Why is it that when Brian Williams makes up war stories he loses his
reputation and six months of his career, but when Bill O’Reilly spouts
the same sort of chest-pounding bull, he ends up even tighter with his
audience and his network?
It’s not as if O’Reilly’s fabrications were less outrageous than Williams’s. O’Reilly has claimed
he was a heroic network correspondent in the “war zone” (meaning Buenos
Aires) at the end of the Falklands war while his CBS colleagues were “ hiding” in a hotel. More Zelig-y than Williams, O’Reilly has repeatedly placed himself
at the Florida front door of a shady figure in the investigation of
JFK’s assassination just in time to hear the self-inflicted gunshot that
ended the man’s life (when there’s a cascade of evidence that Bill was in Dallas at the time).
When Media Matters debunked O’Reilly’s claims to have seen four nuns “get shot in the back of the head” in El Salvador in 1981, he slickly skated away, saying he meant he had seen images
of that slaughter and that “no one could possibly” misunderstand his
sterling intentions. The latest of O’Reilly’s fairytales to fracture is
that protesters bombarded him with rocks and bricks during the 1992 LA
riots; not so, say colleagues who were there.
Not in spite of, but because of all this, O’Reilly’s TV ratings this week have surged,
as fans rally to him and the curious tune in to see if the cable news
giant will admit to even one substantial fib. Of course, he won’t. After
countering the Falklands charges on Sunday with a misleading
clip, he’s been brushing off the other charges as baseless political
assaults from “liars,” “far-left zealots,” and “guttersnipes.”
Unlike NBC and the other networks, which at least aspire to
fact-based reporting, it’s in Fox’s DNA to re-invent reality by
massaging facts and destroying context, because, as Jon Stewart said,
all that “matters to the right is discrediting anything that they
believe harms their side.” One of the central tenets of Fox News is that
conservative white men are under constant attack from the liberal
media, and the O’Reilly flap, which was initially kicked off by Greg Grandin in The Nation and then David Corn in Mother Jones, fits that narrative all too well. (As Grandin and others point out, O’Reilly’s personal pufferies are the least of his reportorial sins.)
No matter how accurate the hits on O’Reilly’s false machismo are,
they only make him seem more righteous to his audience. Liberal attacks
on right-wing manliness—like pointing out the chicken-hawk status of
Cheney & company—have no standing with Fox viewers. “O’Reilly has
been given an opportunity to wage war against a phalanx of liberal media
aggressors,” Gabriel Sherman writes in New York magazine. “This is what his audience expects.”
Is there nothing that could turn their audience away from them? Doesn’t Fox, like the rest of us, have an Achilles Heel?
Actually, they do, and it’s related to that tough-guy, manly-man act.
Conservatives can bluster and bully like steroidal hysterics on any
topic, but when they turn their scorn on an individual, usually younger,
woman, they risk the ire of Christians, Republican women, and anyone
with a working creep detector. As Sherman writes:
One indication that O’Reilly is waging a calculated
media campaign is to compare his ferocious response to a true scandal
with career-ending implications: the 2004 lawsuit by a Fox News producer
named Andrea Mackris, who accused O’Reilly of having lurid phone sex.
In my biography of Ailes, I reported how Ailes and Rupert Murdoch were
furious at O’Reilly for creating the humiliating mess. Ailes instructed
O’Reilly that if he spoke out in public, he was in danger of losing his
show. Aside from a handful of muted comments, O’Reilly remained silent
about the allegations. His ratings held, and O’Reilly hung on to his
Likewise, Rush Limbaugh was seen as pretty much invincible until he,
too, attacked a younger woman. In 2012, he called the then–Georgetown
University law student Sandra Fluke a ”slut” for supporting mandated
contraceptive insurance coverage. “She wants you and me and the
taxpayers to pay her to have sex,” he said. In return, he added, he
wanted Fluke to post videos of her having sex “online so we can all
watch.” Advertisers began to flee the show, to the point where,
according to Media Matters’s Angelo Carusone, “the commercial viability
of Rush Limbaugh’s radio program has collapsed and remains that way.”
From O’Reilly and Limbaugh to Todd (“legitimate rape”) Akin and James O’Keefe (the GOP prankster whose plans
to lure a CNN reporter onto a boat, and seduce her, in 2010, signaled
his serious fade-out), sex and gender snafus appear to be one of the few
reliable forms of white male kryptonite. You catch a right-winger
making his sexual appetites overly vivid or venting them on an
identifiable woman instead of an abstract policy, and boom!
That’s the burden of being “the Daddy Party,” and if it faces a
“Mommy Party” headed by Hillary Clinton in 2016, it will be a
particularly heavy one. If they launch a sexually aggressive campaign
that backfires, they’ll surely feel victimized all over again.
Until then, Bill O’Reilly is safe (contrary, I think, to Maddow’s take).
He and his viewers are in this together. They need just a drop of
plausible deniability (Bill couldn’t have lied—he showed us a tape!) to
go on accepting his nightly rants. Part of Fox’s contract with
conservative Americans is the right to think magically and to (as Karl
Rove told Ron Suskind) “create our own reality.”
Bill can hear a magic gunshot. He can experience war in an upscale downtown neighborhood. He can get hit by make-believe bricks.
And, for now, he can Houdini himself out of all the traps he’s set for himself.
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