Forget North Korea. Forget Russia and Syria and Iran and ISIS too. Forget the repeal of Obamacare and its replacement with free-market nonsense that will cover no one but the healthy rich – and forget tax reform that will make the wealthy even wealthier, for no good reason. Forget the ongoing mass deportation of anyone who even looks vaguely Hispanic, and forget the coming trade wars that will paralyze the global economy. Well, don’t forget all that, but the day finally came, when modern American conservatism fell apart.
Perhaps that’s a bit too dramatic, but America has long understood what our sort of conservatism is, and made peace with it. It was fairly simple. Modern conservatism in the fifties was defined, if not established, by William F. Buckley, who cast out the John Birchers and the other conspiracy nuts. It was time to get serious. Conservatism was about free-markets and small government – the less government the better. It was a bit racist – Buckley vigorously argued for segregation – but that was a matter of states’ rights to him, and traditions that should not be abandoned lightly. Barry Goldwater was aboard. He lost. Ronald Reagan was aboard. He won – and William F. Buckley was there to explain it all. Buckley was erudite – reporters had to look up those odd words he used – but he was the voice of the movement. He founded the National Review, and the Weekly Standard followed, to compete with it, to say the same things even better. Much of it was cold-blooded and nasty, but was said with elegance, and then the think-tanks sprang up – the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, and at Stanford, the Hoover Institute. Herbert Hoover was the good guy. Franklin Roosevelt was the bad guy – he had created a culture of dependency, on government.
So that was settled. Agree with it or not, Americans understood our sort of conservatism, but things changed. Richard Nixon might have started that change with his crude populism. He hated the Ivy League crowd, and there was no one more Ivy League than William F. Buckley. Nixon’s “silent majority” was the guys in hard hats that hated the hippies and everything that had to do with the sixties. Nixon used cultural resentment to win the presidency. His “Southern strategy” was to blame what had gone wrong down there on uppity black folks – without saying that directly – and that worked just fine. Carry the South and win every election. Republicans took notice – and then Nixon was gone. Watergate caught up with him.
Modern conservatism as cultural resentment went dormant for a bit, but it wouldn’t die, and things changed in 1996 with the birth of Fox News. Buckley was a grumpy old man. Fox News gave America Bill O’Reilly – the voice of cultural resentment in America. The folks at the National Review and the Weekly Standard still wrote the elegant pieces on free-market economics and tax policy and whatnot, but O’Reilly was talking about insufferable feminists and black thugs and the War on Christmas and Mexicans and Muslims and gays – we’d be better off without them. And there was political correctness – a straight white Christian man couldn’t say anything these days. He resented that. His viewers resented that.
That took off. O’Reilly had the hottest show on cable news. He buried CNN and MSNBC – he had ten times their ratings. That was an exaggeration, but modern conservatism had changed. O’Reilly was its voice.
And now that has fallen apart:
Bill O’Reilly’s reign as the top-rated host in cable news came to an abrupt and embarrassing end on Wednesday as Fox News forced him out after the disclosure of a series of sexual harassment allegations against him and an internal investigation that turned up even more.
Those insufferable feminists, or quite normal women being used and abused, did him in:
Mr. O’Reilly and his employers came under intense pressure after an article by The New York Times on April 1 revealed how Fox News and its parent company, 21st Century Fox, had repeatedly stood by him even as he and the company reached settlements with five women who had complained about sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior by him. The agreements totaled about $13 million.
Since then, more than 50 advertisers had abandoned his show, and women’s rights groups had called for him to be fired. Inside the company, women expressed outrage and questioned whether top executives were serious about maintaining a culture based on “trust and respect,” as they had promised last summer when another sexual harassment scandal led to the ouster of Roger E. Ailes as chairman of Fox News.
Yes, his boss, Roger Ailes, had been fired for the same thing. It was O’Reilly’s turn, but it was a bit odd:
For a generation of conservative-leaning Fox News viewers, Mr. O’Reilly, 67, was a populist voice who railed against what they viewed as the politically correct message of a lecturing liberal media. Defiantly proclaiming his show a “No Spin Zone,” he produced programming infused with patriotism and a scorn for feminists and movements like “The War on Christmas,” which became one of his signature themes.
The news of Mr. O’Reilly’s ouster came while he was on a vacation to Italy; on Wednesday morning, he met Pope Francis at St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. Mr. O’Reilly’s tickets to the Vatican were arranged by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York.
In a statement later in the day, Mr. O’Reilly praised Fox News but said it was “tremendously disheartening that we part ways due to completely unfounded claims.”
“But that is the unfortunate reality many of us in the public eye must live with today,” he said.
He was whining, resentful to the end. He just shook hands with the Pope! What did these people want?
They wanted this:
In the aftermath of Mr. Ailes’s dismissal in July, the Murdochs pledged to clean up the network’s culture. But since then, it has been hit with new sexual harassment allegations, and female staff members said they remained fearful of reporting inappropriate behavior…
Mr. O’Reilly’s dismissal was hailed by women’s rights activists and some inside the company as a sign that the network, and perhaps corporate culture at large, was finally taking the issue of sexual harassment seriously.
“This is a seismic cultural shift, when a corporation puts a woman’s rights above the bottom line,” said Wendy Walsh, a former guest on Mr. O’Reilly’s show, “The O’Reilly Factor,” who made allegations against him. “Today, we have entered a new era in workplace politics.”
But even on Wednesday, after the ouster, some employees said they were skeptical about whether the treatment of women at Fox News would actually change.
No one really expects it to change, but what’s done is done:
Mr. O’Reilly has been an anchor at Fox News since he joined the network in 1996. His departure is a significant blow to the Fox News lineup, which has dominated the prime-time cable news ratings. In January, the network lost another star, Megyn Kelly.
He will be succeeded in the 8 p.m. Eastern slot by Tucker Carlson, who moved into the channel’s prime-time lineup only in January.
Read about Tucker Carlson here – fired by CNN and then fired by MSNBC – another smug white male conservative full of resentments and more than willing to air them, but younger than O’Reilly, and there’s this – “On January 11, 2010, Carlson and former vice president Dick Cheney aide Neil Patel launched a political news website titled The Daily Caller.”
Nothing much will change, but Tucker Carlson is no Bill O’Reilly, and Jim Rutenberg explores that problem:
No two people did more to build Fox News Channel into a powerful cultural-political force than Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly.
Mr. Ailes, the founding chairman of Fox News, envisioned a news network that would speak for those forgotten Americans who thought the rest of the media was talking down to them while abetting a liberal takeover of their country.
He found one of those concerned citizens in the person of a midcareer, midlevel broadcaster named Bill O’Reilly, of Levittown, Long Island. With a white working-class background, and a perfectly perched chip on his shoulder, Mr. O’Reilly was the ideal personality for Mr. Ailes to build his network around.
Mr. O’Reilly quickly climbed to the top of the cable ratings, and then pulled the rest of the network along with him as he became one of the biggest stars in television news history.
In so doing, he empowered Mr. Ailes to build Fox News into more than America’s No. 1 cable news network. Much more significantly, Mr. O’Reilly helped Mr. Ailes turn it into the beating heart of a new, populist conservative movement, one that reshaped the political landscape while making its parent company, 21st Century Fox, billions.
And, finally, it became an important vehicle in the conservative convoy that delivered their mutual friend Donald J. Trump to the White House.
Tucker Carlson cannot fill those shoes:
First there is Mr. O’Reilly’s own audience, which steadfastly stuck with him – and then some – as the revelations about sexual harassment first emerged in The New York Times. For as long as he has been “looking out for” them – as he puts it – he has sworn to beat back the “secular progressive” forces of political correctness.
His fans told interviewers they doubted the allegations against him, describing him as an “easy target” for liberal groups and the same mainstream media he has made a career of lambasting.
Now here was Fox News, the network they trust above all others, refusing on Wednesday to stand behind Mr. O’Reilly in the face of what he called “unfounded claims” in the same way that they do.
“Generally, the Fox audience is not going to be happy the network fired him,” said Chris Ruddy, chief executive of a smaller Fox News rival, Newsmax Media. “They’re going to think it was unfair.”
But, really, where will Mr. O’Reilly’s viewers go in his absence?
Tucker Carlson ain’t it, but Bruce Headlam gets to the core issue here:
You know there is a lot of fear in corporate America when it actually penetrates the hard exoskeleton of Rupert Murdoch. Mr. Murdoch’s Fox News announced Wednesday that it will part with its star host Bill O’Reilly weeks after a New York Times investigation into sexual harassment charges led more than 50 companies, under pressure from protesters, to pull their ads from “The O’Reilly Factor.”
This wasn’t the only recent boycott. Last month, North Carolina passed a face-saving reversal of its bill that prevented transgendered people from using the bathroom of their choice after a host of companies and organizations, including the NCAA, said they wouldn’t do business in the state.
A campaign by the group Sleeping Giants has shamed hundreds of marketers into pulling their ads from the right-wing Breitbart News. A threatened boycott has extracted a promise from United Airlines that it will no longer violently remove passengers in favor of a company employee. If you’ve flown United recently, you’ll know that’s progress.
Boycotts work, sort of:
There’s little evidence that broad-based boycotts actually hurt a company’s bottom line; in fact, loyal customers often increase their patronage. Mr. O’Reilly’s ratings rose after the Times investigation. After the Cracker Barrel chain fired gay employees in 1991, visits to the restaurants rose in the face of protests. In 1977, when a Georgia group threatened a boycott of the Girl Scouts of America for its endorsement of the Equal Rights Amendment, cookie sales went through the roof.
But boycotts can cause a significant drop in share price, according to a 2007 study of boycotts over a 28-year period. In other words, shareholders react to their own fear of what might happen to the company’s brand, and not to what’s actually happening to its revenue.
That’s an important distinction:
None of the companies that pulled out of “The O’Reilly Factor” or Breitbart News are exactly a profile in courage. The basic allegations against Mr. O’Reilly have been known since 2004, when he settled his first lawsuit, but that didn’t stop companies from advertising until more women came forward. Though in some cases, corporate cowardice is a good thing. American business is often accused of producing a bland, monolithic culture – “Disneyfication” – but sometimes the fear to offend instills a kind of civility that other spheres of public life lack.
The idea here is that cowardice is socially useful:
Just compare the inclusive if dull message you hear from corporations with the state of our political culture, where the vilifying of enemies (the elite, welfare queens, the deplorables) is still a critical tool. Donald Trump won an election despite the creepy predatory comments he made on the “Access Hollywood” tape. But Mr. O’Reilly is being shown the door for acting toward women exactly as Mr. Trump had suggested (“When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”). Not that he needed the encouragement, apparently.
Things change when money is involved:
Steve King, a five-time congressman from Iowa, has plagued the public arena for years with his barely concealed white nationalism. By contrast, when Donald Sterling, the longtime owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was heard on tape disparaging African-Americans, the NBA revoked his right to ownership and put the team up for auction. The NBA did this even though Mr. Sterling was speaking in private about associates of his ex-girlfriend, who secretly taped him as part of an extortion plot.
This is the same sort of thing:
Kellogg’s and Charles Schwab don’t want their ads to appear on a site featuring headlines like “Birth Control Makes Women Crazy and Unattractive” or “Only Gullible Fools Believe the Great Barrier Reef Is Dying” unless they want to destroy their corporate reputations.
Likewise, Mercedes-Benz is a niche brand in the United States, but the company spends millions so that every consumer associates its vehicles with Jon Hamm uttering the phrase “The best or nothing” and not with Bill O’Reilly’s voice telling a would-be conquest that she’s a “wild girl.”
It seems this just had to happen:
More important, 21st Century Fox’s stock has slipped almost 6 percent since the Times investigation was published. That decline would make a coward of almost any chief executive. Mr. O’Reilly’s lawyer is laying the blame for his client’s situation on a “smear campaign” that is “being orchestrated by far-left organizations.” That sounds like the kind of all-out political assault that Fox News and Mr. O’Reilly himself excelled at for years. But it wasn’t politics that did in Mr. O’Reilly. It was just business.
Still, there is the tale of how it came to this, and it did start with Nixon. In 1967, Roger Ailes, who was producing the Mike Douglas Show, had a long discussion about television in politics with one of the guests, Richard Nixon, who thought television was a gimmick. Nixon was old-school. Ailes reminded Nixon of that televised debate with Kennedy in 1960, where those listening on radio though that Nixon won the debate, and those who watched it on television thought Kennedy had won. Radio is background noise. Television is what everyone talks about.
Nixon hired Ailes on the spot, as his Executive Producer for Television. Nixon’s 1968 election might have been Ailes’ doing – he worked hard to make the very odd Nixon more likeable and “accessible” to the public. That story is told in The Selling of the President 1968 – Joe McGinniss tells how Ailes made Nixon one of the cool kids again, and then a decade later there was this:
During the 1988 U.S. presidential election, the Willie Horton attack ads run against Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis built upon the Southern strategy in a campaign that reinforced the notion that Republicans best represent conservative whites with traditional values. Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes worked on the campaign as George H. W. Bush’s political strategists, and upon seeing a favorable New Jersey focus group response to the Horton strategy, Atwater recognized that an implicit racial appeal could work outside of the Southern states. The subsequent ads featured Horton’s mugshot and played on fears of black criminals. Atwater said of the strategy, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.”
Horton, big and black, was the convicted murderer who escaped during a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison and then committed an awful rape along with armed robbery. Even though the furlough program was actually repealed during Dukakis’ second term, Bush’s two guys made Horton the symbol here, a signifier. Dukakis had no clue about bad guys. Dukakis was soft on crime. And black men are frightening. Everyone knows this.
And then, another decade later, in February 1996, Roger Ailes left America’s Talking (now MSNBC) to start the Fox News Channel for Rupert Murdoch. The job was the same – make the angry conservative stiffs the cool kids again. Ailes could do that and Fox News, featuring Bill O’Reilly, launched on October 7, 1996, and they’ve been working on that ever since.
They have had that plan. They say they alone are “Fair and Balanced” – a counterweight to CNN and certainly MSNBC, and to the three broadcast networks, and to the New York Times and Washington Post and all the rest of the liberal mainstream media that persists in questioning the wisdom of angry white conservatives. That is, however, no more than their saying that they’re the cool kids, who know what’s what, not those other guys. It’s a high-school thing.
That may be why Roger Ailes hired all those pretty and leggy and young blond women to sit around with the angry old white men – for every Bill O’Reilly a Megyn Kelly. The angry old white men get the hot chicks. That makes them cool, doesn’t it? It really is like being back in high school. The taunt is there. Check her out! She’s with me! I’m cool and you’re not!
Megyn Kelly left for NBC – she graduated from Bethlehem Central High School in Albany in 1988 or so. She’s not going back.
We may still be stuck in high school, however, and Isaac Chotiner explains why:
As the most-watched host on the most successful cable channel of the past two decades, O’Reilly came to represent a style of in-your face conservatism that had previously been associated primarily with talk radio. O’Reilly’s uniquely aggressive personality and instinctual skills in front of the camera go a long way toward explaining his success. But he also tapped into the right-wing id in a way no one had before, captivating his viewers with his unbridled egotism and stoking their resentments. It was a playbook that won him a huge audience – and, to judge by Donald Trump’s eerily similar appeal to voters, a legacy that will outlast his grip on the 8 p.m. time slot.
There is a parallel:
When The O’Reilly Report began in 1996 – the show didn’t become what O’Reilly referred to as “The Factor” until 1998 – it was your typical anti-Clinton offering from Fox News, with many of the same preoccupations of other conservative programs in the second half of that decade. (White House scandals, mainly.) Over his first several years on the air, O’Reilly made an effort to appear reasonable. He declared that he was not a Republican, but an independent; he refused to support the death penalty; he talked about the value of environmental protection; he said that he understood both sides of the debate on issues such as gun control and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict; and he took immense pride – which manifested itself as smug self-satisfaction – in his supposedly nonpartisan, down-home common sense.
That sounds familiar, as does this:
O’Reilly’s minor heresies during his first decade on the air were ultimately less indicative of the future direction of his show than the passions that always consumed him. These were not the same passions of the Club for Growth crowd. O’Reilly was naturally in favor of tax cuts and smaller government, and after 9/11 he became predictably jingoistic, offering full-throated support for the Iraq war and a tough line on terrorism. But even then it was clear that the traditional Republican platform never really motivated him. The idea of O’Reilly spending more than 30 seconds talking about supply-side economics was unfathomable; Limbaugh and Hannity would do so constantly.
That’s Trump and Paul Ryan, because the resentment matters more:
A college professor would call America a fascist country, or a retailer would announce that it would greet customers with “happy holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” O’Reilly would rant and rave; he would call for people to be fired; he would bemoan that America was becoming less religious and less white. Sure, Limbaugh and Hannity would occasionally focus on culture instead of politics, but for O’Reilly, it was what fueled the show, and what really got him exercised. (Much was made of his Levittown upbringing and disdain for snobby elites.) Even better, he didn’t appear to be faking it in the way one often suspects of certain right-wing hosts. All of the details that have leaked out about O’Reilly – from the harassment claims to the violent way he behaved toward his ex-wife – strongly suggest that he was not playing a character when he fumed on the air…
It’s simply impossible to overstate how much of each night’s show was consumed by O’Reilly’s own grievances. He skirmished with everyone from Matt Lauer to Rosie O’Donnell to Al Franken, and those fights would invariably become the topic of the day on his show.
Donald Trump tweets about Meryl Streep, the same sort of thing, and that’s the problem:
I never really had a theory for how this supposed man of the people got away with talking about nothing but himself. Then Donald Trump came along. Here was another rich guy who built a following speaking up for the working man. Like O’Reilly he seemed entirely driven by resentment: at President Obama, at the media, at the people who doubted him. And like O’Reilly, he spoke almost entirely of himself. His stump speeches were shocking, in part, because they were rarely about anything other than Donald Trump. When I would see him talk to a bunch of working-class voters in the Midwest and appeal to them by describing his own battles with CNN, I was surprised. But not as surprised as I would have been if I hadn’t been watching O’Reilly all these years.
They’re two of a kind:
In 2016 and 2017, as both O’Reilly and Trump battled accusations of misconduct, it’s been hard not to see them as twinned: bigoted, sexist dinosaurs from the past. Each man went to extreme lengths to defend the other, and you sensed that this wasn’t only because they share the same audience but also because they have so much in common, that they really do see themselves in one another.
So this is half a victory:
Finally we are seeing the downfall of a true symbol of reaction and misogyny. But satisfaction these days has a tendency to give way to despair. An even larger symbol (and transmitter) of these ugly ideas is sitting in the White House. O’Reilly’s time has finally come, but the forces he helped unleash on American culture remain ascendant.
Still, Fox News did fire Roger Ailes and then Bill O’Reilly – bigoted, sexist dinosaurs from the past. America can fire Donald Trump in four years, or sooner – and then someone can define American conservatism once again. Maybe they’ll come up with something useful this time.