Critic's Notebook: Bill O'Reilly's Shattered TV Legacy

Bill O'Reilly - It's Rockin The Boat Benefit Concert 2015 - Getty - H 2017
Desiree Novaro/Getty Images

The powerhouse host of television's highest-rated cable news show is hardly leaving with his dignity intact.

Winston Churchill supposedly once said that “you can always count on Americans to do the right thing … after they’ve tried everything else.”

The same could well be said of Fox News, which has finally let go of their star attraction, Bill O’Reilly, after, well, trying everything else. They used the same tactic with Roger Ailes, only to eventually recognize the inevitable. And now, after a storied 21-year run at the highest-rated cable news network, O'Reilly, too, will be sailing off into the sunset, undoubtedly with a severance package of the kind of money that most Americans don’t earn in a lifetime.

You can’t blame Fox for desperately trying to keep the host of The O’Reilly Factor, the country’s most popular cable news opinion show. And if it was solely up to Rupert Murdoch, O’Reilly probably wouldn’t be going anywhere. But as the name of the corporation indicates, we’re living in the 21st century now, and the old-boys-club, wink-wink tolerance of sexual harassment just doesn’t cut it anymore.

There’s no doubt that O’Reilly has had a huge impact on the cable news landscape. Exploiting his modest Long Island roots, he projects an Everyman, plain-speaking quality that average Joes, particularly those of the conservative variety, adore. O’Reilly is clearly a very bright man, but he has no interest in projecting an intellectual image. It’s not surprising that he’s our best-selling history author, with every book, especially those in his Killing series, proving massively popular. (I’ll confess that I purchased more than a few of them as Father’s Day presents for my World War II veteran dad, a huge O’Reilly fan.)

The commentator’s cultural cachet was so enormous that he even inspired Stephen Colbert’s long-running, satirical blowhard character on The Colbert Report. Rather than being offended, and savvy enough to know that satire comes close to imitation as the sincerest form of flattery, O’Reilly made a good-natured guest appearance on Colbert’s show. Unlike many of his right-leaning colleagues, O’Reilly has no compunctions about throwing himself into the fray. His verbal joustings with the likes of Jon Stewart and David Letterman were always hugely entertaining. For all his bombast and bluster, O’Reilly comes off as likeable, although any women who were on the receiving end of his unwanted attentions would certainly disagree.

O’Reilly has long championed himself as a political independent, despite the fact that he was registered as a Republican in New York for several years (he claimed to be unaware of it, which only goes to show that GOP voter registration workers are very, very good). He projected an image of himself as someone who speaks truth to power, coming across like a blue-collar, Archie Bunker-style warrior despite an estimated net worth of $70-$85 million.

O’Reilly’s blunt talk and old-school behavior often got him into trouble. After having dinner with Al Sharpton at the Harlem institution Sylvia’s, he marveled on-air that a black-run restaurant could be so … normal. Appearing on ABC’s The View, he caused Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg to walk off the set when he declared that “Muslims killed us on 9/11.” And who can forget his now classic observation — after Michelle Obama’s 2016 convention speech, in which she pointed out that the White House had been built by slaves — that the slaves who built the White House were “well fed” and “had decent lodgings.”

More recently, O’Reilly had to apologize after saying that he was distracted by California Rep. Maxine Waters’ “James Brown wig.” His relations with the Jewish community also leave something to be desired; he told one Jewish caller to his show that America is “a predominantly Christian nation … if you are really offended, you gotta go to Israel then.”

For all his gaffes, missteps and verbal bluster, O’Reilly could always count on his fans’ loyalty. While many of his advertisers deserted him in the wake of the recent allegations, his viewers didn’t. Indeed, his show’s ratings actually went up in the immediate aftermath, although some viewers may have been attracted in the way that drivers slow down to look at a highway accident.

In all likelihood, O’Reilly’s sacking and legal troubles don’t mean the end for him. But they’re certainly going to make it more difficult for him to occupy the moral high ground on which he’s long been so comfortable standing.