Tag Archives | Fox News

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.

Fox News and Facebook in Ohio

Last night’s spectacle in Ohio, billed as the first 2016 presidential election debate, was a farce.

The top-polling Republican candidates from the current field of 17 were emasculated in the Fox News event, which was a ratings winner and an awful piece of broadcasting. The event (it can’t reasonably be called a debate) was run by three Fox News program hosts (Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace) and co-sponsored by Facebook. An earlier event with other Fox News people and other candidates was also held.

Candidates quipped, firing off lines to no particular effect. A woman named Carly Fiorina who used to run Hewlett-Packard with dubious results and once ran and lost a U.S. Senate race in California apparently dominated a lackluster field in the more congenial mini-spectacle. In the main event, drawing attention chiefly for the prospect of watching the unfiltered Donald Trump, the spectacle was pathetic.

First, the Fox News trio, led by Kelly and sniveling like mustache-twirling cartoon villains, paraded the candidates before the Cleveland, Ohio arena’s audience like they were part of a perpetrator walk for a police lineup. The men, possibly the most religious field of candidates in U.S. history, were made to stand and do nothing while the trio snickered and the audience was incessantly reminded that the house was packed with an enthusiastic crowd, an assertion which had nothing to do with a proper debate. Really, the Fox trio lorded over the candidates. I later saw a headline on Drudge which indicated that the three Fox News people had more cumulative talk time on air than the candidates.

Left-leaning press types are already praising Fox News for being tough on the candidates.

But that’s not really true. The trio was more aimless, grandstanding and badgering than they were honest, clear and tough on top Republicans. They were more like duty-bound cops barking at the detained than they were like respectable journalists conducting an inquiry for the purpose of an exchange of ideas. It was all about optics, not issues and understanding.

In fact, commercial bumps, theming and branding took up excessive time. The introduction went on and on, pandering to the audience, explicitly putting location, audience and spectacle above any exposition of candidate ideas, values and positions. Only seasoned Chris Wallace, host of Fox News Sunday, seemed mildly befuddled, frustrated or annoyed at the affair and he was relegated to third string after fraternity-type Baier, who declined Texas Sen. Ted Cruz after a polite request for a reply, and overbearing, unprofessional Kelly, the trio’s leading voice in Tammy Faye Bakker false eyelashes. They seemed to have brought lines and quips and a zeal to score points as against being studied, prepared and informed enough to ask questions, demand answers and elicit views for the audience to gauge, judge and consider. The viewer never got even a flash of context in today’s times, let alone a sense of the magnitude of the major, catastrophic issues and dangers faced by the nation. Questions about reality TV quotes on “fat pigs” were treated with equal measure as questions about a nuclear-armed Islamic enemy. The affair was an exercise in smallness.

Nothing much was learned. Trump the poll-leading anti-capitalist was Trump, defending total government control of the medical profession without followup. Florida’s ex-governor Jeb Bush showed up with an air of entitlement as he always does even when he speaks of something he thinks he’s earned. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, son of a preacher, worked in a line or two as if sensing that this is not his best format. Doctor Ben Carson stammered and rambled about altruism and God. Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio made points and messed up facts. Tellingly, Arkansas ex-governor Mike Huckabee, the Christian socialist-populist and former Fox News host, wrongly stated that the purpose of the military is to kill, adding only as an afterthought that they ought to protect the nation, too. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul sparred over mass, indiscriminate surveillance on Americans and both failed to make a coherent case in an exchange which should have been (and, with moderators, would have been) broadened into a debate among speakers. Ohio’s Gov. John Kasich sounded respectable representing the status quo, Me-Too Republican welfare statist, justifying each violation of individual rights with God and religion. As usual, Ted Cruz was fine until he spoke of God speaking to him and outlined his religious agenda, though he at times sounded like the most thoughtful of the bunch.

But they all served a single purpose and it wasn’t to discuss, debate and disseminate ideas. They were presented as clowns in a carnival; props for Fox News promotionalism. The format and questions were generally driven by the desire to titillate and generate fragments of controversy, not to query, induce an exchange and inform the public.

The left praising the display is likely moved by the notion that, if the mainstream media can convince people that last night’s spectacle was an exhibition of journalism, if not good journalism, the left can claim impartiality, employ the same cheap, shallow tactics and continue to get away with propping up the welfare state, leading Americans into total fascism. Baier, Kelly and, looking out of place and slightly ashamed of the company he keeps, Wallace, huffed, snorted and behaved like they were in a friendly barroom brawl, as if programming about presidential politics exists strictly as a spectacle sport. Properly executed, it does not.

Nothing less than America and the lives, liberties, properties and selfish pursuits of Americans is at stake in this presidential election, which is already such as circus that the most serious, principled candidate in the race so far is a socialist from New England named Bernie Sanders, a Democrat who’s filling up arenas as fast as any charismatic advocate of statism. The best that can be said of last night’s Fox News/Facebook debate is that it was not, as advertised, a debate. Like most of what Fox News puts on, it was a show. What Americans desperately need (and, still, to some degree, deserve) is a serious approach to political journalism, not a ringmaster ridiculing clowns at an anti-conceptual circus which may lead into a horror show.

TV Review: The Kelly File

Fox News (which, at its best, is better than its competition, though CNN is making improvements) continues its decline. With more piffle on the air in its prime time lineup, more self-aggrandizing segments and more of the same style over substance in shows, guests and topics, the 17-year-old channel’s programming is less informative than ever. The newest addition, a piddling piece of fluff titled The Kelly File, went blank for an hour in its awful premiere last night and wound up with less value to offer than an episode of Three’s Company. At least that vacuous ABC comedy didn’t pretend to be anything decent or satisfying, just an excuse to ogle well-endowed women and chuckle at bawdy jokes, the Ropers or Mr. Furley.

Fox News’ newest darling, Megyn Kelly, whom they’ve been breathlessly grooming and promoting for years now, is another cable television blonde with a law degree and not much else. In other words, she’s like Chrissy from Three’s Company but not as thoughtful. At least dim Chrissy tried to make sense of the world around her. Ms. Kelly, who’s been at her best in fragmented legal segments when she’s pitted against the network’s chief personality, Bill O’Reilly, in his lead-in The O’Reilly Factor, doesn’t approach Chrissy in sincerity or dedication to her task. Megyn Kelly’s as hard and narcissistic as Chrissy Snow was soft and magnanimous.

TV_Fox_Kelly_at_Night_inev_t607Only The Kelly File is presented as factual, not fictional. With heavy promotion, and after her flatlining debate moderation during the 2012 presidential campaign, Ms. Kelly began with a softball interview with Tea Party hero Sen. Ted Cruz, (R, Texas), who has led a rebellion against the nation’s most far-reaching government dictate (ObamaCare), sparked a small government shutdown and challenged Republican Party leaders to confront and defy the President who negotiates with Islamic dictatorships but not duly elected Congressional leaders. One would think the TV personality in charge of the show would have something serious and interesting to ask of such a man.

Think again. Thinking is on the way out in this dumbed down culture – which is not just dumbed down by Fox News – and The Kelly File like its name is merely the latest example of the Oprah-ization of American television and the disappearance of serious, let alone objective, broadcast journalism. The Kelly File joins Fox’s The Five and The O’Reilly Factor in the spread of vacuous if alliterative shows that are more show than news or analysis. If TV feels like Network (1976) come to life, with Howard Beale (Peter Finch) raging while Black Panthers and mystics pop off for higher ratings in a culture down the tubes, it’s not your imagination. In fact, O’Reilly teased a “Mad as Hell” segment earlier this month.

It’s not that Ms. Kelly is not intelligent and certainly there’s a place for attractive people on television. The problem with her show is that she tries too hard, constantly talks about herself and mugs for the camera and none of this adds up to fair, balanced or useful programming. She showed a clip of a race car wipeout video that’s been looping all day long. She talked about Miley Cyrus. She teased her news reel several times. She eventually interviewed three people who question the government’s decision to shoot to kill an unarmed woman in Washington, DC in the most compelling segment, which felt like the shortest segment. Ms. Kelly hardly scratched the surface. When one of the guests, a black man who pointed out that one does not lose one’s individual rights when stopped by police near the White House, Megyn Kelly had nothing else to say or ask. She showed no more interest in the shooting and death of a mother recklessly driving alone with her child for no apparent reason than she did in Sen. Cruz, shutting down government or defaulting on the nation’s debt. It’s as though everything to her is blurry, fast and best left unexamined.

She proceeded without disclosure to share a headline printed by a newspaper owned by the same company that owns Fox News. The headline posed a question that was debunked by her two legal guests in another short segment about a serious, big-city threat to life and a child in a moving vehicle before migrating to her favorite subject, herself, her 10-year-old audition footage and pictures of her spouse and children, one of whom is a baby she calls her “little man” (a demeaning expression which would be unacceptable had a father called his infant daughter his “little woman”). On top of that, the hard-charging cream puff smirked and mugged her way through a free-for-all with Fox’s cast from The Five in which she got facts wrong and wanted to know if the panelists had ever “hooked up.”

Megyn Kelly ended her show by urging us to “continue the conversation” apparently without realizing that, like most in today’s perceptual-bound culture, especially TV, she hadn’t started one. She hadn’t came close. In fact, Ms. Kelly in her Kelly File premiere never seemed for a second like she wants to, or knows how to, think for herself, much less give the audience the facts and analysis with which to do the same. Her predecessor with his self-proclaimed influence factor boasts every night that “the spin stops here.” Increasingly on Fox News and in what’s best described as a lighter version of the preceding show, so does news, thought and intelligent conversation.

[Summer 2015 postscript: the show and hostess have improved. Ms. Kelly has demonstrated that she is capable of being more serious than she was in her debut, discussing the Islamic terrorist attack on free speech and the first Islamic terrorist beheading in America at length and exploring important issues in greater depth. But in her moderation of the 2016 Republican presidential debate, she reverted to her sensationalistic, anti-conceptual approach with loaded and improper questions about supernaturalism and quotes from reality TV show-based celebrity spats.]