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.

Spring’s Festivals 2017

The 8th annual Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Classic Film Festival (which I previewed here) ended this month with a party at the Hollywood Boulevard ballroom where the first Oscars ceremony was held (Wings won the Academy’s first Best Picture award). I’ve covered, moderated and hosted film festivals before. TCM’s festival is my favorite.

As I wrote this year, TCM’s Classic Film Festival is focused on the movies and with genuine respect for those who love them, really love them, for the artistry of motion pictures. Not that other festivals don’t have that aspect but TCM’s is driven by this passion and thrives on it. So, read my condensed report on the festival at LA Screenwriter, where you can also read my account of a rare, personal conversation with classic movies scholar and film historian Leonard Maltin. Maltin, whom I interviewed in 2015 about his Classic Movie Guide for TCM, introduced several pictures at screenings this year. Read my full, final roundup of TCM’s Classic Film Festival at The New Romanticist, where you can also read my review of Alfred Hitchcock’s original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), which I saw on David O. Selznick’s nitrate print screening—adoringly introduced by Martin Scorsese.

I’ve also added three new reviews of classic comedies, which I saw during the festival at 35mm screenings in Sid Grauman’s recently renovated The Egyptian movie palace: Jack Conway’s scathing, sexual movie Red-Headed Woman (1932) and a pair of delightfully smart and savvy early pictures by German expatriate Ernst Lubitsch, the silent film So This is Paris (1926) and the Jeanette MacDonald-Maurice Chevalier musical One Hour With You (1932). Each of the three movies, part of TCM’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” festival theme this year, center upon male infidelity.

America’s largest literary festival, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, happens this weekend at University of Southern California (USC). With more than 500 authors, artists and intellectuals, the Trojans’ campus will be filled with various writers including Margaret Atwood, T.C. Boyle, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Joyce Carol Oates and Chuck Palahniuk. Also in the lineup for various events, including book signings, conversations, panel discussions, lectures and interviews, are John Scalzi, Scott Simon, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Bryan Cranston, Roxane Gay, Dave Grohl, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Tippi Hedren, Marlon James, Clinton Kelly, Rep. John Lewis, Cheech Marin and Danica McKellar. The book fest takes over USC with cooking, musical concerts, poetry and children’s readings, and sponsor Center Theatre Group will provide a performance of songs from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods.

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is presented in association with USC, with main sponsorship from the Southern California Acura Dealers. Attendance to the festival is free at USC, which is adjacent to Exposition Park. Hundreds of exhibitors offer books and merchandise for sale, giveaways and activities. If you’re interested in more information, visit the Festival of Books official website. Read my thoughts on last year’s book fest here.

Movie Review: Red-Headed Woman (1932)

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Dark, moody and subversively modern in the worst ways, yet undeniably alluring thanks to the magnetism of movie stars Jean Harlow and Charles Boyer and Adrian’s stunning gowns, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 79-minute Red-Headed Woman offers nonstop sexual suspense.

Played as comedy to smuggle its explicit sexual themes into the vibrant picture, which I saw in 35mm at the Egyptian during TCM’s Classic Film Festival, Red-Headed Woman is really more of a tragic, cautionary tale with touches of melodrama. Based upon Katharine Brush’s scandalous novel, adapted by one of H.L. Mencken’s favorite female writers (another was Ayn Rand, whose We the Living he hailed), Anita Loos, Red-Headed Woman was a hit.

Like Baby Face with Barbara Stanwyck—who wanted the lead in Red-Headed Woman (so did Greta Garbo, according to film scholar Cari Beauchamp, who introduced the picture), this story of a secretary using sex to gain power, money and status is astounding for its plain depiction of a woman whose self-esteem is based on objectifying herself, which is to say denying herself any authentic, reality-based estimate of her own value.

“If the barn door’s open,” Harlow’s harlot deadpans to Una Merkel’s best friend and roommate (one wonders if she’s also Harlow’s lesbian lover on the side), “what’s to keep a girl from goin’ in?” Slither on into the home of her boss businessman’s home she does, knowing that his wife (Leila Hyams) is out of town, seducing him with a conniving sense of delirious mission. As Lillian (“Lil” aka “Red”), Jean Harlow (Wife Vs. Secretary, Red Dust, Design for Living, Libeled Lady) is simply perfect. It’s not her look, as such, or beauty, that taunts boss man Bill (handsome Chester Morris) and drives him wild for sex. As with most sex-starved golddiggers, it’s her constant availability, daring desire and her radically open want for sex. He’s putty in her presence and, it’s hinted, they usually end up going at it on the floor, but every seduction is fully earned. Harlow, who purrs “Beeeeww” when she wants him to want her, pins the part in every scene.

Directed by Jack Conway with panache, Red-Headed Woman has powerful, propellant energy, and part of that emanates from the great performances but part of it also comes from the drama. A marriage is at stake and this sexual power-luster is hellbent to ruin it. Whether she succeeds, and what constitutes success, is the movie’s core. Setting every man from a “coal king” to a French chauffeur (Charles Boyer in an impressive turn) who may be her lowdown counterpart, in her crosshairs, the red-haired woman willing to prostitute herself that Bill’s father (Lewis Stone as the movie’s moral center) calls a “snake in the grass” gets exactly what she wants, it’s suggested, and probably, ultimately what she deserves.

“Do it again,” she tells a man after he slaps her to make her stop making him want to grab her and kiss her, adding with a well-timed punch of her own: “I like it.” Red-Headed Woman is an interesting portrayal of a woman of the flesh—neither endorsement nor repudiation, but stark and honest—who lets men have her so she can really let them have it. In this sense, it’s dark and cynical, an attitude that became prevalent in American culture. The hard and complex Red-Headed Woman, driven by coarse and severe delusions, breaches and titillation, at once dramatizes the slut with sex appeal and forecasts its own function as a culturally self-fulfilling prophecy.

Movie Review: So This is Paris (1926)

With his silent movie So This is Paris (1926), director Ernst Lubitsch, who had by then left Germany, directed Mary Pickford and become Warner Bros.’ first star director, delivers a true comedy of errors. The tale of two married couples, which I saw in 80 minutes at The Egyptian in 35mm during TCM’s 8th annual Classic Film Festival, with piano accompaniment and an introduction by film scholar Cari Beauchamp, is a loopy homage to the Parisian take on “love and liberty”.

It’s hilariously indulgent.

Monte Blue stars as a married man tempted to cheat on his romance novel-reading wife (Patsy Ruth Miller) with a loose woman and former flame (Lilyan Tashman) who lives across the street. But the wife plays a role in her own husband’s temptation as she’s the one who orders her husband out of the home after sexually fantasizing about the half-naked man (expressive Andre Beranger, stealing every scene) whose body catches her attention from across the way and So This is Paris carries on and on from there, singling no one out too much and letting everyone have a moment to flirt, play and be wronged. In fact, the whole movie, with a wildly eye-catching ball sequence complete with dancing the Charleston, is really about the human desire to play and let loose.

This hit for Warner Bros., which shows the early Lubitsch touch of lightness seeded with serious ideas, keeps pace and never lets up. The wife’s too lonely and wants romance to be real. The husband is stifled and misses his former flame’s sense of raucous abandon. The other couple, too, is a bit too playful for their own good and, with a traffic cop lurking, they’re bound to pay the consequences. Look for Myrna Loy as a housemaid, watch Beranger in every scene and pay particular attention to the Artist’s Ball scenes with the lively dancing. Most of all, enjoy the early American period for Ernst Lubitsch, before his other motion picture study of married life, One Hour With You, which also screened at the film festival. So this is a glimpse of the naughty, savvy, sexually-themed good humor with which he would make some of the most enduring and enriching movies ever made.

Movie Review: One Hour With You (1932)

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Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald star with Genevieve Tobin as a temptress-best friend who’s double-crossing her gal pal to seduce the husband in Ernst Lubitsch’s witty One Hour With You. This is not as frivolous as it might appear.

With a deft, pre-Code sexual simplicity, terrific cast, rhyming dialogue, fourth wall breakdown and light, charming songs, it’s easy to see why One Hour With You demonstrates the Lubitsch touch. As with everything he did, Lubitsch adds a layer here and there to provide depth to the gay look, feel and music with real, complex attitudes about women, men, sex, friendship and marriage. Though George Cukor had already been asked by Paramount to direct, this movie became a pet project for Lubitsch (The Shop Around the Corner, So This is Paris, The Merry Widow, Ninotchka, Heaven Can Wait (1943) To Be or Not to Be), who apparently bonded with Chevalier in his endeavor to re-cast the film for his own creative purposes.

The result, with Chevalier’s smiling, debonair doctor husband speaking and singing directly to the audience, is 80 minutes of one man’s account, perspective and philosophy of romantic love, which I saw at The Egyptian on Hollywood Boulevard in 35mm during the TCM Classic Film Festival. How One Hour With You begins—in France’s City of Lights, Paris, at a public park being policed for public displays of affection—is crucial as pretext for the surprisingly fabulous plot resolution. Doctor Andre (Chevalier) and his wife Colette (MacDonald) set the terms that wanting sex and being greedy to make love are utterly human and crucial for a healthy marriage. “What a Little Thing Like a Wedding Ring Can Do” is a standout tune for its easygoing wit and intelligence but all the songs are bright, cheerful and entertaining, even if at the root Mitzi’s (Tobin) seduction is both humorous (because it’s played as irony) and arresting (because it’s realistic).

So, it is not exactly that One Hour With You equivocates about infidelity (someone today is sure to call Chevalier’s smiling and singing “mansplaining”) or rationalizes its potential wreckage. This is a man of medicine who resists temptation, says “phooey” to the anti-sex police and knows a hussy when he sees one (and Tobin’s performance as the tramp is delivered with conviction). Andre loves Colette and all the songs, silk pajamas and Parisian airs, charms and sets only reinforce that he loves his work, life and sex, which only makes what happens perfectly understandable and, in a certain context, enjoyable. An hour can feel like a moment, One Hour With You demonstrates in melody, rhyme and lightness, and a moment’s yield to whim can lead to an hour’s agony. What to make of any given moment, and hour, is ultimately up to you.