Bill Carter: Why O'Reilly could survive his scandal at Fox

The rise of Bill O'Reilly in 95 seconds
The rise of Bill O'Reilly in 95 seconds

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The rise of Bill O'Reilly in 95 seconds 01:37

Story highlights

  • Bill Carter: Bill O'Reilly has long been the on-camera personification of the Fox ethos: older, alpha-male, conservative, white
  • He faces biggest challenge of career with sexual harassment claims, advertiser boycott; removing him would bring Fox considerable blowback

Bill Carter is a media analyst and CNN Contributor. Follow him on Twitter at @wjcarter

(CNN)Bill O'Reilly is the signature star of the Fox News Channel — in so many ways. He has the biggest ratings, the biggest profile, and the longest track record of saying whatever he damn well wants and getting away with it.

It is, still, a reasonable question whether any of that will change, even as O'Reilly faces the biggest challenge of his long career to his status as big dog: a burgeoning advertiser boycott of his show in reaction to the report in The New York Times that he and his employers have shelled out $13 million to five different women to settle allegations of sexual harassment or verbal abuse against him.
After all, O'Reilly is still the most potent audience draw in cable news, with an average of almost 4 million viewers a night. That has -- until now -- resulted in the biggest pile of advertiser cash any cable news host has generated, well over $100 million every year. And he still has some rather big advocates in his corner -- not just Rupert Murdoch, the Fox boss. The President of the United States even saw fit to defend his friend Bill in comments Wednesday.
Having that voice speaking out on O'Reilly's behalf is likely to stiffen the backbone of anyone at Fox News getting the vapors over the advertiser exodus and the millions of ad dollars at stake. Any thought of removing O'Reilly from his nightly pulpit would almost surely invite blowback of atomic proportions from the host's fanbase, which dovetails tightly with the overall Fox News audience -- as well as the base that elected President Trump.
To dump O'Reilly, Fox News would likely have to undergo a conversion that would make St. Paul go green. Fox has, for its entire existence, metaphorically pounded its hairy chest and boasted of its unapologetically macho culture.
In large part that reflected the leadership of the network's creator, Roger Ailes, who was deposed last year after he, too, was hit with sexual harassment allegations. But it also reflected -- and still does -- a substantial portion of the most loyal audience for Fox News; that is, conservative white men over the age of 65.
O'Reilly himself fits snugly inside the description of his following: he's 67, white, and, while he would dispute the label, he certainly leans hard conservative in most of his views. Those would include his views on women. Beyond the recent accusations of sexual insinuations, pressures, and sometimes worse, O'Reilly has been frequently tagged as an unreconstructed sexist.
As in his memorable interrogation of two female guests during the past presidential campaign where he pressed one issue repeatedly: "There's got to be some downside to having a woman as president," he argued. His examples ran to the likelihood that a woman would invite bullying from other nations like Iran that "don't like women," and Russia, where Vladimir Putin would surely have "done something" to test Hillary Clinton's reservoir of muscularity in foreign policy had she been elected.
Advertisers revolt amid O'Reilly harassment claims
Advertisers revolt amid O'Reilly harassment claims

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Advertisers revolt amid O'Reilly harassment claims 02:30
Over the years, O'Reilly repeatedly denigrated the notion that sexism was a real thing, saying at one point: "Nobody believes it anymore because the stuff is thrown around irresponsibly."
The network he worked for consistently celebrated alpha-male behavior, in public and private life. Ailes was so confident in his power that he didn't mind admitting he often hired women for their looks; his policy of insisting women's legs always be on display was legendary.
In a piece in the website "Broadly" in 2015, Dr. Caroline Heldman, a politics professor at Occidental College, and sometime guest on Fox News (including with O'Reilly) said, "When you go on Fox you're automatically not legitimate. You're there as eye candy and to be scoffed at. That is your role on Fox if you're a woman."
In the same piece, Heldman cited the reactions to her by the Fox audience, which tended to unleash vitriol not just based on her views but also her looks. "A lot of the commentary is sexist — it's about my hair, it's about my weight, it's 'dumb blonde', 'bleach blonde,' 'you're a prostitute,' all of this gendered shit. And it also happens any time I say anything controversial about race: I get 'N-word lover', 'you f--k black men' on and on, constant sexist stuff. So the sexism comes out from fellow panelists, it certainly comes out from the hosts, who are condescending, and it comes out also from the trolls and the audience."
She added, "That's actually a part of the sellable hatred. They package that all together for their audience to feel better about themselves."
The Fox News audience is obviously large and hardly composed exclusively of conservative men. O'Reilly's show skews distinctly male, but about 46% of his viewers are women, according to Nielsen data. Still, the channel has always had more than a whiff of male cologne over it. Until the deluge of allegations against Ailes, and his forced ouster over them, Fox News was pleased to give off that aroma, and its audience to bask in it.
Bill O'Reilly has been the on-camera personification of all of that. The question is whether the increasingly threatening economic storm surrounding O'Reilly can be weathered. If he has made himself a permanent target of formal protest by women, and men who agree with them, it may take a whirligig of spinning in the no-spin zone to put that down.

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Several veteran Fox News staff members told me this week that replacing him now should not rattle the institution as it would have in the past, because the audience for the network is so committed and loyal they merely segue to whomever is the next designated voice of the channel's conservative narrative. Tucker Carlson moved in to replace Megyn Kelly, the one-time hope for a younger, perhaps less male-centric, future for FNC. And the viewers never blinked.
But O'Reilly truly is different. For one thing, he is a genuinely accomplished broadcaster, a facile and forceful presence on camera. But mainly, he is the embodiment of what Fox News has always been: brash, boastful, bombastic — and old school. (That's the name of his latest book, appropriate for this moment in his career.)
He also has friends in (very) high places.