Before Fox News fired its biggest star, Bill O’Reilly, in 2017, they helped to settle (and cover up) sexual harassment suits that six women brought against the pundit. The cost? Nearly $50 million. When O’Reilly left the building, reports put his severance at half that amount: $25 million, or a year’s salary. Even while paying out massive sums to the women he’d wronged — through verbal abuse or intimidation, masturbating on phone calls and trying to thwart their careers when they rejected his lewd advances — he remained quite wealthy.
Meanwhile, the disgraced 70-year-old propagandist still gets to pump out his hack books, which become bestsellers. He has 3 million Twitter followers, his own website and a daily radio show, plus regular appearances on Newsmax, Glenn Beck’s talk radio program and more. And certainly there are those at Fox News who miss him.
So to think that O’Reilly was “brought down” by the #MeToo movement is ridiculous. The man is about as un-canceled as most of the millionaires outed as sex pests in the past few years. He may not have as huge an audience as The O’Reilly Factor did, nor such a singular platform, but he is out there every day, being O’Reilly, spouting his O’Reilly bullshit, doing his tired fucking O’Reilly thing. Like Matt Lauer, another overpaid media creep, he could try to enjoy forced retirement, maybe sit around at home counting his filthy money — but he refuses. This isn’t about making a living anymore. Now he only craves exposure. He wants to be a name. He won’t give up his celebrity.
Annoyingly, he’s proving just how hard it will be to ignore him, especially as he gains some distance from the revelations of his lurid scandals. Donald Trump is retweeting him again, for one thing. For another, he’s leaning into his couch-grandpa-as-political-commentator phase. In that sense, he could prove to be more dangerous than he was as a cable news talking head — instead of a studio personality in an expensive suit, he’s a regular, angry American man in flannel or a Red Sox polo, poorly lit and blotchier than ever, tapping into the very isolation, alienation and decay that leads anyone to care what he has to say. But even as he attempts a stealthy Average Joe makeover, he can’t help but voice his ignorance of life in the working class:
Should a Democratic presidential candidate like Beto O’Rourke even acknowledge Bill’s buffoonery? It’s hard to see an upside. If O’Reilly was ever in the actual business of “news,” that pretense was abandoned long ago. On the internet, far-right demagogues aren’t hemmed in by the bare modicum of professional duty; all they have to do is enrage the other side into amplifying their garbage takes.
Beto, who is not going to be the next president, gets an easy dunk that racks up a few hundred thousand likes, yet he does it by asserting Bill’s relevance. Furthermore, O’Reilly wasn’t asking for proof of this particular voter; the original tweet clearly states that his mind is made up, and I’m, uh, doubtful the photo supplied by Beto’s campaign is going to change it. O’Reilly livetweeted the Democratic debate as a troll, not a journalist, and the comment in question is merely intended to rehash the blandly heartless opinion that people who say they’re struggling in this country exaggerate both their burdens and desperate efforts.
You could say the timing of O’Reilly’s dismissal was, after all, serendipitous. Roger Ailes, his greatest ally and chief architect of the Fox News brand, had left the year before, under the cloud of his own sexual misconduct, to die shortly thereafter. And the exposés on Bill dropped three months into Trump’s presidency, as he came off the cumulative high of bashing Obama for eight years. The channel has struggled mightily since to defend the corruption and incompetence manifest in the White House these days, and not always to the satisfaction of their most important viewer, as the recent surprise departure of anchor Shep Smith reminds us.
O’Reilly was never going to enjoy the nightly grind of spinning Trump’s imbecility as mad genius. Taking potshots at the “ultra-liberal progressives” competing to run against Trump in 2020, without the headaches of TV production, from the comfort of his living room? Now that’s his jam.
Should we take his bait, we will lose the last semblance of the precious illusion that Bill is a washed-up blowhard without his megaphone. (The man was practically born for the “Sir, this is an Arby’s” meme construction.) The unfortunate truth is that he does have his loyal followers — but they aren’t persuadable, and they can happily interpret any mention of him as a positive indication that their culture warrior is still in the thick of it. He trends enough, and sooner or later, someone can justify hiring him. Maybe he worms his way back into Fox News. Would you put it past them? He was a guest on Hannity a mere five months after losing his job.
Time and fading memories can soften the optics on a predator, more so if his fans are disposed to overlook and downplay the seriousness of workplace harassment. So save your ire and your attention for the dolts who need to be removed from power — because O’Reilly has nowhere to go but up.