Bill O’Reilly, the recently ejected Fox News TV host, conducted interviews by talking over people, argued by repeating his conclusions and could not resist saying over and over again how tall he was, how generous he was or that he once went to Harvard. It took more than all of that to shatter my tolerance, however.
The biggie for me was when he called a journalist whose intellect dwarfs his “a hack” and a liar, all by way of defending a controversial book that skipped requisite research.
The occasion was a visit to O’Reilly’s Fox News TV show by Washington Post columnist and then-Fox employee George Will. This masterful commentator, who happens to be one of the best newspaper columnists in America, had written a sharply critical piece on O’Reilly’s book “Killing Reagan.”
He said O’Reilly’s co-author and primary researcher on the work, Martin Dugard, had not even bothered to talk to prime White House players about the book’s charge that President Reagan was an incapacitated mental mess during much of his presidency. Agreeing about this refusal to listen to people who were firsthand witnesses, O’Reilly nevertheless said he and Dugard had the truth nailed down and that those disagreeing with them were biased and trying to hide the facts.
This was journalistically disgraceful, intellectually fraudulent excuse mongering that was then accompanied by the name-calling, and here is what I said to myself. First, on the good side, O’Reilly is an outstanding showman. He has been a primary force in helping Fox News grow and balance leftist media bias. He shies away from no issue and regularly has superb, enlightening guests on his show. He has moments of graciousness accompanied by common sense.
But then, on the bad side, he has an unruly, bullying ego allied with shallow understandings that exhibited themselves, as one example, when he shrugged his shoulders about President Donald Trump’s campaign call for killing relatives of Islamic terrorists. He said it was just everyday politics.
Now O’Reilly is gone from Fox because this constant critic of The New York Times was subjected to a Times investigation disclosing millions of dollars worth of legal settlements in five cases of sexual harassment allegations. Viewers over the following days did nothing to impair his standing as the all-time ratings giant of cable news shows, but the show’s advertisers mostly skedaddled, no doubt worried about a furious reaction in some quarters.
The remaining question is what happens to Fox News.
Dismissed by liberal critics as a propagandistic joke, the network boasts news anchors and reporters as fair and capable as what you find elsewhere on TV. Watch out especially for Chris Wallace. He was the single best moderator of all the journalists in the general-election presidential debates.
The commentators range from Sean Hannity, obsessively in love with all things Trumpian, to the brilliant Charles Krauthammer, as knowledgeable, lucid, straightforward and insightful as they come. Megyn Kelly, an alert and shining news star, has gone to NBC, but Tucker Carlson, whose finely honed specialty is exposing ideological vacuity, is set to take O’Reilly’s place.
Roger Ailes, the canny boss behind the scenes, has departed because he, too, stood accused of sexual harassment. No one really knows what is planned by the network’s replacement honchos, two sons of the billionaire owner, Rupert Murdoch.
The hope in this corner is that they will reach for more depth, emphasize objectivity in aggressive reporting and stick to commentary that includes liberal views but remains focused on conservative views, especially those of Krauthammer quality. Mute this rare TV voice against inane socialistic ambition and our society will have been terribly cheated.
In fairness to O’Reilly, it would also be good to have commentators with his sense of what attracts large audiences and the personality to make it happen, if they can keep that personality in tow.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.