Bill O’Reilly’s Most Corrosive Trick Was Turning BS Into “Common Sense”
Earlier this month, a few days after the New York Times published the report that would ignite the explosion of Bill O’Reilly’s cable-news career, I tuned in to The O’Reilly Factor. The Times had uncovered five sexual harassment lawsuits that either Fox News or O’Reilly himself had paid to settle, and I wanted to see if he would address the revelations on his own show. He didn’t, of course. Instead he spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get Geraldo Rivera to condemn the alleged misdeeds of former National Security Adviser Susan Rice. “As an investigative reporter—and I am myself—this is a pretty interesting story, no?” O’Reilly asked Geraldo.
And I am myself. I burst out laughing. O’Reilly did investigative work when he worked for local television stations in the 1970s and 1980s, but that was a very long time ago. When I was a kid I had a lemonade stand, but it doesn’t mean I can go around calling myself a restaurateur. That was O’Reilly, though: a man who built an empire pretending to be something he wasn’t. He was a smug rage-volcano who spewed cant and bluster, who called his shtick common sense, and who yelled at dissenters until they backed down or changed the channel. For 20 years, he was the biggest bullshitter on television.
Bullshitting isn’t exactly lying. A liar flatly denies the truth of something. A bullshitter obfuscates the truth for his own benefit. When a liar is caught stealing a candy bar from the corner store, he will swear up and down he didn’t do it. When a bullshitter is caught doing the same thing, he will try to cloud the issue. Maybe by saying the theft of one measly candy bar is nothing compared to the vast sums the government steals every year through punitive taxation. Or maybe by observing that the store is run by dirty immigrants.
Every weeknight at 8 p.m., O’Reilly built his namesake program around a series of obfuscatory premises: that America’s problems could be fixed by a diet of resentful, uninformed solutionism; that white, middle-class Christians were under siege; that deceptively edited ambush interviews qualified as accountability journalism; that Dennis Miller—a frequent guest—was funny. Though he had a middle-class childhood in Levittown, New York, he became an extremely wealthy man who feigned a hardscrabble Irish-American persona, a champion of old-fashioned values who moonlighted as an alleged serial harasser of women.
Now O’Reilly is done at Fox News, and I confess I never thought this day would come. He’s gone not because his massive audiences deserted him, but because his advertisers did; not because Rupert Murdoch and his sons, who control Fox, were unwilling to employ an alleged sexual harasser—Fox has known about all of these charges for a very long time—but because they were unwilling to employ an alleged sexual harasser who was losing his ability to make them money. Dozens of O’Reilly’s advertisers had pulled their spots from his program since the Times story ran. O’Reilly couldn’t bullshit his way out of that.
As a host, O’Reilly alternately channeled Mike Francesa, Mike Wallace, Krusty the Clown, and everyone’s blowhard Uncle Frank. He would deliver a smug opening monologue, and host guests who would either flatter him or enrage him, but whose presence led to shouting either way. He would hawk his own books—as Slate’s Laura Miller has noted, it is “difficult to discern” the extent to which he actually writes them himself—and live appearances. He would close by reading letters from viewers. He spent a lot of time speaking directly to the camera. It was bad, boring TV.
But I understood the appeal. I imagine O’Reilly reminded much of his large, aged viewership of their fathers: those hard-working breadwinners whose word was the last word, who might not have had much formal education but who knew what they believed. O’Reilly was a comforting presence to people who had been raised to believe that plain talk is the best talk. The persona he cultivated on the O’Reilly Factor was designed to play to this crowd. Shut up, sit down, and eat your vegetables.
It’s not surprising, then, that O’Reilly’s ratings remained high even after the Times story ran. He was television’s leading anti-intellectual, and we are living in profoundly stupid times. He paved the way for the Trump presidency with the faux-populist gibberish he proferred for two decades: that the mainstream media was untrustworthy; that nuance was the refuge of scoundrels and eggheads; that bluntness means being gratuitously confrontational with your ideological opponents. O’Reilly professed to tell it like it is without falling prey to political correctness. This was the essence of his “no-spin zone.” It was also total bullshit.
The entire concept of a nightly televised “no-spin zone” has always been laughable. Cable television, particularly its opinion programming, is powered by spin. Calling a news network a “no-spin zone” is about as accurate as calling the Library of Congress a “no-books zone.” A show like The O’Reilly Factor is constructed by producers who choose the guests and the topics; by writers who polish the monologues; by technical directors who control the camera angles and shot selection; by a host who knows how to maintain a huge audience by flattering their resentments and beliefs.
Everything on The O’Reilly Factor was spin, designed to make O’Reilly look trustworthy, his allies intelligent, and his enemies cowards. That’s key to understanding O’Reilly’s brand of bullshit, which was above all an exercise in image-burnishing. The show was less interested in eliciting facts or truth than in establishing O’Reilly as the sort of guy who would chase facts and truth to the ends of the Earth.
An example: In 2009, Mike Hoyt, my old boss at the Columbia Journalism Review, was ambushed one morning at his Teaneck, New Jersey, bus stop by O’Reilly producer Dan Bank. O’Reilly was upset about a story CJR had printed about Fox News, and was also upset that Hoyt, citing impending magazine production deadlines, had declined an invitation to come on the show and discuss it. As anyone who has ever met him can attest, Mike Hoyt is a nice man and a scrupulous journalist. The interview segment that O’Reilly aired was edited to make Hoyt look irritable and untrustworthy. As Hoyt wrote at the time in a CJR piece, the O’Reilly editors omitted a part of the conversation that had occurred at the bus stop, and only aired the part where Mike got annoyed that Bank had followed him onto the bus while he was trying to pay his fare. This was, on several levels, bullshit. O’Reilly wasn’t interested in actually talking to Hoyt about the CJR piece. He simply wanted to provoke Hoyt to irritability by sending his goon to follow him onto a bus at 6 in the morning.
The ambush interview, as practiced by O’Reilly and his staffers, is an example of forced-perspective bullshit—of trying to make oneself look big by gratuitously portraying someone else as smaller. Demagogues have been doing this for centuries, ever since Cleon rose to fame by following Pericles onto a bus in ancient Greece. By making this particular strain of bullshit a staple of his prime-time news-talk program for 20 years, however, O’Reilly normalized it. He trained viewers—powerful and powerless alike—to think that these tactics were OK. When Republican primary voters responded favorably to Donald Trump’s crass insult comedy during many of the early Republican primary debates, they recognized something they’d seen O’Reilly do for years. It wasn’t bullying. It was straight talk.
Or take the O’Reilly Factor episode I watched a couple of weeks ago, in the vain hopes that O’Reilly would address the charges against him. Instead, he spent at least two whole segments drawing a false equivalency between the House of Representatives’ investigation of the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia and Susan Rice’s role in unmasking the names of Trump transition members caught by U.S. surveillance after Trump was elected. Repeatedly, O’Reilly insisted that while Russia was a story, so too were the actions of Susan Rice. Both were “big political allegations,” said O’Reilly. “Whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. Whether Susan Rice was spying on the Trump campaign and transition team to hurt them. Answers to both of those questions haven’t been provided. They must be.”
Some sensible viewers might have appreciated that O’Reilly had at least acknowledged that the Russia story was real; at least O’Reilly wasn’t outright changing the subject, as the Trump administration tried to do with the Rice accusations. But it was classic O’Reilly bullshit, of the obfuscatory variety. The host was pretending to strike a fair and balanced pose that nevertheless clouded the actual news. There is no credible way to argue journalistically that the Trump-Russia story and the Susan Rice story exist on the same plane. It’s intellectually dishonest, and O’Reilly did this sort of thing all the time. Again, as with the forced-perspective bullshit, O’Reilly didn’t invent this tactic, but he helped normalize it. He showed there was an audience for it.
And now he’s gone. O’Reilly will be replaced by Tucker Carlson. If O’Reilly reminded his aging viewers of their fathers, Carlson will probably remind them of their sons, the ones who moved away after college, visit every second Christmas, and will one day sign the papers to put them in a home. As for O’Reilly, he will be fine. He still has his mountains of money. His books will probably continue to sell. And his viewers will assuredly find him blameless and deem him a victim of unscrupulous left-wingers—a storyline that, if the past 20 years have taught us anything, O’Reilly will be only too happy to promote. Just one last serving of bullshit from the master chef.