What can I say? People keep asking me if there is some kind of "religion ghost" lurking in the story of the fall of Fox News superstar Bill O'Reilly.
After all, he was one of America's leading "conservatives."
O'Reilly also mentioned, from time to time, his Catholic roots. Yes, we will get to that timely handshake with Pope Francis in a minute (Religion News Service report here). As religion-beat patriarch Richard Ostling told me, in an email one-liner: "Since O'Reilly made so much of his Catholic identity, perhaps he should have asked Pope Francis to hear his confession when they met at the Vatican?"
But, you see, this is where I need to plead ignorance and seek help from readers. As I have said before, I never watched O'Reilly's show. I don't think I ever watched an episode from end to end, because I truly despised the style and content of his baseball-bat commentary work. His opinion-to-reporting ratio was not my cup of tea. I remain a Brit Hume, Kirsten Powers, Megyn Kelly, Howard Kurtz kind of guy.
So help me here: Did O'Reilly consistently make a big deal out of the CONTENT of his Catholic identity or did he just mention it in passing? Did he quote scripture, the Catholic Catechism or papal documents? I honestly want to know.
I also hear this: What about the whole "War on Christmas" riff that he used year after year after year, world without end?
From what I have seen, that part of his work was based on his anti-political-correctness stance and a kind of marketplace version of civil religion. I never heard him engage in the actual details of church-state debates linked to this important First Amendment topic. He just bashed away, knowing that his audience loved it. Did I miss something?
If there is a valid GetReligion angle to this story it is, in my opinion, the possibility that the very public falls of O'Reilly and original Fox News maestro Roger Ailes offer insights into the moral and political philosophy at the heart of this news operation. This is what I wrote before -- "Tale of two Foxes: What kind, or kinds, of conservative values drive Fox News?" -- about this issue and its possible impact on coverage of religion and public life:
What is missing, in my opinion, is any hint [in news coverage] that there is a major division inside Fox News -- not just between news people and opinion people, but between people who get religion and those who have little or no interest in doing so. Does this have anything to do with a divide between clashing conservative camps, with O'Reilly and the country-club Republicans on one side and the heartland, cultural conservatives on the other? Does this have anything to do with O'Reilly and all of those claims about his, well, anti-Billy Graham Rules way of life?
The New York Times, of course, flooded the zone on the O'Reilly story -- with good cause.
At the same time, that newsroom's coverage basically assumed that a conservative is a conservative is a conservative. Libertarian conservative? Heartland conservatives? Religious conservative? Corporate conservative? New York City conservatives? Lap-dog Republican conservative? Who knows?
Consider this passage in a new Times report, with the obligatory Christmas nod:
For a generation of conservative-leaning Fox News viewers, Mr. O’Reilly, 67, was a populist voice who railed against what they viewed as the politically correct message of a lecturing liberal media. Defiantly proclaiming his show a “No Spin Zone,” he produced programming infused with patriotism and a scorn for feminists and what he called “the war on Christmas,” which became one of his signature themes.
The news of Mr. O’Reilly’s ouster came while he was on a vacation to Italy; on Wednesday morning, he met Pope Francis at St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. Mr. O’Reilly’s tickets to the Vatican were arranged by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York.
The sort-of-damning reference to Cardinal Dolan is interesting, since it has no attribution. I would assume that it would be important to know, on the record, if and when the cardinal's office made that application. Last week? Several months ago?
As an aging journalist, I also flinched then I hit this reference in the Times:
On his show Wednesday night -- the title shortened to just “The Factor” -- the substitute host, Dana Perino, paid tribute to Mr. O’Reilly, calling him “the undisputed king of cable news.”
Well now, in what sense was O'Reilly producing "news" content on cable TV? What is the meaning of the word "news" in that statement? (Cue: Audible sigh.)
You can see the same issues in this passage from a Washington Post report. I thought it was crucial that this daily story flashed back to show how long O'Reilly has been dealing with these kinds of accusations (some backed with slimy audio recordings).
... “The O’Reilly Factor” has been the network’s flagship show for nearly 20 years, and in many ways has embodied its conservative-oriented spirit.
He still seemed to be at the peak of his popularity and prestige only three weeks ago. His 8 p.m. program, which mixes discussion segments with O’Reilly’s pugnacious commentary, drew an average of 4 million viewers each night during the first three months of the year, the most ever for a cable-news program. His popularity, in turn, helped drive Fox News to record ratings and profits. O’Reilly was also the co-author of two books that were at the top of the bestseller lists in April.
O’Reilly had previously survived several controversies during his 21 years at Fox, including a lurid sexual harassment case in 2004 that was fodder for New York’s tabloid newspapers. He also beat back a wave of headlines in 2015, when reporters examined his claims about his days as a young reporter and found them to be dubious. All the while, O’Reilly’s audience not only stuck with him, but continued to grow.
So that is all, for now.
For GetReligion, this crucial question remains: Did the frat-house approach of Ailes and O'Reilly have anything to do with Fox News, through the years, doing little or no hard-news coverage (which its cable demographic would surely have welcomed) of events and trends linked to religion? Are some forms of conservatism in America -- think religious conservatives vs. folks in corporate board rooms -- more interested in religious liberty and related issues than others?
Please fill me in with some URLs and information about O'Reilly and the Catholic factor in his life and work. Don't just pour out opinions, in O'Reilly style. Can anyone help me with some links to real information?
Thanks in advance.