Bill O’Reilly ruined the news: 10 ways he and Fox News harassed us all

Bill O’Reilly may be out at Fox News, but we will be feeling the impact of his show for a long time

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published April 22, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)

 (Salon/Flora Thevoux)
(Salon/Flora Thevoux)

On Wednesday Fox News announced that it would sever ties with Bill O’Reilly in response to multiple charges of sexual harassment and the retreat of a number of sponsors from "The O’Reilly Factor." Without question the firing of O’Reilly, which follows the departure of Fox News founder Roger Ailes, who also had been accused of sexual harassment, is a positive sign.

But what will these shifts at Fox News really mean? Are we really rid of these two vile characters?

It's not likely and here’s why: While there is much-needed and valuable attention now being paid to their predatory sexism, that behavior was only one part of a much larger diabolical worldview. Ailes and O’Reilly were of a piece, cut from the same cloth. Ailes launched O’Reilly’s career and framed him as one of Fox News’ signature stars from the outset.

O’Reilly’s attitude toward women was directly connected to his attitude about our nation in general. It was a caustic, aggressive, egotistical, bullying mentality that infected O’Reilly’s fans and brainwashed them from being able to see the truth.

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The point is that allegations of O’Reilly’s sexism, misogyny and predatory behavior are literally the tip of the iceberg. Without question O’Reilly’s show single-handedly changed the news landscape. Here are 10 reasons why he may be leaving Fox News, but his impact will be felt for years to come:

1. Punditry over journalism

There was a reason why Stephen Colbert fashioned his in-character persona for "The Colbert Report" on O’Reilly. Calling him “Papa Bear,” Colbert emulated O’Reilly’s bloviating punditry. While the character would draw on a range of pundits including Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh, Colbert still favored O’Reilly as the prime model because O’Reilly had basically defined the modern pundit persona.

When CNN launched a 24/7 news channel in 1980, it had to fill the time with pundit shows. Because CNN didn’t have enough reporters and enough interesting news for a full 24 hours, it shifted to personality-driven programming.

Then when Fox News was founded in 1996 as the first clearly partisan television news network, punditry went to a new level. Fox News via "The O’Reilly Factor" literally defined the category of the “ranting pundit.”

While O’Reilly is stepping down, he has left his mark on the ever-present pundit within today’s news landscape. Many viewers watch only pundits and never traditional news reporting.

The key problem with punditry is, as Colbert said on his opening episode of "The Colbert Report," that pundits “feel the news at you.” They offer viewers “news” in a highly emotional and often irrational framework that doesn’t let viewers draw their own conclusions.

Even worse, viewers see pundits as reporters and take their gasbag histrionics as fact. A 2005 Annenberg Public Policy Center survey found that while 30 percent of Americans viewed Watergate reporter Bob Woodward as a journalist, 40 percent of respondents considered O'Reilly to be a journalist.

2. Fake news

While we have heard much about the creep of fake news in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, remember that the real advent of televised fake news happened on "The O’Reilly Factor." PolitiFact has reported that only 10 percent of O’Reilly’s comments on his show were true and 53 percent were mostly false or bold-faced lies.

But it isn’t just the lying that makes fake news powerful. It is the packaging of the lie within a sense of outrage. O’Reilly literally perfected the use of fake news to get viewers to freak out.

Recall, for instance, when O’Reilly claimed that Merrick Garland, President Obama’s pick for Supreme Court justice, would never be approved because of his stance on gun rights. He is "not some crazy left-wing bomb thrower, " O’Reilly said, "but he voted, so the folks know, in Washington, D.C., to keep guns away from private citizens, and the Supreme Court of course said no, that is unconstitutional.”

Garland did not vote to ban citizens from having guns in Washington. But O’Reilly stated it as a fact and didn’t bat an eyelash.

3. Polarization

Data has shown that political polarization is on the rise in our nation. While a number of factors have contributed to this, there is little doubt that Fox News and specifically "The O’Reilly Factor" have played a significant role in dividing our nation into starkly oppositional camps.

O’Reilly’s constant use of “liberal” as an epithet did great damage to our nation’s ability to find common political ground. His constant belittling of the left was a trademark feature of his show. Phrases like the "Kool-Aid left" were bandied about by O’Reilly regularly.

In fact, a study by Indiana University researchers found that O’Reilly never, ever referred to the left in a way that wasn't negative. The researchers identified 22 groups of people that O'Reilly referenced in his commentaries, and while all 22 were described by O'Reilly as bad at some point, the people and groups most frequently labeled bad were those of the political left.

The study also found that O’Reilly tended to depict those on the left as villains, meaning that viewers would never see anyone on the left as worthy of compassion or empathy.

4. Mainstreaming of misogyny, racism and bigotry

The reports of O’Reilly’s sexual harassment are disturbing, but as Kali Holloway reported for Alternet, they are only a portion of the ways that O’Reilly is a “horrible person.” In addition to the disgusting reports we are hearing about what O’Reilly did off screen, on screen he was pretty awful, too.

O’Reilly flaunted his outright bigotry and disdain for others, from attacking Maxine Waters and laughing at David Dao as he was pulled off a United Airlines flight to his not-so-subtle white supremacy.

It amazes me to see the various articles and reports that suggest that political correctness led to Donald Trump’s victory when it was the demonization of political correctness that was the problem. Trump supporters were on the record saying they had voted for Trump because he didn’t filter his words and said what he meant.

At the first presidential primaries debate when Fox News' Megyn Kelly asked Trump about his use of misogynist terms, Trump explained that he didn’t care if those words offended her: “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” Trump answered. “I’ve been challenged by so many people, I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.”

Trump was simply copying O’Reilly, though. O’Reilly had made his career not only bad-mouthing groups of people but also feeling no shame about it. For O’Reilly the nation’s problems were not underfunded schools, a lack of job opportunities or climate change, it was the liberal agenda of political correctness. While he wasn’t alone in advancing this view, his Fox News bully pulpit went a long way in demonizing politically correct ideals.

5. Fear over reason

One of the deepest consequences of the O’Reilly approach to news was that it was driven by fear. The Indiana University study found that fear was used in more than half (52.4 percent) of O’Reilly’s commentaries. But more important, O'Reilly almost never offered a resolution to the threat. So he left his viewers anxious at the end of each show. For example, in a commentary about how the "left-wing" media unfairly criticized U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for his role in the Abu Ghraib scandal, O'Reilly called this an example of America "slowly losing freedom and core values," and added, "So what can be done? Unfortunately, not much."

The O’Reilly approach to covering current issues was to hype fear and foster anxiety, a practice that has spilled into much news media and a constant staple of alt-right reporting. Scholars of democracy know that citizens can’t make rational decisions when they are busy freaking out, but that approach can be very successful in keeping viewers tuned to their TVs.

6. Loyal viewers

The fear-based nature of O’Reilly’s show logically led to a highly loyal viewership. Because O’Reilly consistently demonized the “left media,” he managed to convince his viewers that he and only he could be trusted. This is one reason why his show had such a loyal viewer base.

A Pew Research study found that nearly half of the consistent conservatives surveyed (47 percent) named Fox News as their main source for government and political news, as did almost a third (31 percent) of those with mostly conservative views. More important, they found that consistent conservatives tended to cluster around a single news source. This means that those on the right live in an echo chamber where they do not receive opposing points of view on issues. And Pew found that when they are confronted with reporting from a non-Fox News source, conservatives tended not to trust that source anyway.

O’Reilly gets credit for turning news consumption into an act of faith. Even worse, as Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler have shown the faith-based approach to news has meant that conservatives reject correcting information even when it comes from their own party.

7. Dumbing down viewers

The O’Reilly approach to news was not about informing members of his audience; it was about getting them riled up and angry at the left. This approach was the common mode for Fox News and it explains why its viewers consistently poll as the least informed in the nation.

A 2012 study showed that the Fox News audience knew even less than folks who didn’t watch any news at all. Another study found that 80 percent of Fox News viewers held at least one false belief about the Iraq War.

In a late 2010 survey, Stanford University scientists discovered that “more exposure to Fox News was associated with more rejection of many mainstream scientists’ claims about global warming, with less trust in scientists, and with more belief that ameliorating global warming would hurt the U.S. economy.”

Yet another study found that 63 percent of Fox News viewers polled said they believed Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. (or that it was unclear).

These studies prove that Fox News and shows like "The O’Reilly Factor" played a big role in dumbing down the nation’s collective consciousness by continually passing off lies as truth.

8. Hubris disguised as patriotism

Remember how Colbert’s character on "The Colbert Report" used to sweep in holding a flag followed by a screeching eagle? Colbert’s character mocked the right-wing brand of hubristic American exceptionalism.

Geoffrey Nunberg explained in "Talking Right" that conservatives have forcefully argued that they and only they are the true patriots in this nation. Any disagreement with their agenda is an act of treason.

O’Reilly was on the front lines of this biased nationalism, penning book after book that set him up as a true patriot and defender of our nation’s core values. The left’s embrace of tolerance, diversity and respect for human rights was overshadowed, according to Nunberg, by the right’s aggressive reframing of national ideals on right-wing terms.

What’s amazing is that O’Reilly was able to construct an image of himself as someone defending our nation’s values when he was actually destroying them. O’Reilly’s white supremacism and xenophobia fed into a hate-based patriotism that spilled well beyond the confines of his show and now can be found taking up residence in the White House.

9. Crying victim while bullying

As the accusations against O’Reilly began to pour in, he tried to cast himself as a victim of the left's agenda to destroy him. Much in the same way that Trump suggests protesters against him must be paid operatives, O’Reilly always cries victim while he bullies his opponents.

This inversion of the role of victim and aggressor is a perfect example of the smoke-screen tactics used by O’Reilly, Fox News and the Trump team. Rather than address the substance of the accusations, O’Reilly cries foul and suggests that he is the subject of a witch hunt.  This strategy makes it virtually impossible to discredit him to his loyal subjects who will all agree that their hero has been falsely accused.

This attitude is not limited to a ploy to protect one’s image; it spills over into the way that the news works as well. When reports surfaced that O’Reilly had misrepresented his role in covering the Falklands War, he responded by attacking the reporter who had uncovered the story. He then denied ever lying about his experiences.

Sound familiar? No wonder Trump was one of the first to come to O’Reilly's defense, saying he should have never settled with his accusers. "I don't think Bill did anything wrong," said Trump, who has also been accused of sexual harassment.

Of course he doesn’t.

10. Making it all “an act”

Back in 2007 Colbert and O’Reilly traded appearances on each other’s shows. When O’Reilly came on "The Colbert Report," Colbert asked him who would win in a fight, Sean Hannity or O'Reilly. "Hannity would kick my butt," O'Reilly said. "I'm effete. I'm not a tough guy. This is all an act."

Replied Colbert: "If you're an act, then what am I?" It was a brief moment when the facade of O’Reilly’s persona cracked and revealed that even he knew he was playing a role.

It could have been funny, but it wasn’t.

O’Reilly’s act was — and still is — having a negative impact on the way his viewers see the world.

Even folks who aren’t necessarily O’Reilly fans seem to have forgotten about the damage that his smug persona has wrecked on not just the news media, but also the nation overall.

For instance, a recent piece in the Atlantic claimed that the snarky nature of late-night comedy fueled the rise of Trump. It suggested that “sneering hosts” like John Oliver, Samantha Bee and Colbert “have alienated conservatives and made liberals smug.”

Excuse me?

As I’ve shown, the rise of Trump and the alienation of conservatives dates back to the founding days of Fox News and the launch of "The O’Reilly Factor." The comedians just kept the rest of us sane and better informed while the so-called news offered by Fox and friends divided the nation and dumbed us down.

This all goes to show that the real O’Reilly factor will likely be that his influence outlasts his role on the show. He was a master at changing public perceptions and blaming his victims. We now see victim blaming taking place across the news spectrum. Finger-pointing is consistently aimed in the wrong direction, at comedians and millennials and even the Black Lives Matter movement. With any luck, recent events can keep the fingers pointed straight at O’Reilly and his supporters, where they belong.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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