That's what he said.
“It was a joke.” That’s his excuse. During a recent episode of Fox & Friends, Bill O’Reilly, the infamous conservative talking head, made a poorly placed comment on the hairstyle of Maxine Waters, a Democratic representative. A recording of her giving a speech against Donald Trump played on screen while O’Reilly reacted live. Instead of keeping his commentary professional, he decided to let everyone know he hadn’t actually been paying attention because he was distracted by Maxine’s “James Brown wig.” (There's also a point to be made about black hair and all that AND men diminishing women in general when they say something at our expense and think we're all going to have a laugh about it, BUT I'll save that for another time. Dude's just gone and thrown all his rods in the fire. He stays busy.)
In all honesty, if someone like Dave Chappelle had made that joke, I would have laughed. But even then, Chapelle would have used it to make a larger point about black and American culture. Bill O’Reilly isn’t a comedian, and he doesn’t illustrate any informational points about American culture, except a glaring one: if you talk sense to a fool, he will call you foolish.
O’Reilly’s apology (and the rest of it he could find in himself to bother with) was nothing more than that age-old shoulder shrug that takes the responsibility off the speaker and makes the butt of the joke seem like they’re over-reacting. We’ve all heard it and have even said it. “It was just a joke!” Sometimes it is. But what makes the difference, I feel, is not just an apology, but changed behavior. To show it’s been understood that no offense was meant and to restore respect. We can’t yet see if this is what O’Reilly will do with Maxine, but we can gather enough information from his past to assume that he’s not sorry, and when he said it was just a joke, that’s all he expects to have to say.
On Smash Up, I try to keep the focus away from the gratuitous nature of our current political and social climate. I don’t see it as doing any good to always be up in arms about who said what now or what so-and-so did. People will always be up to something. Kamala Harris said, “I think too many people get distracted from the task at hand with visions of wonder about their future, and it’s misguided and a bad use of current time.” Instead of fixating on a dream of how things could be, get your feet moving toward that vision.
But I decided to go ahead with this one, because O’Reilly and others like him are, to me, the machinery that keeps patriarchy and prejudice running. The words he chooses or doesn’t choose--his exaggerations, lying, and excuses are the grease that keeps us ill at ease. He’s given himself over to the fame that comes from being a shock jock. However you feel about O’Reilly, you can’t deny he’s a prominent public figure; he didn’t get that way by twiddling his thumbs while everyone else was saying, “Gee, that O’Reilly guy might be interesting…”
In his book, “The O'Reilly Factor,” he shirks personal responsibility because he’s just “telling the truth.” He writes, "The reader might be wondering whether I'm conservative, liberal, libertarian, or exactly what [...] See, I don't want to fit any of those labels, because I believe that the truth doesn't have labels. When I see corruption, I try to expose it. When I see exploitation, I try to fight it. That's my political position.” Even if he does hang up his coat at the end of each night and sigh, “When is the world gonna get it?” He still chooses to wake up every day and continue the side show. He’s active in his own image. So, with that in mind, I decided to do some digging into how he got to this place. My hope is that with this knowledge, we can be less distracted by the juggling and fire blowing.
(And he and I have the same birthday, which just insults the name of good Virgos everywhere. At least Beyonce is also a Virgo too, so she compensates for all our wrongs.)
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." - Edmund Burke
Bill O’Reilly has a long career in journalism. He's been in almost every facet it seems--author, columnist, reporter, host, and commentator. All that’s left I guess is the boom operator. He’s worked at various news stations throughout the country, starting in Scranton (where he also reported the weather), Dallas, Denver, Portland, Connecticut, and Boston; he won local Emmy’s (Denver and New York) for his broadcasting. As his notoriety rose, he worked at CBS, ABC, and most notably FOX. His reports then were hard-hitting, covering a skyjacking (which won him one of the Emmys) and wars. He was “one of the first American broadcasters to cover the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.”
CBS was O’Reilly’s first rung on the major network ladder. He was promoted to network after his investigation into corrupt city marshals (also his second Emmy). Though, he left not long after when some of his crew’s footage was used uncredited on air. During that time, one of his colleagues died. O’Reilly gave the eulogy at his funeral where the president of ABC News was also present. When the president heard the eulogy, he hired him. That must have been some writing, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone landing a job opportunity at a funeral. I searched for the text of this magical eulogy, but couldn’t find it.
Anyway, eventually O’Reilly became the anchor on the tabloid newsmagazine Inside Edition after previous anchor David Frost was fired. Inside Edition covers news, gossip, scandals, true crime stories, and lifestyle features with a salacious undertone. It seems David Frost was more interested in thorough journalism (he interview Richard Nixon about watergate; there was a movie made about it called Frost/Nixon), and said he was “considered too high-brow for the show's low-brow format." Infer what you will there. Former hosts of Inside Edition also include Rudy Giuliani and Star Jones. It’s not uncommon for broadcasting gigs to turn into C-list celebrity mills, but given Inside Edition’s taste for the “low-brow,” it’s interesting that they were able to spit out names with a flair for drama.
It was during his time on Inside Edition, that O’Reilly covered the Berlin Wall coming down, got the first exclusive interview with murderer Joel Steinberg, and was the first television host from a national current affairs program on the scene of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. He has a wealth of experiences that could add to the conversation about humanity in so many worthwhile ways. If his motivation were channeled differently, he could speak to sociology and psychology, as well as politics.
He also earned a master’s degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy school of Government at Harvard. His thesis was “Theory of Coerced Drug Rehabilitation,” which posited that crime would reduce if there were mandatory drug rehab options for prisoners.
When O’Reilly graduated, Roger Ailes (Google him. You will barf.) hired him to anchor on a startup we now know as FOX. Originally called The O’Reilly Report, the name was changed to The O’Reilly Factor and has since been “the highest rated show of three major US 24-hour cable news television channels.” It’s also credited with beginning the trend toward “opinion-oriented prime time cable news programming.” With Ailes’ own proven, sordid history of sexual harassment and blackmail (because of which he’s no longer the president of FOX, but was given a hefty parting package that basically doesn’t do anything but ensure he can have more mansions somewhere), it’s telling he’s part of the company O’Reilly keeps (besides his own history of abuse allegations). Maybe O'Reilly did start out intending to be a bi-partisan journalist. Whatever happened years ago behind the scenes or in his own mind, only he can know. But he’s made it clear through his public behavior that convenience is king.
“What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or, what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” - The Bible, Matthew 16:26
Since finding his permanent home with FOX, his polarizing claims have been checked by media watchdogs like Media Matters for America and FAIR. Both have routinely found that O’Reilly distorts facts and uses misleading or incorrect stats. And besides professional fact checking, anyone with wits can hear through his double-speak. All of this (and more than I could ever cover in a measly blog post--I'm actually compelled to check out his book so I can face palm myself all day and night) leaves the obvious question: why does anyone give him the time of day?
My theory is, as with everything, human complexity. A lot of the ways we deal with the weirdest parts of our world are filtered through our personal biases. The psychological term for this is cognitive bias: “a systematic pattern of deviation from rationality in judgement.” It’s the way you take in information about people and situations based on your personal preference. Say you pick a person with brown hair to be on your team because people with brown hair have played well on your team in the past. Normally, we don’t even think about it. Hearing it out loud you're probably thinking, "That's ridiculous." But we do this often and for a lot of subconscious reasons.
However, sometimes, so much weight is given to a bias that it’s obvious and causes a problem. It starts to scratch against its own walls. An example of this is confirmation bias. People with confirmation bias hold onto information that confirms what they already think is true, even if that’s proven otherwise. So, you pick that person with brown hair for your team, and they suck. They don't play well. Despite this, you still say, “No, people with brown hair are good players.” You can give this one instance any number of excuses for why they're not fulfilling what you thought hey would do. And those reasons could be true, but given a larger sample, it will undeniably be proven untrue. Imagine a group of 12 brown-haired people who can’t play games, among 5 brown-haired people who can. You see where the logic falls apart? You can’t operate in a world where you think things are true just because you prefer it that way. Unless you literally never leave your house.
Confirmation bias plays into a number of our ideological beliefs: religion, politics, lifestyle. If what O’Reilly says aligns with your beliefs, it’s going to be hard to prove to you otherwise. But I don’t necessarily believe he needs to be disproven. When people try to argue proof, usually the opposition reinforces what they’re trying to prove. More mental blocks go up. My hope is that O’Reilly and others will be their own worst enemies, if they aren’t already, and implode from within. At the very least, he has to reconcile himself on his deathbed.
We're all human. But if you have the blessing and curse of such a large platform, it is imperative to recognize that weight and treat your position with care. Reaching a pinnacle shouldn’t signal the end of hard work, it should signal the work has just begun. Where people like O’Reilly could be using their position to urge listeners and viewers to act judiciously and with wisdom and humility, he doubles down on agitation and playing into fears. There are plenty of people in positions of authority who find better uses for their actions and words. This signals to me that ethics are subjective to O’Reilly. In the meantime, those of us who are concerned with fairness in truth-telling will continue to do so, just to shine a little light into a dim corner.
... and just think, without Bill O'Reilly we wouldn't have had Stephen Colbert. See how everything in the world ultimately works together? 😂
Fun fact: O'Reilly was the main inspiration for comedian Stephen Colbert's satirical character on the Comedy Central show The Colbert Report, which featured Colbert in a "full-dress parody" of The O'Reilly Factor. - The Huffington Post