O’Reilly’s le­gacy of bul­ly­ing

Times Colonist - - Comment -

Years of sex­ual-ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions and set­tle­ments fi­nally caught up to Bill O’Reilly Wed­nes­day, when 21st Cen­tury Fox parted ways with Fox News Chan­nel’s big­gest star and the most pop­u­lar per­son­al­ity on ca­ble-TV news. But O’Reilly’s sur­gi­cal re­moval from Fox isn’t likely to cure ca­ble net­works of the dis­ease he helped spread: a cul­ture of on-air bul­ly­ing and hu­mil­i­a­tion that now in­fects pro­grams across the chan­nel lineup.

To the con­trary, Fox an­nounced that it was fill­ing the vac­uum left by O’Reilly’s de­par­ture with Tucker Carl­son, an­other com­bat­ive host whose spe­cialty ap­pears to be making guests he dis­agrees with squirm. This con­ver­sa­tion-as-blood-sport ap­proach has been around for a while, but it be­came a prime-time sta­ple in the O’Reilly era. There was a bumper crop of TV per­son­al­i­ties ea­ger to shout down or talk over op­pos­ing view­points.

Lament­ing the de­cline of honest de­bate and en­light­en­ing ex­changes is a bit like ar­gu­ing that croquet should be more pop­u­lar than box­ing. Hu­mans like to watch con­flict, and savvy TV ex­ec­u­tives in­dulge them. Still, O’Reilly could have used his enor­mous view­er­ship and au­di­ence loy­alty to try to tem­per the grow­ing po­lar­iza­tion and anger in so­ci­ety. In­stead, he fed the toxic sen­ti­ment that un­der­girds U.S. di­vi­sions, por­tray­ing the peo­ple who dis­agreed with him as not just wrong, but cor­rupt, morally bank­rupt and dan­ger­ous to real Amer­i­cans.

It’s worth not­ing that Fox acted only af­ter a New York Times re­port brought O’Reilly’s co­pi­ous set­tle­ments to the sur­face, prompt­ing ad­ver­tis­ers to flee his pro­gram in droves. The con­tro­versy didn’t hurt his ap­peal among view­ers — to the con­trary, his rat­ings in­creased in re­cent weeks — but it threat­ened Fox’s bot­tom line. That led Fox to ap­ply again the prin­ci­ples it dis­cov­ered last year when it parted ways with the news net­work’s former chair­man and ha­rasser-in-chief, Roger Ailes. Once again, ad dol­lars speak more loudly than fe­male em­ploy­ees.

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