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Factoring Bill O’Reilly

Combative, finger-waving cable television host Bill O’Reilly parted ways with Fox News Channel a few weeks after the New York Times published claims of sexual harassment and large sums for settlements. Is the downfall of America’s top cable TV host a negative or positive for free speech, the culture and the country? I think the answer depends on the facts, which we don’t know. That the relevant facts are not known is why I think O’Reilly’s downfall is ominous.

I’m not a fan of the show. I rarely watched The O’Reilly Factor, which ran for 21 years and was top-rated, commercially successful and highly influential. What I’ve written about O’Reilly since he went on Fox News following his work on the lurid Inside Edition is almost entirely negative. In my media commentary, I’ve opposed sensationalism and consistently named O’Reilly as one of the worst practitioners.

Bill O’Reilly on “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News

But it’s worth thinking about why he stayed at the top of TV ratings for so long. His show was topical, entertaining and consistent on its own terms. Watch The O’Reilly Factor for the full hour and you’d get a general idea of news and culture from a certain, often neglected, perspective. O’Reilly’s viewpoint is a mixture of pragmatism, traditionalism and Puritanism. Bursting with anger, humor or pathos and never taking a position on principle, O’Reilly goes by the “gut” with no coherent philosophy. He sees himself as an advocate for “the folks” next door, not for the Constitution, liberty or capitalism; he was never for individual rights. O’Reilly sees himself as a common man who’s “looking out for you“, presumably a fellow commoner, but he’s never been an advocate for an idea.

In fact, O’Reilly is contemptuous of seriously thinking about ideas.

Yet he accepted Roone Arledge’s idea to mix news and entertainment. Similarly, O’Reilly accepted professional political influencer Roger Ailes’ idea to build an entire cable TV brand on Arledge’s hybrid “infotainment” and narrowly cast it to the oldest Americans, whose pragmatism, traditionalism and Puritanism is threatened by what’s regarded as libertarianism, liberalism and secularism. O’Reilly put together a nightly, primetime program intended not to inform and enlighten, but, chiefly, to soothe, rationalize and reaffirm viewer beliefs. Curmudgeon O’Reilly sat on his lead for years with a clever, carefully produced sprinkling of light features and news coupled with emotional outbursts of opinion by overgroomed people who are always overruled by the host. The result is a kind of kabuki theater.

The O’Reilly Factor‘s worst histrionics were reserved for displays of its underlying ethos: cynicism. The closest the 21-year-old program comes to having a philosophical point is an airy, annual campaign against “secular progressives” waging “war on Christmas”, a tiny symptom of a much wider war on reason. So, O’Reilly became both a lightning rod for those too lazy to think—really think—about what’s wrong with the world and for those who are angry, and rightly so, over the assault on Americanism. Audiences could safely tune in without the necessity of having to think. This is most evident in his exchanges with guest Leonard Peikoff, whose appearances painfully demonstrate that O’Reilly—who treated his guests as antagonists—is hostile to philosophy. He rose to the top strictly on the fact that Americans do not take news—or ideas that make the news—seriously.

O’Reilly’s basic value proposition was time spent with a misanthrope sneering, shrugging or chuckling at any one or anything that shows passion for reason. Whether considering lives crippled by acts of war or economic despair, O’Reilly always pushed Americans to lighten up, stop thinking and just go along with his superficially jovial, insidiously toxic blend of anti-intellectualism. He typically started the show with a warning—”Caution!!!”—of its toxicity and ended with a condescending smirk. This was his appeal: viewers found his nightly Howard Beale-style rants and raves, ups and downs, irresistibly comforting. He was like a boozy uncle who rants for an hour, pats you on the head for letting him ramble and then spins around the bar stool before he tries to make his way to the door.

In this way, Bill O’Reilly represents the current and combustible mixture of everything wrong and right with America—its basic goodness and decency, unthinking stoicism and pragmatism and America’s fast-spreading cynicism. An O’Reilly Factor segment on the law oversimplifying complex cases and brushing up against crucial issues but never getting too deep would invariably be followed by vulgarity and cynicism; every seven seconds of outrage preceded three minutes of Gutfeld and McGuirk, forced laughter from Dennis Miller, a talented comedian reduced to calling the host “Billy”, or another asinine video segment dubbed “Watters World” produced to make viewers feel superior by mocking everything gone wrong with the world—the flipside of the way NPR strives to make listeners feel superior by tearing down everything right with the world. O’Reilly on The O’Reilly Factor was more like the circus ringmaster.

Megyn Kelly at Fox News

He often put on a good show, covering, if barely, essential news, often with a fresh perspective neglected or diminished by the “mainstream media”. He aired programs and segments that brought attention to important issues, such as mistreated war veterans, various injustices and thoughtful discourse. Though he rarely broke news—it was CNN’s Drew Griffin, for instance, who reported the VA’s abuse of veterans—his common man theme occasionally challenged the status quo. He took urban black crime and despair more seriously than many of his detractors. The careers of Juan Williams, Mary Katherine Ham, John Stossel, Marc Lamont Hill, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Tavis Smiley, Megyn Kelly and Kirsten Powers, who represent a range of views by skilled or capable columnists, scholars and intellectuals, were advanced by Bill O’Reilly.

Ironically, it was Powers, an anti-abortion Democrat and longtime Fox News pundit until recently when she went to CNN, whose attack on O’Reilly yesterday underscores the downside of his being let go from Fox News. While she made a point on Anderson Cooper’s program to say that, in all her time working with O’Reilly, she never experienced sexual harassment from O’Reilly, she charged him with what she termed “sexual discrimination”. Her evidence? O’Reilly’s closing comment after a segment with Margaret Hoover thanking them for their “blondeness”. This came, Powers said, after he got Margaret’s name wrong and blamed it on there being so many blondes at Fox News. For this apparent transgression, Powers claimed, she went to a producer and, eventually, Roger Ailes, and demanded that O’Reilly apologize, which he allegedly refused to do, and so she boycotted The O’Reilly Factor for two years.

Powers added that she returned to The O’Reilly Factor (apparently, she initiated the return) without rancor, discord or O’Reilly’s having apologized and said they maintained a good relationship. If this is the most damning evidence of O’Reilly’s wrongdoing Kirsten Powers could muster, it’s not exactly convincing.

But it’s the fact of Kirsten Powers’ insinuation that’s disturbing about O’Reilly’s takedown by Fox News‘ parent company, 21st Century Fox. Not a single charge of sexual harassment against O’Reilly has been confirmed by the press. Not a single charge has been proven in court. Much less is known about the claims against O’Reilly than was alleged or known and, in some cases, proven and convicted or adjudicated in court, about similar or worse allegations against rich, powerful men favored by the orthodoxy that seeks to silence dissent, including Kobe Bryant, Marlon Brando, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby. That a major media voice is silenced without a single, proven assertion of wrongdoing—without Bill O’Reilly even being interviewed by internal investigators, according to Michael Wolff in the Hollywood Reporter—is alarming.

“O’Reilly’s ouster is yet another reminder that the profit motive can itself be an agent of change,” writes cultural commentator Megan Garber, arguing that firing O’Reilly serves the company’s long-term interest, in her O’Reilly piece in The Atlantic. Maybe so, and certainly advertising revenue was declining after the report was published and it’s 21st Century Fox’s right to run their business. They may have reason to think Bill O’Reilly, who built the brand for 21 years, may have done wrong. But if not, and they fired a journalist based on insinuation without regard to facts, it is an injustice that ought to concern everyone. Because if a top TV host can be smeared and brought down in America without evidence, without going to court, with not a single confirmed assertion of wrongdoing, so can you and me. Mass mobilization of public opinion to pressure a company to fire top talent, whether Bill O’Reilly or Brian Williams, has potential to silence the free press.

If you value freedom of speech, you should consider the possibility that Bill O’Reilly is an innocent man who has been unjustly maligned.

Preview: TCM Classic Film Festival 2017

Comedy’s the theme for this year’s classic film festival from Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which TCM is dedicating to its late host Robert Osborne. With movies screening this week in Hollywood, and guests ranging from Joel McCrea‘s grandson to film scholars Donald Bogle, Leonard Maltin and, on opening night, director Norman Jewison with 90-year-old Sidney Poitier for a 50th anniversary tribute to In the Heat of the Night (1967), the “Make ’em Laugh” theme is likely to be delivered with the brand’s unique ability to take movies, including those laced with humor, seriously.

That said, TCM’s movie picks include the dark (1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Harold and Maude) and asinine (The Jerk) and film comedy’s modern godfather Mel Brooks is scheduled for an appearance. I’m looking forward to having an opportunity to see, meet or cover pictures and guests such as King of Hearts (one of my first theatrical movies) with Genevieve Bujold (Coma, Anne of the Thousand Days), a wonderful actress whom I’ve had the pleasure to interview.

Some of my favorite directors, Elia Kazan, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Ernst Lubitsch, are represented with America America, Rear Window, Red River and So This is Paris. A restored version of Mike NicholsThe Graduate will be screened. Bob Newhart will comment on his 1962 motion picture debut. Stanley Kramer’s 1963 It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World will screen at the Cinerama Dome. Speakers, guests and filmmakers include Peter Bogdanovich (She’s Funny That Way, Mask, The Last Picture Show), Dick Cavett, Quincy Jones, Lee Grant, Walter Mirisch, Buck Henry, Rob Reiner and his father, Carl, Fred Willard and Alex Trebek.

This is my third TCM festival. Last year’s festival included an interview with Faye Dunaway (read my exclusive report here) and, as usual, thoughtful introductions to movies by Leonard Maltin (read my exclusive 2015 interview with him about TCM and classic movies here). Gathering with people who love movies is a wonderful bonus for this movie fan, journalist and storyteller. Being among those who think about movies, and seek to know why they love ’em, is the best.


Related Links

TCM Classic Film Festival 2016

TCM Classic Film Festival 2015

Robert Osborne

Interview: Leonard Maltin on TCM and Classic Movies (2015)

Faye Dunaway on Turner Classic Movies (2016)

Robert Osborne

Though I had known he was ill and he hadn’t been hosting Turner Classic Movies (TCM), yesterday’s news that Robert Osborne died hit me hard. I read the sad news in an e-mail subject line from TCM as the screening room lights went down before opening credits rolled for a new Warner Bros. movie, an irony I think he would have appreciated (Warner Bros. and TCM are owned by the same company).

Robert Osborne

We met years ago when I started writing about film and Robert O., as he called himself on TCM, encouraged me to cover classic movies, which I did. Over the years, I interviewed him about several TCM programs, movie stars and topics. We talked about his work, career and life, mostly for this blog and for other sites, too. Those are fond memories. Of course, we talked about Hollywood’s Golden Age—read transcripts of our interviews about Lizabeth Scott, John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn—and we talked about Ernest Borgnine, Liza Minnelli and Robert Redford. We celebrated Barbara Stanwyck during an event he hosted at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—I interviewed him about Stanwyck for the centenary of her birth, which I plan to publish—and we talked about Hollywood, New York, Atlanta, TCM, the motion picture press and the Hollywood Reporter, Ayn Rand and the Oscars. I always found him to be candid and unpretentious.

Robert Osborne was a treasure. Readers often asked what he was like and I always answered with the truth; that he was exactly like he is on Turner Classic Movies. He didn’t self-censor, conceal or soften his thoughts as so many people do. He had a command of the facts about movies and he knew it. He spoke and acted like he knew it, too. This, more than anything else, including his work as an actor and as a journalist, explains his success as host of Ted Turner’s channel for uncut and commercial-free classic movies. The man who was a seasoned reporter, actor and confidante to the stars, including Olivia de Havilland and Lucille Ball, was foremost one who loved movies and knew that life is and ought to be as it is in the movies. This I know firsthand.

Passion did not scare him as it scares so many working these days in journalism, especially movie journalism, movies and television. Passion stirred and invigorated him. He wrote that way, strong, clear and simple, every month in TCM’s Now Playing and in books about the Oscars. Robert Osborne had studied and mastered facts about movies since he was a farm boy in the Pacific Northwest. He nourished that knowledge as a young man. He fed and kept it active and never let it go until, when TCM debuted in 1994, he traded on a lifetime of insights and introduced TCM’s first motion picture, Gone With the Wind—which he embraced without equivocation—the 1939 epic based upon Margaret Mitchell’s brilliant novel, a deep, serious movie which was revered by TCM’s creator, a larger than life figure himself, a capitalist who’d once bought billboards emblazoned with black letters on white space asking “Who is John Galt?”, founded CNN, married a movie star and lived on a ranch in the West.

Robert Osborne had a connection to that movie, too; he was friends with the actress who’d played Melanie. But being well connected alone wasn’t what gave Robert O. the confidence, command and mastery that viewers noticed and relished for 20 years. Nor is his ability merely a byproduct of the sum of his movie knowledge. He was much more than a charming ex-actor who ingratiated himself to Hollywood legends, more than a man with vast knowledge. He spoke as if he was as in love with the movies as you are. Robert Osborne’s mastery of TCM’s archive was richer than stately charm through an assuring voice, manner and gray hair conveying a grasp of facts. Robert Osborne mastered TCM with an enduring series of short, sharply crafted words enticing viewers before pictures because he had been the child who dreams. He had been the kid who works in the movie theater—the college student who stays in the library—the actor who studies his lines—the writer who thinks before he writes—the observer who dares to make the objective observation—and, above all, Robert O. was the gentleman who insists on living large and with glamor—just like life in classic movies.

This is what Robert Osborne brought to each introduction or interview—the ability to identify the movie’s ideal and a sense that one should bridge the real and romantic and realize the dream—and this is what he added to Ted Turner’s showcase for classic movies. It’s the greatest compliment I can give: that Robert O. affirmed the sense that wanting your life to be grand, larger than life and sublime is perfectly natural and fabulous. By framing each film with an upward glance, not a downward tone, by stressing the essential as the to-be-expected, the host made what happens in movies look wonderful, important and easy—and fully accessible to you.

As one who had the privilege of knowing Robert Osborne, I know that he lived with grace, passion and vitality. He was a marvelous host and, like one of his favorite movies, he left the audience satiated, enticed and wanting more. I hope for his sake and for those he leaves behind that his was a happy ending.

Richard Hatch

Richard Hatch has died of pancreatic cancer. The actor, who played Captain Apollo on ABC’s Battlestar Galactica, was 71 years old. We met twice; once in St. Charles, Illinois, where, as a boy, he taught me a lesson in benevolence. The second time was over 35 years later at a cafe in Studio City, California, where we talked about the science fiction series Battlestar Galactica, which was being discussed for a possible revival at Universal Studios (the interview is unpublished).

Richard Hatch

As a kid, I had been a fan of his work as a policeman on the ABC crime drama The Streets of San Francisco. Later, in the spring of 1977, when I found out Hatch was staying at the same resort where I was visiting with my family on spring break, I found him and asked for an autograph. Meeting an actor playing a dynamic young cop appealed to this suburban kid in the 1970s. I remember 1977 as strangely subdued yet also conflicted and turbulent. Nightly news was dominated by war, terrorism, domestic and foreign, hijackings, riots and constant dissent and debate over politics. So, I was drawn to cop shows. The Streets of San Francisco like KojakHawaii Five-O and Dragnet depicted the pursuit of justice as noble and important. They depicted a world in which peace was possible. Detectives proceeded to solve crime through investigation based on facts and going by reason. They were men of action. When Richard Hatch looked at me, listened and said Yes before signing his name, it affirmed more than my hero worship; his relaxed, amicable and accommodating manner showed me a certain kindness. I always remembered that he responded to my request with a quality more enduring than mere charm. He treated me as though asking for an autograph is the most natural thing in the world. I’ve had a number of formative encounters with VIPs—movie stars, sports champs, future presidents—that contributed to my ability to communicate with influencers. My childhood brush with Richard Hatch is one of the first.

I still have the autograph. When I interviewed him by phone in 2012, an extensive interview which covers the whole range of his career and is being quoted and cited in his obituaries, including the Hollywood Reporter‘s, I recounted the 1977 meeting and thanked him once again. He was still kind, if more seasoned and cautious, which I think is evident in the exchange. He was candid, too, and one of the things we discussed were his “abusive stepfathers” which added to my appreciation. When we met again—this time, as writer and actor, neither as a household name—he was indefatigable. And now I know that this is how I will remember him. To have been an actor, earned a livelihood and kept himself both whole and real, neither becoming beaten down nor neurotic and inflated, is an accomplishment. Richard Hatch, who remains known and beloved for single first, last and lone seasons of top programs as well as for touching countless lives including mine with his bright, positive attitude, was beautiful inside and out.


Read my interview with Richard Hatch (2012)

Rest In Peace, Mary Tyler Moore

Mary Tyler Moore

This is a memorial post about an actress and comedienne whose legacy should not be diminished, marginalized and misunderstood by the claim that what she accomplished helped others; in particular, women. This is the least of her achievements to me, anyway, and not only because I’m a man. Mary Tyler Moore was foremost an artist of impeccable ability, whose skills ranged from drama to dance in a variety of formats over decades.

This is a real achievement. Ms. Moore was not merely a type. She did not merely have “class”. She was not a feminist icon. She was singularly outstanding in the whole scope of her work, performing with everyone from playwright Neil Simon on stage and Robert Redford on 1980’s best movie, Ordinary People, to superstar Ben Vereen on TV and Elvis in his last motion picture. MTM played a cancer patient, a first lady, a housewife, a nun and a journalist. In a role I am sorry to have missed seeing her perform, she played the lead, a paraplegic who demands the right to die, on Broadway in Brian Clark’s thoughtful, moving Whose Life is it, Anyway? Like Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan and many great Americans of superior ability, Mary Tyler Moore, whatever her legendary success, tried, failed and flopped time and again. In so doing, she ran a company with her late ex-husband, Grant Tinker, and variously launched The Bob Newhart Show, David Letterman and Michael Keaton, among many other talented artists and wonderful shows.

MTM as Beth Jarrett in Ordinary People (1980)

If you’ve read this far, you probably already know her career in three main acts: playing perky, modern housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966 on CBS), playing modern, liberated producer Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977, also on CBS) and playing repressed, angry and obstinate wife and mother Beth Jarrett in Mr. Redford’s magnificent 1980 adaptation of Judith Guest’s novel about a fractured family on Chicago’s North Shore. That film is very personal for me, because it helped me sort through extreme confusion before I’d read Ayn Rand. As the villain, she was nurturing and nuanced, cleaning her home and fixing her broken family and simultaneously evading what tears it apart, exacerbating the fracture and worsening the sickness. It is an underappreciated film because its complex psychology is layered and multi-dimensional, so MTM’s Beth is neither a caricature nor is the ending distinctly happy or unhappy. Instead it ends on a cold, pink morning glimmer, which begins in earnest with the sound of a taxi door closing as her character makes a quiet exit that’s as liberating for the nuclear family as was her Mary Richards for the rational, productive woman.

MTM on cover of 1977 issue of TV Guide

This takes depth, courage and seriousness and Mary Tyler Moore pushed herself as an artist and made everything look easy, which she rarely gets credit for. Yes, her Mary at WJM was a serious-minded, goal-oriented career woman, not a catty social climber or golddigger, and she had friends of both sexes, all types and all ages. But Mary was also feminine, whether in smart slacks (not that any assistant producer at a third-rate station could have afforded those outfits) or evening gowns, and she tried new hairstyles, clothes and efforts to make herself attractive to men. Mary was private, not showy and ostentatious or self-centered. She was always interested, even if mildly, in what her friends and colleagues were doing, always from a distance and never sacrificing her own interests. And she really was interested in her friends and co-workers, not merely for the sake of ingratiating herself to them.

Mary put work first. As in her Dick Van Dyke role as her husband’s helpmate in those earlier five seasons, in her seven seasons as a professional broadcast news producer, Mary made an effort to make her productiveness matter; she strived to improve the broadcast. She made an effort to encourage colleagues. She wasn’t some insecure, neurotic freak constantly rambling on about what she did last night. She played tennis, dated younger and older men, kissed on the first date, struggled with ethics, stood on principle—Mary went to jail rather than reveal a source—examined her flaws, and took pride in her work. Certainly, she was attractive and relatable. But she was also willing to stand alone and be controversial; she never lived through others and Mary Richards was, in practice, neither a deranged hedonist like today’s TV characters nor a simpering altruist like many female characters of her time—Mary was an all-American egoist.

Personally, MTM’s life was full of tragedy, despair and passion. She’d been raised as a Catholic in Los Angeles, attending Immaculate Heart in Los Feliz, the daughter of an alcoholic who would be preceded in death by her siblings, one of whom she helped in assisted suicide when he became terminal, another whose death was ruled a suicide by drug overdose. MTM checked herself at one point into the Betty Ford Center for treatment of alcoholism. Her only son shot and killed himself with a sawed off shotgun in an act which was ruled an accident. Politically, MTM went from campaigning for a Democrat for president to watching Fox News and describing herself as a “libertarian centrist”. She believed animals have rights, supported embryonic stem cell and diabetes research and, though she once met with the pope, she married a doctor, who survives her.

I already own the whole MTM series on DVD (one of the few, besides The Twilight Zone and Frasier) and I’ve seen Ordinary People more times than I can count. In all the flops and misses, the best episodes, funniest lines and greatest roles and performances, from the newlywed in Danville or the sexy mom in Capri pants in New Rochelle to the corn-fed, Twin Cities single lady and dysfunction source in Lake Forest, Illinois, it turns out after all that Mary Tyler Moore could do it all—and, in reality, she did.