The death of the dominant TV show in the history of Fox News leaves an immediate void. It will be particularly tragic if its death was a suicide.
It is already popular to presume that where there is smoke, there’s fire, and thus Bill O’Reilly must be guilty of various claims of sexual harassment and therefore fully deserves his dismissal. I cannot conclude that.
But nor will I conclude that he is innocent, as he claims. It is human nature to wrestle controversies to a knowable bottom line, and if we are all honest, we have no idea who is telling the truth, O’Reilly or his accusers.
Both scenarios are plausible. History contains famous people who have famously misbehaved in the workplace. It also contains lying accusers who will say anything to destroy reputations.
All we have are the words and actions of all sides, and a vacuum of proven facts always invites speculation.
I always start from a baseline that accusers deserve some benefit of the doubt. It is not an easy thing to pin a serious charge on a public figure, and those who do it truthfully deserve our support. But those who do it falsely, as in the Duke lacrosse case, deserve condemnation. The moment charges are leveled, we know something bad has happened, but we don’t know what.
In the O’Reilly case, he is either a serial harasser or the victim of a snowballing campaign to drive him from his livelihood. That effort has now succeeded, but there is no objectively reachable conclusion that justice has been done.
His detractors are thrilled, of course, and began piling on with typically classless glee in the troll-rich waters of social media. His steadfast fans can only hope his continuing denials are true.
Some of those fans have grilled Fox News for denying him the presumption of innocence, but a job is not a court of law. Employers may take action whenever their business interests are at risk via appearance or reality. Fairly or not, accusers and activists lit a fire that resulted in a massive advertiser boycott that the network could not ignore.
Fox News did not have to fire O’Reilly. They could have withstood the storm and waited for it to pass. There are only two reasons for their decision: either they have reason to believe the charges are true, or they did not think the matter would blow over.
The millions of dollars in settlements paid to accusers do not help O’Reilly. Memories are fresh of Donald Trump standing up to a wave of pre-election accusations with bold denials and no peep of settling to silence them. It worked.
But settling is not an admission of guilt. There are times when a prominent public figure will write a massive check to just make a story go away, even if it is false. The logic: if a salacious charge goes to trial, the public will long remember the damning testimony even if the defendant ultimately prevails.
But among multiple settlements totaling millions of dollars, that argument takes a beating, especially as the list of accusers grows.
Is it possible that these accusers are adding their voices to a vindictive chorus of lies, designed to bring O’Reilly down? Sure. It is also possible that O’Reilly is completely guilty and thoroughly deserves this fate.
The statements from the star and his former employer contain windows to their motivations.
An internal Fox News memo announced that the network and O’Reilly “have agreed” on his departure. Translation: we are firing him, but are willing to afford him a last shred of dignity in the form of a claim that his exit is voluntary.
After a nod to his legacy of ratings domination, the memo touts “the strength of its talent bench.” This is a wink to viewers and advertisers that they have a strong Plan B ready to deploy. This apparently involves the awarding of the O’Reilly Factor time slot to the nomadic Tucker Carlson, whose success in the old Megyn Kelly hour is evidence that he is the real deal. His hour will be filled with one of the network’s best shows, The Five, whose edgy but convivial panel will move to prime time, minus center-seater Eric Bolling, who gets his own show at 5 Eastern. Factor favorite Jesse Watters will replace Bolling on The Five.
So okay, Fox News is ready to plow forward without missing a beat. But they want to make sure everybody knows they are aware of the image hit they have sustained, as O’Reilly follows Roger Ailes out the door on another wave of workplace misbehavior charges. “We want to underscore our consistent commitment to fostering a work environment built on the values of trust and respect,” the memo concludes.
Those are the words of a company that either: a) knows it has an internal culture problem, or b) admits nothing but wants to stop the reputational bleeding.
For O’Reilly’s part, he wants to make sure we all know he is not leaving happily. “It is tremendously disheartening that we part ways due to completely unfounded claims,” he writes, inviting the observation that the word “unfounded” (unproven, unsubstantiated) was chosen instead of the more definitive “false.”
So what now? Will O’Reilly ever reappear in the evening opinion-show arena? America is a place where memories are short, forgiveness common and profit motives strong. If some network calculates that the benefits of exhuming O’Reilly’s TV career are worth the heat, it could happen, but probably not soon.
I will miss him. He brought a rare attribute to his industry: occasional unpredictability. He also brought a lofty self-regard and scrapper’s spirit that delivered another plus: he was rarely dull. The whole “no-spin zone” concept was really fairly silly; When O’Reilly shared his own views, wasn’t that just his “spin?” And I always chucked at the “Talking Points” open, whenever he referred to his opening monologue as if it were a separate entity to be referenced in the third person— “Talking Points believes that Susan Rice intentionally misled the country.” I mean, come on.
But I watched. Often. And I was usually rewarded. The show had a certain fit. Placed alongside the Trumpian conservatism of Sean Hannity and the strong journalistic chops of Bret Baier’s Special Report, the Factor (dubbed The O’Reilly Report for its first two years) was a different breed, as was its host.
He wasn’t always conservative. He wasn’t always reasonable. But for my viewing habits, he was always worth at least a cursory look, and often more. Count me among those who hope he is telling the truth, and if so, those who hope he resurfaces.
But since all of us writing and talking about this do not know that, a specific rooting interest is not sustainable. I know his haters will not observe such restraint, so they are free to stew in their own juices. One thing is certain: the retooled Fox News lineup will continue to dominate its momentary gloating competitors.