Fox News is parting ways with Bill O’Reilly after more than two decades on the conservative network. A firestorm over O’Reilly’s alleged pattern of sexual harassment has brought to an end—for now—one of cable news’ most successful careers. It’s an outcome that seemed unfathomable before the departure of Fox News chairman Roger Ailes last year in the wake of his own spate of sexual harassment allegations. But it’s an outcome that was perhaps inevitable given changes in the TV news business and, especially, the nature of O’Reilly’s act itself.
O’Reilly was a defining practitioner of the Fox News institutional voice and, more to the point, the most widely viewed and high-profile figure on a network that made its name by thumbing its nose at establishment mores. And it seemed, from the outside, as though he’d survive in large part because his act is still so convincing. His superstar voltage came from a gifted balancing of perpetual aggravation and practiced high-handedness. On air, he played terribly annoyed by just about any news item that came in over the transom as well as absolutely incurious to learn anything anyone might have to say about it, regularly dismissing and shouting down dissenting guests. He simultaneously wallowed in and skated over the news, allowing viewers the delicious enjoyment of scandal and the yet more satisfying sense that their prejudgements were right all along. Anyone familiar with the O’Reilly voice—one that, over the years, permeated the network’s air—wouldn’t have a hard time seeing a story through his eyes.
But Fox’s decision proves that no host is too big to fail nowadays. Various news presenters have, in recent years, left their perches under less-than-dignified circumstances, from Dan Rather’s firing by CBS News in 2005 after the Texas National Guard scandal to Brian Williams’s demotion by NBC News in 2015 for misrepresenting his time reporting on Iraq. O’Reilly’s case presents a new wrinkle: Rather and Williams were straight-news anchors who became liabilities to their respective news organizations. O’Reilly was a commentator, not a newsman, and his alleged misdeeds are perfectly congruent with the on-air persona Fox News broadcast with no issue.
After all, his ratings didn’t seem to take a hit after he was openly spurious of then-colleague Megyn Kelly’s response to her own alleged harassment by the boss. “If you don’t like what’s happening in the workplace, go to human resources or leave,” O’Reilly said on air. O’Reilly’s remarks fell short of a minimal baseline of collegiality, to say the least. But he was the network’s star, and seemed for that reason invulnerable. Who’d dare discipline him? (O’Reilly has been on vacation in Italy over the past week, meeting briefly on Wednesday with Pope Francis, perhaps the only higher authority on Earth than the Murdoch family who decided his fate at Fox.)
Ultimately, the very sort of “outrage culture” that O’Reilly decried—on his show and in his latest anti-“snowflake” bestselling book—ended up dooming him. Whether or not Fox News would have been inclined to fire him without a mass exodus of advertisers is something we’ll never know, but any star’s power only matters if it can be converted into ad dollars. After all, his tone can be easily reproduced by the likes of Tucker Carlson (the former MSNBC and CNN host and television equivalent of tofu, taking on the qualities of whatever context he’s placed in), or, slightly lightened up, as on Fox & Friends. A mocking singling-out of news stories that suit a curmudgeonly mindset is most easily practiced by a curmudgeon who’s not, himself, in the news.
Post-Ailes, the playbook for how Fox works editorially was well-enough established to keep things rolling along without him. Post-O’Reilly, it’s not hard to imagine other anchors finding success getting peevishly mad about some news story and then insisting they’re not mad at all. O’Reilly invented a new sort of commentary on TV. But his presence is no longer necessary to execute it.