Already, Bill O’Reilly’s famous war cry — the full-throated yell that began every edition of The O’Reilly Factor: “Caution! You are about to enter the No-Spin Zone!” — sounds as old-fashioned and corny as Rod Serling’s “You’ve just crossed over into… The Twilight Zone!” Now it’s O’Reilly, the biggest ratings magnet for Fox News, who’s entered the twilight zone: Parent company 21st Century Fox has decided to cut him loose after multiple accusations of sexual harassment. It’s a distinct possibility that O’Reilly will never have a regular perch on TV ever again.
Fox says the company and O’Reilly have “agreed” that the anchor will not return, making it unlikely he’ll do a farewell broadcast. (O’Reilly called the decision “tremendously disheartening” in his own statement.) The poetic justice of this is that O’Reilly was essentially brought down by one of the targets of his most sustained and ludicrous attacks over the years: the New York Times and its April 1 piece detailing his accusers’ allegations of sexual harassment. This is the newspaper to which O’Reilly invariably attached ridiculously scornful labels such as “the uber-left New York Times” and the “radical New York Times.” He has been undone by what he and many in his audience will doubtless claim was — another O’Reilly hobbyhorse — “political correctness run amuck.”
It’s amazing, really. O’Reilly was the cornerstone of Fox’s prime-time schedule; his ratings actually increased after the current round of harassment accusations against him began. But step back and consider this: Increasingly, O’Reilly was not hewing to the Fox News party line. He was going off on his own tangents — he had stepped up his “I’m an independent” assertion, tried to single-handedly push through the anti-immigration legislation known as Kate’s Law, and had announced he was no longer booking guests with whom he disagreed purely for the sake of argument. This all came at precisely the time when Tucker Carlson gained his 9 p.m. foothold by booking exactly those kinds of guests — straw men and women with whom he could debate and shout over to froth up “good TV.” Sure, O’Reilly was one of the most avid and cynical of suck-ups to Donald Trump, during the primaries and when he became president. But what good did that do O’Reilly? Even with Trump’s utterly gratuitous recent support, O’Reilly couldn’t keep his job once the Murdochs — Rupert and his sons, Lachlan and James, all signed the Bill-is-out corporate memo — turned against him.
Now the Fox lineup will be: Tucker Carlson, moving to 8 p.m., as The Five — which houses a batch of regular Factor guests — moves from the afternoon to 9 p.m. It’s a smart move, for Fox’s purposes. Unlike Megyn Kelly, O’Reilly will receive no invitations to work from any of the broadcast networks — he’s far too abrasive to fit into any show with an ensemble lineup of contributors. For better and now for worse, O’Reilly distinguished himself as a loner, taking on perceived bad guys in his “No-Spin Zone.”
What does O’Reilly do next? Maybe he goes to a smaller cable network to spearhead competition against Fox News. (Glenn Beck’s The Blaze is a model for this — and it’s the now former home of another right-wing rabble-rouser that might be positioned as the new generation O’Reilly: Tomi Lahren.) More likely, I think: O’Reilly goes to radio: either satellite radio or a syndicated show. O’Reilly’s core audience probably doesn’t shell out money for Sirius XM subscriptions; instead, I see him building a Rush Limbaugh-style network on AM and FM radio. Whatever he does, O’Reilly now needs a media platform from which to continue peddling his bestselling books and club memberships.
O’Reilly contributed an immense amount of the hostility and bullying aggression that has come to permeate so much cable news — and not just on Fox. He inspired Stephen Colbert’s right-wing persona on The Colbert Report, a remarkable satire of the bluster O’Reilly deployed. O’Reilly leaves behind no significant contribution to broadcasting beyond his own gassy hubris. The aftermath of his departure will be a renewed effort on the part of conservative media, and Fox in particular, to recreate — and, alas, probably increase and redouble — the kind of staged anger in which O’Reilly traded and used to pump up millions of viewers.
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