In Bill O’Reilly’s 2004 book, The O’Reilly Factor for Kids, the Fox News host offered this advice to teenage boys: “And guys, if you exploit a girl, it will come back to get you. That’s called karma.’”
His remark is particularly ironic, given that Fox News canned O’Reilly this week amid reports that he and 21st Century Fox FOX paid out millions to buy the silence of several “girls” he tried to exploit during his 20-year reign atop the cable news world. It’s safe to say karma has come back to get him in a big way.
Those of us who still believe that one can disagree without disemboweling, and that opinion journalism should be grounded in facts, are not sorry to see him go.
Watch any excerpt from The O’Reilly Factor on YouTube and you will come in contact with all the poisons that foul the information stream: cherry-picking facts that support your argument while ignoring those that undermine it; accusing those you disagree with of lying; repeating false claims over and over, at ever-increasing volume.
O’Reilly has said that his abrasive talk show host persona is an act-he’s really a pussycat. But his treatment of women suggests that the on-camera predator and the off-camera predator were very much the same guy.
And the predatory behavior of his former boss, Roger Ailes, who resigned last summer as CEO of Fox News following allegations that he sexually harassed female colleagues, suggests that pressuring female employees for sexual favors was very much a part of the culture at Fox News. As Stephen Colbert said this week, Fox more or less took the statement it crafted for Ailes’ dismissal and changed the names for O’Reilly’s.
So will that predatory culture change now that O’Reilly has followed Ailes out the door-now that advertisers have pulled out of the show? What will happen to the culture of badgering and bloviating?
The two questions are related: When O’Reilly breathes fire and waggles his bony finger in a guest’s face, he comes across to his adoring fans as tough and authoritative. When women project the same strength, they come across as naggy and shrill. Just ask Hillary Clinton how deep this double standard runs.
Perhaps now that Ailes and O’Reilly are out of the picture, Fox can change the tone of its primetime gabfests from Rock’em-Sock’em robots to more thoughtful engagement with the issues of the day.
Just last month, venerable TV newsman Ted Koppel blamed O’Reilly for changing broadcast journalism from “objective and dull” to “subjective and entertaining.” Leaving aside the thorny question of whether the news was ever as objective as Koppel thinks it was, at Fox, objective and dull would be a welcome change of pace from the cage matches that have come to define cable television news.
Putting it another way, Fox needs to change its karma. Those who will miss seeing “sexual harassers” on TV, as Stephen Colbert suggested, will still have Donald Trump.
The rest of us will have the karmic pleasure of knowing that the man who thought telling his guests to shut up made for good television has been silenced, at least for the moment.
Russell Frank teaches journalism at Penn State University.