Were Conservatives Too Quiet About Bill O’Reilly?

Unsurprisingly, Eric Boehlert of Media Matters thinks conservatives should have been harder on former FNC star Bill O’Reilly, dismissed amid charges of sexual harassment:

The cheap and easy response — to paraphrase the Partnership For a Drug-Free America — is that we learned it from you, Dad.

America’s cultural progressives mainstreamed sexual misconduct by the rich and powerful when they decided to defend the serial sexual misconduct of Bill Clinton (including lying under oath to a federal judge in a sexual harassment case about his exploitation of a 19-year-old intern).  His chief enabler was Hillary Clinton, who among other things was prepared to smear the intern and write the scandal off as a vast right-wing conspiracy.

Media Matters — according to the rabid right-wingers at The New New Republic — “had long ceased to be a mere [media] watchdog, having positioned itself at the center of a group of public relations and advocacy outfits whose mission was to help put [Hillary] Clinton in the White House.”  But Hillary managed to lose to Donald Trump, leaving Media Matters with less to do… outside of organizing an advertiser boycott of O’Reilly.

A skeptic might be forgiven for thinking Boehlert’s outrage is mostly an attempt to squeeze the last drops of juice out of that campaign.

The second-easiest retort is to note that Boehlert criticized RedState in particular for not being critical of FNC, although the site had been critical of O’Reilly (more than once, including on this subject), not to mention Sean Hannity and Eric Bolling (and any combo of these).  It takes a special kind of media watchdog to get into a Twitter fight with a site that was among the least guilty of going easy on O’Reilly or FNC.

But the fact that the issue was raised by a paid partisan troll and with enough hypocrisy to fill the Grand Canyon doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad question.

After all, if you think that the Clintonite Democrats should not drag all of our standards into the gutter, some self-reflection should be in order.  Aside from the corrosive effects of cultural progressivism, there are several other factors worth considering.

For example, Boehlert’s complaint seems to be that people in conservative media don’t want to cross FNC because of its role as a gatekeeper and because it is in some ways the top of the conservative media food chain.  Conservatives shouldn’t pretend there is no truth in that.  Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote back in 2010 about the problem righty media folk often face: sell out to the movement or sell out the movement.

OTOH, lefties might want to consider that this incentive structure for conservative journalists exists in no small part because the establishment media — media that Boehlert is paid to find too conservative — is in fact much more likely to hire from overtly liberal outlets than from conservative ones.  That would require progressives to recognize a type of privilege that doesn’t fit neatly into their identity politics.

That doesn’t mean conservative journalists cannot and should not aspire to be better; it just means the establishment media might aspire to the same.

Of course, the incentive structure for conservative journalists isn’t the only O’Reilly factor (ouch!).  As Dougherty and Rod Dreher pointed out in responding to Boehlert, O’Reilly appealed more to their parents than to them.  This is consistent with my note yesterday that the main demo for FNC primetime is white seniors.  If you’re the sort who who reads — let alone works for — Media Matters, it may not register that many — or at least some — righty writers don’t have a monomaniacal obsession with FNC.

As with most things, however, there is a flip side to this point.  As Issac Chotiner points out at Slate, O’Reilly was always much less of a fiscal, foreign policy or religious conservative than someone motivated by cultural conservatism and his own “unrepentant solipsism.”

Regarding this latter point, also listen to John Podhoretz on the Commentary podcast (wherein JPod — can I call him JPod? — also places O’Reilly’s solipsism in the broader context of non-fiction “star vehicles” on TV).  But let’s more closely examine the former point.

I would submit that a substantial segment of the conservative media outside FNC didn’t spend much time thinking or caring about Bill O’Reilly because they really didn’t think or care much about the sort of cultural conservatism that drove O’Reilly’s show.  Some still don’t.  They missed the O’Reilly story because they weren’t invested in him or his issues.

But that’s part of How They Missed Trump, too.  And that’s why I’ve written about the need to take “dumb news” seriously.  When the better minds don’t, we shouldn’t be surprised when the provocateurs fill that vacuum, generally to bad results for the Right.

In sum, there are plenty of reasons why conservative writers didn’t opine as much as they might have about the allegedly scandalous exploits of Bill O’Reilly.  But it’s never too late for righties — and lefties — to learn from it.

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Upheaval at Fox, But It’s Still Rupert’s Empire

Bill O’Reilly is out after 21 years of holding the flagship position on-air at Fox News Channel, as the sexual harassment charges and settlements piled up.  But no one should seriously doubt that Rupert Murdoch remains the Palpatine of his media empire.  Indeed, the turmoil at the network even now proves it.

To be sure, people will opine that O’Reilly’s ouster represents a victory for Rupert’s sons, James and Lachlan, bolstered by senior executives at other divisions within the Murdoch empire who chafed at the seeming special treatment for the man with the falafel.  And it is nice that 21st Century Fox is being dragged into the late 20th Century.  I know people who still work there and the HR office doesn’t need to be run by Roger Sterling and Don Draper.

But what Rupert understands is money.  Not just the relatively small-to-him sums being paid out to settle claims brought against O’Reilly or former program honcho Roger Ailes, or to buy out their contracts.

Rather, he’s likely looking at the threat posed by FNC’s highest-rated show being boycotted by prestige advertisers.  FNC’s primetime has always been based on the model of talk-radio-with-pictures; Rupert undoubtedly noticed what happened to the revenues and clearance for the entire conservative talk radio sector once a similar boycott stuck to Rush Limbaugh.

But the turmoil that has gripped FNC over the past year largely has been caused by Rupert’s control over his vision for the operation, both before and after yanking O’Reilly off camera.

The general narrative has been one of Rupert fighting his sons over the direction of the network he created with Ailes many years ago.  As right-leaning talk video, it has attracted largely the same demographic as right-leaning talk radio: white seniors.

James and Lachlan would like to start the transition that will be inevitable as its core audience literally dies and is replaced by another generation that may not have the same politics as the current one.  Rupert sees the current FNC as a yuge cash cow and is loath to fuss with the formula.

While I might prefer the sons’ vision for FNC, I can’t blame Rupert for the impulse to not fix what isn’t broken, especially when you have to answer to stockholders.  That said, there is also an argument that you can stagnate and lose when you don’t take the initiative to innovate from time to time.  And it is very much a question of timing that is probably unknowable.

All of that said, consider that the departures of Ailes and O’Reilly were basically forced upon Rupert by the circumstances, not by choice.  OTOH, Rupert chose to let Megyn Kelly leave last year — and FNC’s schedule would have been far more stable had he met her asking price.

That choice was quite consciously one in the direction of a Trumpier FNC, as is yesterday’s decision to give Eric Bolling a show while moving the rest of The Five to primetime.  And it is most evident in the meteoric rise of Tucker Carlson, who has surfed the shock waves at FNC from weekends to Greta Van Susteren’s slot into O’Reilly’s chair.

Carlson is nothing if not flexible.  He has been a middle-of-the-road conservative for CNN, a provocative prankster at the Daily Caller, a libertarianish righty for MSNBC, and now a Trumpian tribune for Fox (even dropping his signature WASPy bow tie in favor of more proletarian neckwear).

As Carlson told McKay Coppins recently: “I’m not much of an economic conservative, and I’m not conservative at all on foreign policy.  If your politics don’t change when circumstances do, you’re an idiot, you’re a reactionary.”

I could write a longread deconstructing that quotation alone, but today is not that day.

Rather, the important thing now is that Carlson’s chameleon-like adaptability has provided him with an opportunity, but one that comes with its own inherent challenge — and one Rupert has imposed on FNC in general.

The challenge of boarding the Trump Train is that it doesn’t run on tracks.  You have no idea where it’s going to make stops.  Indeed, Trump has recently been making a raft of policy shifts seemingly away from populism and nationalism, and toward a far more conventional Republican approach.

Carlson’s reaction has been to do things like debate Lindsey Graham for agreeing with Pres. Trump’s new position on Syria, and to bring Ann Coulter on to chastise Trump.*

Carlson thus seems (so far) to be taking the Bannonesque position of holding Trump accountable to that segment of his core voters who were really serious about Trump’s advertised nationalism and populism.

But what if that’s not a yuge segment of Trump voters, let alone Fox News viewers?  What if Trump’s support is driven more by the tribal drums of traditional partisanship, by GOPers who voted for Trump because he was a better choice than Hillary Clinton, who like his recent turn towards more traditional Republicanism, and are just more inclined to side with the President over some griping talking head on Fox?

Carlson has changed his politics to fit what he thinks are vastly changed circumstances.  But he’ll be judged by an audience that may become less incline to cheer New Tucker at the very moment he’s received the big promotion.

And again: Rupert runs a capitalist empire; he won’t think twice about demoting Carlson if the ratings decline — or dispatching any of the people at FNC who have trimmed their sails to the Trumpian winds of months past.  In that regard, Rupert is the alpha chameleon of his empire.  It’s not easy being green, but that’s his preferred color.

*[Aside: Carlson’s inferior knowledge of the Middle East compared to Graham, much like his flailing idiocy about capitalism when trying to debate Mark Cuban, tends to prove my point that Carlson should debate tomato cans less, to keep in shape.  I reiterate this even though the New New Left’s collegiate antifa are a major symptom of what’s wrong with America these days and need to be exposed.  Carlson’s taking the big chair and will need to up his game if he wants to stay there.]

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This is TrumpTV

Remember when people were concerned that after Donald Trump lost the election, he would start up a “news” channel?  Good times.  Instead, Trump won and we have a surplus of Trump TV.

You might think I’m referring to the Fox News Channel.  Granted, the ostensibly straight news side of Fox doesn’t totally shill for the President (my family’s biggest Trump fan now prefers the even more Trump-friendly Fox Business Network).  But when FNC’s biggest star was again being accused of being a little too fresh with the womenfolk, not unlike Trump, his old milkshake buddy volunteered his support.

But I was also thinking of Jonathan Mahler’s NYT Magazine piece, “CNN Had a Problem. Donald Trump Solved It.

The problem? “[A]n existential threat was looming. In a world where cable cutters were consuming their news in bite-size portions on their phones and streaming free video over the internet, how much longer would anyone be willing to pay for expensive cable packages? Real breaking-news events happened only every so often, and people lost interest in them quickly; more quickly than ever, in fact, now that there was so much else to distract them.”

The solution?  Donald J. Trump, Bringer of Ratings.  And after the election, “[w]hat [CNN Worldwide president Jeff] Zucker is creating now is a new kind of must-see TV — produced almost entirely in CNN’s studios — an unending loop of dramatic moments, conflicts and confrontations.”  Sound like anyone we know?

As Mahler notes, while at NBC, Zucker “helped usher in the age of reality TV, first with the gross-out show ‘Fear Factor’ and then with ‘The Apprentice’,” which of course starred Trump.

Zucker has brought that sensibility to CNN: “As Zucker sees it, his pro-Trump panelists are not just spokespeople for a worldview; they are ‘characters in a drama,’ members of CNN’s extended ensemble cast.  ‘Everybody says, “Oh, I can’t believe you have Jeffrey Lord or Kayleigh McEnany,” but you know what?’ Zucker told me with some satisfaction.  ‘They know who Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany are.'”

Indeed, a recurring theme in Mahler’s longread is that “[i]t’s a symbiotic relationship that could only thrive in the world of television, where the borders between news and entertainment, and even fantasy and reality, have grown increasingly murky.”

For example, Mahler further notes that “Zucker is a big sports fan and from the early days of the campaign had spoken at editorial meetings about wanting to incorporate elements of ESPN’s programming into CNN’s election coverage.  ‘The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way,’ he told me.  Toward that end, the network built ‘pregame’ sets outside debate halls with excited crowds in the background and created a temporary rooftop studio for the final weeks of the campaign with sweeping views of the White House and the Washington Monument.”

I have written at length about the ESPNization of political media and was inspired to do so by one of those pregame sets.  It’s a decline decades in the making, driven by economics as well as technology.  But the escalation is very much TrumpTV.

The relationship between Trump and Zucker may have soured for the moment, but you can easily imagine the make-up call in which one of them says, right out of the TV/movie cliche book: “You know, we’re not so different, you and I…”

While CNN may have been one of the worst offenders during the primaries, also recall CBS CEO Les Moonves from this period: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”  And post-election, BuzzFeed’s EIC Ben Smith has said “(Trump) has singlehandedly…postponed the collapse of a fair share of legacy media in an interesting way,” though this ignores that sites like his have reaped the clicks as well.

The surface politics of these outlets may oppose Trump, but now more than ever they share his ideology of enriching and empowering themselves by inflaming controversies and increasingly adopting his tabloid standards.  It’s all about the audience share.  In this regard, they all are — like Sean Hannity — Great Americans.

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