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Measured by audience size, cable news is a niche business. Even Bill O’Reilly, the ratings leader, rarely attracted a viewership of more than 4 million. Yet, when Fox News Channel fired O’Reilly on April 19 amid sexual harassment claims, his ouster was truly a mass media phenomenon. The announcement was the lead story seen by the combined audiences — 22 million or so people — of the three broadcast networks’ nightly newscasts, as well as the celebrity newsmagazines. Fox’s setback, obviously, was examined at interminable length by rivals CNN and MSNBC. Chris Ariens at TVNewser studied the nation’s print media at the Newseum the next day and concluded: “Coast to coast, many of today’s newspapers included Bill O’Reilly’s departure … on the front page.”
It’s obvious why industry insiders — like readers of The Hollywood Reporter — would find the O’Reilly ouster fascinating: the financial fallout from the advertising boycott; the struggle between generations of the Murdoch empire; the consequences of a toxic environment at Fox News and its botched human resources regime.
Nevertheless, O’Reilly’s fate became the dominant story at general news outlets. Combine the coverage of O’Reilly’s ouster on broadcast nightly newscasts during the week of April 17 (21 minutes) with the coverage of the ad boycott two weeks prior (12 minutes) and the exit of O’Reilly’s longtime boss Roger Ailes last summer (27 minutes), and there was a full hour of general news devoted to media insiderism.
If the networks had used O’Reilly as a news hook to examine the issue of sexual harassment, that would have been one thing. But only two stories traced the progress, or lack thereof, in addressing workplace sexism since the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991. No, other factors were at play to propel O’Reilly’s fate into prominence. Let me suggest three:
1) BIG APPLE BLOWBACK Under Ailes, the Fox News operation consistently promoted itself by denigrating its competitors in the news media. This was done in the open, by pointing out the ideological and journalistic differences between FNC and its mainstream rivals. It also included a behind-the-scenes effort to turn staid audience statistics into a headline-grabbing ratings war, and using the black arts of intimidation and rumor to get that war covered in the New York tabloid gossip columns. Ailes wanted his stars, especially O’Reilly, to be at the center of a swirl of controversy. So the TV networks, being part of the New York media scene, treated him as more newsworthy than he really is. Interestingly, of all those Newseum front pages on which O’Reilly’s name appears, most did not make him their lead — but The New York Times and New York Daily News did.
2) THE TRUMP FACTOR The parallels between O’Reilly and Donald Trump are legion: their nationalist populism, reactionary nostalgia and bullying alpha male self-image. That it was a sexual scandal that led to O’Reilly’s exit is most telling. He was accused of a predatory attitude toward women, an attitude that was precisely analogous to the one the beauty-pageant-promoting future president articulated on that infamous Access Hollywood tape. Trump himself defended O’Reilly when the $13 million in settlements were first revealed on April 1. If Trump hadn’t been elected despite the Access tape, the cliffhanger over O’Reilly’s fate would not have had the same frisson. O’Reilly was paying the symbolic price that Trump had managed to avoid.
3) PAPA BEAR BECAME A PAPER TIGER Think back to the ouster of Dan Rather for his failure to authenticate forged documents for 60 Minutes II. Or the firing of Don Imus for his “nappy-headed hos” comment. Or Brian Williams’ exile for fibbing about his exploits as a war correspondent. All three found themselves in trouble for their failures as broadcasters. It turns out that O’Reilly’s ouster, too — although ostensibly about his behavior off-camera — dramatized the failure of his on-air persona. The “No Spin Zone” was supposed to be the unique place where no intimidation was allowed. Yet, in the showdown with his corporate bosses, O’Reilly found himself vulnerable to spinning, held accountable to a set of norms of proper behavior. The foundation of his on-air image as the last, manly, immovable object facing down the onrush of contemporary political correctness crumbled.
All that was newsworthy. O’Reilly’s saga became a moral fable of our times, not just for industry readers, but for everyone who loves the drama of comeuppance.
Tyndall is an independent news analyst and publisher of The Tyndall Report.
This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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