a hatchet job on me,” he said, adding that Gross had “thrown every kind of defamation you can at my face.”
“This is NPR. I think we all know what this is,” he said. “I think we all know where you’re going with this. Don’t we?”
Gross assured O’Reilly that he could say whatever he liked, and he assured her that he would. She had been much less harsh, he said, when she interviewed Al Franken about his book.
“And if you think that’s fair, Terry,” he said, “then you need to get in another business, I’ll tell you that right now. And I’ll tell your listeners if you have the courage to put this on the air. This is basically an unfair interview designed to trap me into saying something Harper’s can use. And you know it, and you should be ashamed of yourself. And that,” he concluded, sounding deeply satisfied, “is the end of this interview.”
“You’re gone,” Gross said, sounding stunned, before bursting into laughter. “Okay. I guess that’s the answer to that question.”
Fourteen years later, O’Reilly was ousted from Fox News on charges of sexual harassment, a fact that Gross pointed out in her famous, nonjudgmental voice to Fallon on Thursday night.
“I’m thinking,” she said, her voice soothing and even, “one of us still has a program.”
That’s how they do their sick burns at NPR.