An unimaginable, or rather highly unlikely, situation transpired last week with the firing of Bill O’Reilly, host of the popular FOX News program The O’Reilly Factor, for numerous allegations of sexual harassment and other forms of misconduct. Only a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable that a cable personality as popular (at least in many conservative circles) and financially profitable as O’Reilly would have been dismissed from a network like FOX News. From the time The Factor hit the airwaves in 1996 until the present day, the show has been the No. 1 primetime-rated program on cable news. Advertisers paid megabucks to have their products promoted during his time slot.
Many politicians and even some celebrities would eagerly go on his program to discuss and, in some cases, gleefully spar with O’Reilly on whatever issues were hot now. Executives at FOX saw him as both their golden boy and cash cow. He was, no doubt, a major reason that FOX was able to enjoy the level of success that it has had for more than two decades. All that came to an abrupt halt on April 19 when Rupert Murdoch, his sons, James and Lachan, and according to reports, Lachan’s wife, Sarah, urged the billionaire patriarch to let O’Reilly go. Most reasonable and ethical people would concur that the Murdoch family made the proper decision in terminating O’Reilly. Nonetheless, the reality is that morality only emerged as an important point in the decision-making process once advertisers such as Mercedes-Benz and others begin to drop their support like dominos. It was economics, not morality, which emerged as the deciding factor in this sad and sordid saga.
Quite frankly, at least for me, it is hard to see why any conscientious person would have any sympathy for O’Reilly. He targeted women across racial and economic lines. The man was and is the classic personification of hypocrisy. Even now, he has refused to apologize for his deplorable behavior. Rather, he has decided to shift the blame to “supposed enemies, greedy attorneys, jealous rivals, feminists, etc.” As O’Reilly sees it, he is the victim of a larger conspiracy that was cultivated by sinister forces in an effort to destroy his reputation. Everyone is at fault for his transgressions but him. Please!
The man was and is the classic personification of hypocrisy.
There are many people on the political and cultural right who agree with O’Reilly’s assessment that he is, indeed, the victim of a liberal conspiracy. That makes the level of denial and hypocrisy among large segments of the far right even more surreal, irrational and, in some cases, perversely amusing. Are these people for real or the products of a delusional, alternative universe? To put it bluntly, it is theater of the absurd. This tactic of defending the indefensible is what damaged the credibility of a number of people on the political left during the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal of the 1990s. Indeed, it was sad to see so many otherwise intelligent, politically progressive people resort to espousing such borderline-stupefying rhetoric in an effort to defend Clinton, who clearly engaged in behavior that was morally repugnant and deficient. It was indefensible when the left did so. It is just as unacceptable when it is now emanating from the right.
In fact, in the early years of his program, O’Reilly was relentless in covering the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, chastising the former president for his shameless behavior. Such dogged pursuit of Clinton made him a darling of the conservative right. His ratings soared and he solidified his place in the vanguard of conservative media. How times have changed and the tables have indeed turned.
During his two-decade tenure as host of The Factor, O’Reilly made numerous controversial comments about women, people of color in general, the Black Lives Matter movement, the slaying of Trayvon Martin, Mexican immigrants, etc. He recently criticizing the appearance of iconic California congresswoman Maxine Waters for her what he saw as her “James Brown wig.” He later apologized, as he should have known he was no match for Waters who is known for her blunt commentary. This is the same woman who told the Tea Party “to go to hell.” Moreover, she made it clear her feelings about O’Reilly by dubbing him as a liar, bigot, and sexual predator.
O’Reilly has been shameless in his attempts to berate and humiliate others who he sees as lesser. This is the classic definition of bullying. Paranoia and conspiracy thinking among many conservatives aside, the fact is that it does seem that (at least for the moment) the political right is imploding under serious media scrutiny. From Roger Ailes to O’Reilly for sexual misconduct, to Milo Yiannopolous for his outlandish support of pedophilia, to Steve Bannon, the once-primary Trump confidant who seems to be all but exiled from Trump’s inner circle, to former The Blaze host Tomi Lahren, who lost her job for announcing her pro-choice position on abortion and has become embroiled in intense spats with Glenn Beck and other former colleagues.
Then there’s grand conspiracy theorist Alex Jones (and friend of Trump) who is currently in the midst of a contentious child custody battle with his ex-wife who said that his beliefs are abnormal and could have a negative impact on their sons. With Jones’ attorney’s comments alleging that Jones is merely a “performance artist” not to be taken seriously, contradicting Jones’ statements that his comments on his radio program reflect his true feelings, Jones is mired in political quicksand. One can only wonder what is running through the minds of his die-hard listeners.
What is undeniable is the fact that O’Reilly and many of his right-wing cohorts have pimped and manipulated the insecurities of their listeners, many of whom are largely White and ever fearful of the changing demographics of our nation. They have shamelessly, arrogantly and dishonestly worked to shame, denigrate and destroy others. It seems, that at least for the moment, their ruthless and reckless behavior has caught up with them. It reminds me of the biblical saying, “Whatever you sow so shall you reap.”
Elwood Watson, Ph.D. is a professor at East Tennessee State University and the co -author of Violence Against Black Bodies: An Intersectional Analysis of How Black Lives Continue To Matter (Routledge Press, 2017)