Oppenheim: Exit O'Reilly

Apr 24, 2017

Bill O’Reilly’s ouster really is a big deal. Time was when the FCC had a regulation called The Fairness Doctrine - a rule that required broadcasters to present controversial issues in an evenhanded way. But in 1987, a time of deregulation, that doctrine was scrapped – leading to intense partisanship in broadcasting and notably the birth of Fox News.

The founders of Fox News promoted themselves as “Fair and Balanced”, but in truth, they saw the network as a conservative counter to what they perceived as a liberal media system. And in that context, Bill O’Reilly became a star.

On his nightly program, The O’Reilly Factor, he wasn’t ultra right wing, but he was intensely belligerent. He shouted down guests, sometimes even colleagues. He delivered talking points, a memo of dogmatic summaries that appeared on screen. He was a bully; his hot temper and explosiveness made him interesting to watch.

But O’Reilly did more than change the tone of cable news, he changed the math. Viewership for cable news are typically low, attracting audiences smaller than what just one TV station in a major market would get. But on Fox prime time, O’Reilly eventually drew roughly four million viewers every night.

The money was so good, Rupert Murdoch and leaders of parent company News Corporation, were willing to pay to keep O’Reilly on the air. In fact, The New York Times has reported that Fox shelled out more than 13 million dollars to settle sexual harassment lawsuits – until advertisers began to flee, and more women came forward.

Now, there does appear to be a connection between politics and predatory behavior. For sure, you don’t have to be conservative to be a pig. But the ideology of the right wing, which upholds an old order in which white men are on top, can serve as an anchor for sexual aggressiveness in the workplace.

After all, O’Reilly wasn’t alone. Roger Ailes, the ousted head of Fox News also accused of repeated sexual harassment, created a work environment that enabled predators and diminished women. And in that environment, Bill O’Reilly had power. He could push anyone around. If he didn’t like what was said about him, or his demands weren’t met, he became vindictive.

But sometimes, stars fall. And assets become liabilities.

In this case, I’d say that’s a very good thing.