The most popular talking head on the highest-rated news channel has been removed from his bully pulpit not because of what he said on television but because of what he is said to have done off-camera.
After two decades, amid mounting allegations of sexual harassment and multiple legal settlements, Bill O’Reilly was relieved Wednesday of his duties at Fox News, including as host of the top-rated 8 p.m. show “The O’Reilly Factor.”
And so passes another great public mountebank from the American scene. I’d say we have a corner on the market in this country — public personalities of all stripes who talk one way and act another — but, then, it seems to be human nature, or a certain percentage of male human nature when presented with the leverage and perceived perquisites of power. If it’s easy to judge, that’s only because most of us don’t try to extort sexual favors from work colleagues, then destroy their careers when they don’t come through. Because it’s, you know, wrong.
The governing irony, of course, is that in the world according to O’Reilly and other cultural scolds, everyone else is wrong and they alone are the uncorrupted. Their spin is no-spin; their truth is the Truth. They promise their followers: Do as I say (but not as I do), and America will be its own best self again, whatever you perceive that to be. Moral certainty is their armor, and it allows them at times to be immorally cruel. It takes a very smug kind of meanness to watch Representative Maxine Waters speak passionately on race in the Trump era and only be able to crack a joke, as O’Reilly recently did, about her “James Brown wig.” A very white kind of meanness, too.
O’Reilly has been the most visible occupant of the house that Roger Ailes built with the backing of Rupert Murdoch. It’s perhaps a shoddy defense that the TV commentator only behaved according to the rules of that house, but once Ailes was ejected from his perch in July 2016 for alleged conduct becoming a pig, it was only a matter of time before other Fox News employees would have to live in the same world as the rest of us. So much of the yearning by certain men for a return to yesterday is the hope they might yet be the pashas of the harem, just as they believe they’d been promised.
This isn’t O’Reilly’s obituary. He’s too smart and too canny to go away entirely. He’ll pop up on satellite radio or in an advisory capacity to some aspirant to power. His pop-history books will still sell. He really does fake sincerity awfully well. But his disgrace signals the waning of Rupert Murdoch’s long influence over American culture as his smoother, less ideological sons, James and Lachlan, ascend the throne. It was Rupert who argued to keep both Ailes and O’Reilly on at Fox News; it was son James who argued to fire both, and according to New York magazine, it was Lachlan’s wife, Sarah, who brought her husband over into the O’Reilly Must Go camp.
Palace rumors. But palace rumors are what much of American public life is about these days, in case you haven’t glanced at the White House. The toppling of the premier faces of the first two decades of Fox News is a sign that the sons, more corporate and less given to cultural brawling, may remake their father’s crown jewel in their image. Fox will remain conservative, but it may become a kinder, gentler, and more polite conservatism (especially if they can get rid of Sean Hannity).
But let’s not necessarily credit the Murdoch sons with moral probity, because a more honest reason O’Reilly is being shown the door is money, or the possible lack thereof. And here we come to a hard truth of public life in America, which is that corporate overseers and audiences don’t mind a snake-oil salesman, but advertisers do. No one wants to buy a product that smells of swindle — a product that says you, the buyer, have been fleeced. Sponsors were fleeing “The O’Reilly Factor” in recent weeks, and the prevailing view was that they would never be coming back.
And persona politics were at play here, too. What we saw this week was the culmination of a dissonance between two battling Bill O’Reillys: the plain-talking defender of common-sense wisdom and what some called an entitled, angry sexual aggressor and workplace bully.
There are words for this dissonance between public and private personae. O’Reilly’s bosses might call it “brand erosion.” The correct word is hypocrisy.
It’s not the exclusive province of conservatives or liberals, the old or the young, the famous or the obscure, or even men or women. It is simply what happens when people talk piously of their best ideals while catering in secret to their worst impulses.
There’s a subsection of the American public who’ll stick by O’Reilly, of course, Fox diehards who are sure that anything other than complete trust in their avatars is surrender to the horrors of liberalism. They believe O’Reilly’s lawyer when he speaks of a McCarthy-esque character assassination campaign against his client. They cheer when, as O’Reilly did after his firing, he continues to deny the allegations as “completely unfounded.’’ Their faith is religious, and like religions it relies on high hopes while resting on human feet of clay.
Almost everyone else will move on once the shouting has died down. Even the fans will eventually transfer their yearning to those they think might be less fallible, and most likely they’ll get fooled again. And with O’Reilly’s passing from the scene may also pass Fox News’s Imperial Era, of which he has himself been the king.
He was the perfect merger of tough talk, professed family values, and crude subterranean desires. He just got caught at it, and enough people in high enough places were forced to care.