It’s tempting, observing what can only be called The Passion of Bill O’Reilly, to lump his sordid final act into a tragedy in three acts along with the recent muzzling of Blaze firebrand Tomi Lahren and the courtroom revelation of Infowars honey badger Alex Jones as performance artist in the style of a recently werewolf-bitten Marina Abramovic.
To do so might make for a tidy three-makes-a-trend thinkpiece, but it would also miss a key element in what made O’Reilly — as bolted to the floor at Fox News as his desk — so easily dismissed as he was dollied out to the alley.
As a quick recap for those lucky enough to be out of this loop: A New York Times report exposed multiple allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior resulting in multiple settlements.
Dozens of advertisers pulled out from the top-rated show “The O’Reilly Factor,” the Internet erupted in protest, and while O’Reilly partied with the Pope in Italy, leaky Fox execs started letting out that O’Reilly’s ouster was imminent. As of Wednesday, it was.
If it tells you anything about his toxicity levels, it cost the network twice as much to get rid of O’Reilly than the total of the settlements against him. But while O’Reilly is gone without a chance to wave or flip the bird goodbye, he does leave with a cushy year’s salary — about $25 million. That’ll teach him to respect women.
Meanwhile, the bony dents in his longtime seat on “The Factor” (which is how you have to say it) will be imperceptibly warmed by understudy Mouseketeer from the Upside Down, Tucker Carlson.
And that was that. Past tense and everything.
Given O’Reilly’s two-decade-plus tenure at Fox, and his stalwart position as the angry uncle of grouchy Yahoo-account chauvinist xenophobe conservatism, and given the stubborn tenacity and baffling rise to power of another alleged sexual predator with an extremely high public profile, the tidiness of O’Reilly’s demise might seem surprising. But if you’ve spent any time on the Internet, it felt inevitable.
Unlike Donald Trump — who managed to be historically bad at Twitter at a point when Twitter barely had a history deep enough to draw superlatives, and to the point that his singular ineptitude flipped into a kind of signature mastery — Bill O’Reilly never really showed any mastery of Twitter, or interest in the Internet, for that matter.
O’Reilly, as @oreillyfactor, joined Twitter in March 2009 (“Looks like our new homepage is starting to propagate. There are a few small bugs but we’re working those out too,” tweeted someone who is clearly not Bill O’Reilly), and spent his first year awkwardly and visibly learning the ropes/tubes — infrequently posting as himself, sometimes adopting the third person, but most often relying on proxies.
Jump ahead a few years, even in the thick of Obama’s re-election campaign, and O’Reilly’s presence online remained characterized by dry redirects to clips from the “Factor.” He’s only ever liked 17 tweets.
Significantly, compared to his peers in the right wing echo chamber, O’Reilly never quite got a grip on channeling his voice onto these new channels, and toward this new public; he was chronically more comfortable shouting into his own cave than into an uncertain void. Of course, in some ways, he didn’t need to worry about Twitter. (It’s relatively easy to find instances of O’Reilly’s highly weaponized malarkey staining the worldview of our elected officials like so much tanning agent.)
The only time O’Reilly’s voice recognizably rings through on Twitter is when a perceived slight against the “Factor” sends his thumbs flaming — like the permafrost on Rand Paul’s shoulder, for instance.
Twitter, as we know, isn’t everything. But all of this is to say that O’Reilly mastered the Internet with all of the elan that my grandfather did, and he died when I was 5.
This shouldn’t matter, but it does. It’s not that O’Reilly, who proudly titles his most recent bound screed/book “Old School: Life in the Sane Lane” was particularly bad at the Internet. But his very existence supplied the Internet with an endless resource for confirming how profoundly uncool he is.
His now-canonical freakout on the set of an early episode of “Inside Edition” has come to serve as visual shorthand for the archetypal sputteringly angry white guy, and it has since graduated into mainstream memedom via “Family Guy.” Thus his most memorable quote — “We’ll do it live!” — echoes through the ages, the “We are Sparta!” of entitled blowhards.
YouTube is awash in vintage clips of classic O’Reilly lameness, from his dogged journalistic pursuit into whether Susan Powter was ever actually “fat” to his aggressively lame appraisal of just about every subculture ever to his budding conspiratorial curiosities, evident even in the pre-jowls stage of his career. The like to dislike ratio on a clip of David Letterman calling O’Reilly “a goon” says it all: The Internet loves to hate this guy.
The steady level of animus toward O’Reilly online makes his apparent indifference to the Internet seem less a product of standard-issue blithering neglect and more like an analogue of the willful ignorance he’s made too long a career out of peddling. This cowardly distance from actual discourse provided O’Reilly a protective layer, a cushion of silence — some might call it a bubble.
But it also exposed him as too soft for the Internet, not ready for proverbial primetime — detestable, sure. But worse, disposable. Call it the O’Reilly Factor.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at email@example.com.