Bill O'Reilly's masculinity problem: Why anchormen feel the need to be war heroes

Brian Williams and Bill O'Reilly have both seemingly exaggerated war stories. That's not a coincidence

Published February 20, 2015 9:27PM (EST)

                                         (Fox News)
(Fox News)

Close on the heels of the Brian Williams saga comes today’s allegation that Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly may also have misled the public, claiming to have risked life and limb reporting from the Falkland Islands during the war there, when in fact he’d been comfortably stationed 1,200 miles away in Buenos Aires—and after the war’s end. Yet as the articles about O’Reilly multiply, as in the case of Williams, the most important ramification of these stories is being entirely overlooked. Let's step back and consider the kind of stories these men recounted and what these anecdotes reveal about journalism and about us, the audience.

Williams and O’Reilly told war stories. Williams spoke of accompanying elite military troops, getting shot down by enemy fire, and helping land a helicopter in dangerous territory. He even claimed to have received an imposing combat knife, a ‘throat cutter,’ from a member of Seal Team Six, the unit that killed Osama Bin Laden—which he jokingly professes to use now to intimidate colleagues at NBC meetings.

War stories are guarantors of masculinity and power. By telling them—true or embellished—Williams and O’Reilly were attempting to ally themselves with those attributes, to put themselves in league with heroes. Williams’ story even includes flashing a deadly military weapon—that ‘throat cutter’—at studio meetings, transforming his tame, workaday world (metaphorically) into a battle zone.

Why did they do this? What would lead an anchorman to burnish his reputation with such stories? What have über-masculine war heroes to do with anchormen? Plenty.

An “anchorman” is not just a journalist. He is, as the word implies, something weighty, grounding, central, and yes faintly military, or more precisely, naval. Those qualities also connote masculinity—witness the fact that “anchorwoman” is not a word we often use. When a woman exercises this profession, we usually omit the suffix, and say that Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer are simply “anchors.”  This is because “anchorwoman” sounds odd to our ears, even oxymoronic.  Femininity is traditionally understood as lightness to masculine stability, the ballerina leaping into her male partner’s secure arms. Women’s presence, alas, does not seem to ‘anchor.’

I am reminded of the literal meaning of word ‘gravitas’: ‘gravity,’ something that weighs down.  Reinforcing Brian Williams’ anchorman gravitas was the title of his short-lived interview show, “Rock Center”—named for Rockefeller Center of course, but also surely for its connotation of absolute, reliable (‘rock’-like), unbiased (central, neither right nor left) truth. Williams was being packaged for years as our manly  ‘rock center,’ and, within the demographic of Fox News, O’Reilly has long traded on his own paternal image

It was in trying to enhance this packaging, to further the association between journalistic integrity and masculine rectitude that Williams and O’Reilly stumbled. Williams told his disputed anecdotes against a series of backdrops all heavily coded as ‘male’: chatting man-to-man with a clearly impressed David Letterman (himself a kind of anchorman of late-night comedy) or at Madison Square Garden, taking in a Rangers game alongside his buddy, a real war hero.

And both men have long occupied that most classic seat of power, the anchorman’s chair.  Both represent versions of what America has long deemed admirable and trustworthy: the white, middle-aged man, handsome in a neutral way, displaying ironic humor at his own expense (Williams joshing with Letterman, O’Reilly with Jon Stewart), adept at the ‘humble brag,’ sports fan, ally of soldiers.  O’Reilly has even further allied himself with male authority and heroism by publishing books about Patton, JFK, Lincoln and even Jesus.

Despite strides made for gender and ethnic diversity, it still tends to be men on the Williams-O’Reilly axis who win our votes, earn the biggest salaries, and calm our fears.  Both resemble physically most of the U.S. Senate, as well as most corporate CEOs, political candidates, university presidents, and law partners.  And so, to reinforce their stature Williams and O’Reilly tried to add ‘war hero’ to their already long list of confidence-inspiring male attributes.

In other words, these men understood their role. They were not mistaken to assume that war stories could reinforce their anchorman bona fides.  They knew that our culture tends to conflate masculinity and physical daring with reliability and truth. But that’s precisely the problem: Those things have nothing necessarily to do with one another. But so long as we believe they do, we remain susceptible to believing that  ‘might makes right,’ to trusting rugged maleness over prudent reflection, and to accepting any policy—indeed any war—presented in the theatrical rhetoric of manhood. It is therefore particularly worrisome that anchormen, people tasked with reporting and explaining actions such as war, are so often chosen for their ability to convey, to ‘perform’ admirable masculinity.

Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly were reflecting back to America the theatrically heroic, masculine cues we seem to admire so. If their attempts to improve their performance backfired it was only because it revealed that they were doing just that: performing.

A number of commentators have already pointed out that, given the staggering level of grave misinformation that led our country into war with Iraq in the first place, the brouhaha over Williams feels misguided. And Fox News’s fast and loose relationship to truth has been well established. Why do we now focus on these individuals and their peccadilloes? Perhaps because it offers an easier way to contemplate a larger issue: anxiety about how and when we go to war in the first place, an especially relevant topic in light of President Obama’s recent request to Congress for extended war powers. It’s always easier to talk about individual celebrities’ failings than about large-scale political matters.

Instead of focusing on how much to blame or punish Williams and O’Reilly, it would be more useful perhaps to question our own need for paternal purveyors of ‘truth,’ for heroes, and for men who ‘anchor’ us.

By Rhonda Garelick

Rhonda Garelick writes on cultural politics, fashion and the arts. She is the Stanley Kelly Jr. Visiting Professor of Distinguished Teaching in Comparative Literature at Princeton and the author most recently of "Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History" (Random House, paperback 2015). Follow her on Twitter @rkgar.

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Bill O'reilly Bill O'reilly Falklands Bill O'reilly Lies Brian Williams Fox News