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Critic’s Notebook

Bill O’Reilly controversy spotlights partisan media’s growth

Bill O’Reilly has been a dominant force on Fox News.Robert Wright/The New York Times

While jousting with Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly a few years ago, Jon Stewart proclaimed him “the Mayor of “Bull---- Mountain.’’

But that image is imprecise. Fox News, the cable network beloved of conservatives, is less a mountain than a fortress, or maybe a tank. Firmly in the driver’s seat is O’Reilly, who worked at a Boston TV station and attended Boston University and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The network’s operational mode is the furthest thing from serene mountaintop remoteness: Day in and day out, Fox girds for ideological battle with what it sees as the liberal establishment — seldom more fiercely than in the past week, when O’Reilly has faced challenges to his veracity on several fronts. The network’s response on behalf of its marquee star has demonstrated anew the extent to which Fox’s world view, language, and instincts are as much those of a political campaign as of a news organization.

That’s why it is nearly impossible to imagine O’Reilly being ousted from his chair at Fox, where he hosts “The O’Reilly Factor,” despite accusations that include claims he exaggerated stories about his coverage of the 1982 Falklands War as a correspondent for CBS News. By revealing contrast, it is extremely hard to envision Brian Williams returning to the NBC News anchor desk after his bosses suspended him for six months without pay for telling a false story about being in a helicopter that came under fire in Iraq.


However the O’Reilly controversy ultimately plays out, this is an opportune moment to consider the growth of partisan media and the corresponding decline of objectivity. Indeed, an entire generation of young news consumers might not know there ever was such a thing. After all, they have grown up with Fox News and NBC’s corporate sibling, the liberal-leaning MSNBC. Both cable news networks were founded in 1996, though MSNBC did not embrace a liberal identity until years later, partly in response to the ratings success of Fox News’s ideologically driven approach, guided by Roger Ailes, a former Republican operative.


With wall-to-wall opinion shows and tendentious interviews on both networks, it sometimes seems that everything but the weather report is processed through an ideological filter — and even that may be just a matter of time. Fox News will blame a rainy day on President Obama’s nefarious liberal agenda, while MSNBC will herald the glorious day of progressive sunshine the president is working hard to bring us. (It should be noted that MSNBC gives a prominent spot on its daily schedule to former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough, who cohosts “Morning Joe.’’)

It’s true that the goal of objectivity was not always realized by TV networks and newspapers in ye olden days, but it was a goal in print and broadcast journalism. It remains so at many media outlets. But too often, where once stood verified facts and obtainable truths we now see a series of political footballs kicked back and forth on cable news and in the blogosphere — and those footballs are far more likely to be inflated than (ahem) deflated.

Unfolding in such proximity, the O’Reilly-Williams flaps also underscore the primacy and perils of personality in an ultra-crowded media environment where (to paraphrase a football coach’s famous dictum about winning) standing out isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.


The bigger and louder the better, goes the thinking. Virtually at the same time O’Reilly became embroiled in controversy, his longtime nemesis Keith Olbermann — another outsized personality, who used to host a show on MSNBC where he regularly named O’Reilly the “Worst Person in the World’’ and referred to Fox as “Faux’’ — was suspended by ESPN for cutting remarks he made on Twitter about Penn State.

O’Reilly has been hit by multiple accusations in the past week from Mother Jones magazine and from a liberal watchdog group called Media Matters for America. Mother Jones reported that O’Reilly has claimed he was in a “war zone’’ and a “combat situation” during the war in the Falklands. In response, O’Reilly said that he was referring to his coverage of riots in Buenos Aires that occurred after Argentina surrendered to Britain.

Keith Olbermann used to host a show on MSNBC where he regularly named Bill O’Reilly the “Worst Person in the World.”AP/File/Associated Press

Media Matters has challenged O’Reilly’s claim that in 1977, then working as a reporter at a Dallas TV station, he was in Florida, at the door of George de Mohrenschildt, an acquaintance of Lee Harvey Oswald, at the moment when de Mohrenschildt committed suicide. Two former O’Reilly coworkers at the Dallas TV station told Media Matters that O’Reilly was not in Florida but in Dallas when de Mohrenschildt died. Media Matters also reported that O’Reilly had falsely claimed that he saw nuns “get shot in the back of the head’’ during the civil war in El Salvador. O’Reilly said he was referring not to being present when the nuns were murdered, but to seeing images of them being shot.


While a traditional, old-fashioned news organization might have released a cautiously worded statement of support for an embattled on-air star, Fox News has gone straight for the jugular of O’Reilly’s critics. In a statement to CNN on Wednesday, a Fox News spokeswoman dismissed the controversy as “nothing more than an orchestrated campaign by far left advocates Mother Jones and Media Matters,’’ deriding what it called the “unproven accusation du jour’’ and reiterating the network’s “staunch support of O’Reilly, who is no stranger to calculated onslaughts.’’

There’s a lot at stake for Fox: “The O’Reilly Factor’’ has been a dominant ratings force for more than a decade, and O’Reilly has proven skilled at promoting Fox on shows on other networks, including Stewart’s “The Daily Show’’ on Comedy Central.

L’Affaire O’Reilly is just the latest episode in a head-spinning couple of months. If you were to name the national Newsmaker of the Year so far, it might be the media itself.

Williams, a smooth and polished presence on the anchor desk and on late-night talk shows, the last person you’d expect to self-destruct, did exactly that — and in the process he put a dent in the credibility of the nation’s leading broadcast network news division.

New York Times media critic David Carr and CBS “60 Minutes’’ correspondent Bob Simon, two of the very best that contemporary journalism has produced, died. Stewart, the brilliant jester-satirist, announced he would step down this year from “The Daily Show,’’ which often feasted on the excesses of Fox News. This was not long after his protégé, Stephen Colbert, wrapped up “The Colbert Report,’’ a mock-opinion show hosted by a bloviating pundit inspired by none other than . . . Bill O’Reilly.


Although the parody version of O’Reilly is gone, the real thing — like it or not, and there are plenty in both camps — is probably not going anywhere.

Don Aucoin can be reached at