Reporting from New York — In a no-frills studio in Fox News' Manhattan headquarters, Bill O'Reilly was wrangling with a guest, as usual.
This time it wasn't a liberal foe but conservative strategist Dick Morris, who was hammering the Justice Department for hiring a group of lawyers -- dubbed the "Al Qaeda Seven" by the right-wing advocacy group Keep America Safe -- that had represented terrorism suspects in private practice.
But O'Reilly didn't buy Morris' argument that the lawyers' past work made them a security risk. "You shouldn't be demonized because you take on an unpopular client," he countered.
The top-rated cable talk-show host has always been a contrarian, a self-described culture warrior who touts traditionalism while also favoring gay adoption and some gun-control measures. But in recent months, as the country's political discourse has curdled, O'Reilly's independent streak has become even more pronounced -- particularly in contrast to Fox News' newest star, Glenn Beck, who has rallied both passionate fans and detractors with his apocalyptic rhetoric about the Obama administration.
O'Reilly urged a national conference of conservatives to refrain from personal attacks on President Obama. He noted that employing fear in politics is a “double-edged sword” that “can lead to violence and heartbreak.” And he declared that he did not believe the president was a socialist, drawing mockery from radio host Rush Limbaugh. "Name-calling gets us nowhere," O’Reilly replied mildly.
He still digs into his favorite targets with relish, particularly the "far-left media" and Hollywood celebrities. But lately, O'Reilly's tenor has been remarkably measured.
"You've become in some ways the voice of sanity here, which as I said, is like being the thinnest kid at fat camp," comedian Jon Stewart quipped during an appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor" last month.
Sitting in his 17th-floor corner office on a recent afternoon, O'Reilly maintained that he hasn't changed. "If you're coming to me to hear the choir, then you've got to be a relatively new viewer, because we've been pretty independent for a long period of time," said the 60-year-old host, thumbing through manila folders holding research for that evening's show.
O'Reilly has long cultivated his outsider status, bristling at being labeled a conservative or a Republican mouthpiece. So it's not surprising that at a time when commentators on the political right have sharpened their attacks on Obama, he has sought a different tack: criticizing the president's policies but not the man himself. "I like Obama," he said, but thinks he lacks the experience to handle the job.
O'Reilly's colleagues have taken note of his mellower demeanor. "Some of the conversations are still heated, but you may not see the vein explode anymore," said Amy Sohnen, O'Reilly's executive producer, who helped launch his show in 1996.
Brit Hume, the network's senior political analyst, views it as a sign that the long-embattled host has finally accepted his success. "Other channels have thrown everything they could at him, and there he is," Hume said. "At this point, Bill is kind of supreme."
"The O'Reilly Factor," which kicks off the network's prime-time lineup, is Fox News' most valuable advertising vehicle, a fact evident in O'Reilly's salary, which is well north of $10 million a year, according to a person familiar with the terms. This year, he is on track to record his best ratings ever, averaging 3.7 million viewers, up 8% over 2009, according to Nielsen. His competitors lag far behind, with MSNBC's Keith Olbermann pulling 984,000 viewers on average and CNN's Campbell Brown drawing 635,000.
O'Reilly, who studies the ratings every afternoon, said that despite his dominance, he never feels he can relax. But he acknowledged that his growing viewership lets him feel "that I have a responsibility to be a little more cautious, be a little more circumspect when I go after somebody to make sure we have everything covered. Because I can destroy lives. And I'm not going to do that until I'm 100% convinced that the person deserves what they get."
O'Reilly's on-air verbal assaults have been part of his trademark since the onetime correspondent for CBS and ABC joined the then-nascent Fox News Channel. With his elbows-out style and populist instincts, he beat out Larry King in 2002 as the most-watched cable news host, a title he has never relinquished.
"The dirty little secret of Bill's show is people tune in who like him and people tune in who don't like him," said Bill Shine, executive vice president for programming.
And plenty still don't. Liberal detractors such as Media Matters for America hammer at him daily, challenging his assertions. "I don't think he's changed," said Ari Rabin-Havt, the group's vice president of research and communications.