Fox News fired its flagship anchor Bill O'Reilly after his show hemorrhaged sponsors in the wake of a damaging report enumerating the multiple sexual harassment claims the network tried to keep secret to protect its asset. Over $13 million was paid out in settlements to women O'Reilly allegedly targeted, and while some of the claims were old, two were settled after Roger Ailes was ousted and the company pledged not to tolerate behavior that disrespected women.
The media giant's fall came about in the same week as Infowars creator Alex Jones' custody case. Jones' lawyers have argued, using a legal argument that worked for Hulk Hogan but risks annihilating Jones' brand, that Jones' popular ravings about interdimensional invaders and Hillary Clinton's true identity (demon) should not be understood as true expressions of his beliefs but rather as "performance art." There is a difference between the public persona and the private person, the argument goes, and Jones is (his attorney says) playing a character. While this may be a necessary argument in court, where Jones' erratic behavior onscreen could cost him custody of his children, it's fatal to Jones' brand. So fatal that he may have defied a gag order to reassure his fans that he remains very much the "real thing."
It's worth asking what caused these embattled right-wing media characters — both of whom helped catapult President Trump into office — to face these crises at the same time. The term "character" used to mean something akin to "reputation," but its meaning in the current conservative media environment (and post-Hogan era) has changed. If Rush Limbaugh's case against Bill Clinton was that "character counts," these days, what "character" denotes is the persona you assume as you pander to your audience. Both O'Reilly and Jones are public figures who presented themselves as deliverers of truth; in practice, both were just entertainers playing a role.
There is one striking difference between the ways these two men's private personas are splitting from their public roles: Jones' "character" makes him look worse than he is (according to his lawyers, anyway). He had to be louder and more outrageous in order to please his fan base. The opposite is true of Bill O'Reilly, whose real persona appears to be quite a bit worse than the character he plays. And that's remarkable, because O'Reilly's onscreen persona is so calculatedly unpleasant. Still, there it is: For all that O'Reilly's onscreen character was abrasive and arrogant, the real man turned out to be quite a bit worse.
The Character of Bill addressed Jennifer Aniston's offhanded remark that women don't need men to have children by saying that "Aniston can hire a battery of people to help her, but she cannot hire a dad." That seems awful and retrograde until you realize that The Real Bill was a dad who reportedly dragged his then-wife down a staircase by her neck while his daughter watched.
The Character of Bill covered the story of an 18-year-old who was raped and murdered by sneering that she was wearing "a miniskirt and a halter top." "Every predator in the world is gonna pick that up at 2 in the morning," he said. He would know: The Real Bill allegedly threatened one woman he harassed by saying that, if she complained, she'd "pay so dearly that she'll wish she'd never been born."
The Character of Bill told the son of a 9/11 victim that he has "done more for 9/11 families than you can ever hope to do … so you keep your mouth shut." He "corrected" first lady Michelle Obama's observation that the White House was built by slaves by pointing out, as if these were mitigating factors, that "slaves that worked there were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government, which stopped hiring slave labor in 1802." But for all that the Character of Bill was racist and narcissistic and small-minded and defensive, The Real Bill was downright sociopathic. After Juliet Huddy rejected his masturbatory phone calls, The Real Bill allegedly started to professionally sabotage her. But he didn't just nitpick her work and "berate Ms. Huddy for minor mistakes," although that would have been petty enough. No: "Mr. O'Reilly stopped preparing her for segments and would surprise her with story angles that they had not discussed." He went to the trouble of sabotaging her on the air.
If you're curious about the tension between The Character of Bill and The Real Bill, I suggest watching him defend his network in this segment on CBS This Morning, in which he's asked about Megyn Kelly's book, specifically, her claims of sexual harassment: "It doesn't pertain to my life. I wish her well. She's a very smart woman. It's a very tough book environment." "You're not interested in sexual harassment?" the host asks. "I'm not interested in litigating something that is finished that makes my network look bad," The Character of Bill sneers, and the mask starts to slip. Now that we know how much it did pertain to his life — The Real Bill was drowning in sexual harassment claims himself — his loss of control makes sense. The Real Bill starts to take over, repeating that he doesn't want to make his network look bad with psychopathic intensity. If his aim was to make his network look good, he fails.
The Character of Bill is energetic and spry, a healthy and choleric Real American Man. But when The Real Bill got together with Trump, neither one could muster the energy to do the wave. The Character of Bill likes to unleash his anger on guests whose mics he controls with patriarchal authority. The Real Bill does rather poorly when the mics won't turn off.
The Character of Bill can seem arrogant but good-humored. Reasonable. Engaging. Indifferent to criticism. The Real Bill gets so angry and defensive that he writes letters on corporate letterhead to try to get his critics fired.
The Character of Bill fights. The Real Bill settles. The Character of Bill is an "alpha." The Real Bill insulted his target's black leather purse when she wouldn't sleep with him. The Character of Bill lectures black women on how they shouldn't get pregnant. The Real Bill calls black women "hot chocolate" and grunts.
It's a shame. What Jones and O'Reilly shared (besides the president's admiration) was a claim to authenticity that viewers found appealing: O'Reilly claimed to offer a "No-Spin Zone" where everything was exactly what it seemed. Family values. Christianity. Honest journalism. That spoke to Fox viewers who felt alienated by what they saw as a left-wing media environment. As for Jones — well, Jones' paranoid harangues and periodic disrobings were frankly too strange not to be sincere. His ravings about #Pizzagate smacked of deep untold truths The Man didn't want you to know.
It's curious that these two right-wing media mavens, both of whom linked their brands to radical honesty, had those brands stripped in the same week. O'Reilly, who made a living irascibly preaching about the war on Christmas and the immoral doings of black people and rape victims, was exposed by The New York Times as an immoral hypocrite who turned out to be all spin.
O'Reilly's lawyer claims that a "brutal campaign of character assassination" is underfoot. That's a shame. For all his flaws, The Character of Bill was, by all accounts — and despite being America's most unfavorably viewed news figure according to recent polls — the best thing about him, and a great deal better than the real thing.