The question came up again last week, at the same point in my "Journalism Foundations" syllabus where it always does every semester -- during my lecture on Stephen Colbert and the role of humor and entertainment in today's news marketplace.
First there is this question: In his original show on Comedy Central, who was Colbert satirizing while playing a blow-hard conservative pundit with the power ties, dark suits and the "I calls 'em like I sees 'em" no-spin attitude? Whose style and worldview was he turning inside-out?
It usually takes a few seconds, but then someone -- usually a student who was raised in a Fox News home -- will say, "Bill O'Reilly."
That leads to the next question: What is the name of the cultural and political philosophy that drives the editorial policies of O'Reilly and many, but not all, of the giants associated with the world of Rupert Murdoch?
Students always start off by saying, "conservative." Then I say: That's too vague. There are many kinds of conservatism in American politics. What kind of conservative is O'Reilly?
Students usually add something like "right-wing," "ultra" or "fanatic." Eventually, someone will say "libertarian." A student or two may have paid attention to the show and know that this means that O'Reilly leans left, or remains silent, on moral issues, but is hard right on matters of economics and everything else. His worldview is defined by radical individualism.
We then talk about other kinds of conservatism and, in particular, the fact that Fox News -- which has a massive following among all kinds of conservatives -- offers little or no news and commentary on religious events and trends. There are some moral and cultural conservatives in the operation, but they were not the dominant voices in the Roger Ailes era.
As you may have guessed, this leads us to the massive New York Times story that exploded into social media the other day, the one with this dramatic double-decker headline:
About $13 million has been paid out over the years to address complaints from women about Mr. O’Reilly’s behavior. He denies the claims have merit.
It's logical to ask: What does religion have to do with this story?
I would answer by saying, "I don't know."
However, my observation is that the Times team stacks up all kinds of facts -- many, but not all, with on-the-record sources -- that certainly seem to show that O'Reilly acts like he is a moral free agent when it comes to his attitudes toward women, sex and power. There are also quotes from post-Ailes Fox leaders saying they are committed to creating a safe, wholesome work environment for all.
What is missing, in my opinion, is any hint 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?
First, here are the basics in the torrid overture of this story:
For nearly two decades, Bill O’Reilly has been Fox News’s top asset, building the No. 1 program in cable news for a network that has pulled in billions of dollars in revenues for its parent company, 21st Century Fox.
Behind the scenes, the company has repeatedly stood by Mr. O’Reilly as he faced a series of allegations of sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior.
An investigation by The New York Times has found a total of five women who have received payouts from either Mr. O’Reilly or the company in exchange for agreeing to not pursue litigation or speak about their accusations against him. The agreements totaled about $13 million.
Two settlements came after the network’s former chairman, Roger Ailes, was dismissed last summer in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal, when the company said it did not tolerate behavior that “disrespects women or contributes to an uncomfortable work environment.”
The women who made allegations against Mr. O’Reilly either worked for him or appeared on his show. They have complained about a wide range of behavior, including verbal abuse, lewd comments, unwanted advances and phone calls in which it sounded as if Mr. O’Reilly was masturbating, according to documents and interviews.
You get the idea.
Now, let me state clearly that I know little or nothing about O'Reilly and his show. I have never watched a complete episode of it because I cannot stand that brand of baseball-bat political commentary that claims to be adding news content (whether on Fox or MSNBC, etc.). I am more of a Brit Hume and Howie Kurtz guy, tuning in people who excelled in traditional news, and it still shows in their work. (I am glad that former GetReligionista M.Z. Hemingway will now be working some with Kurtz on his MediaBuzz show.)
How about Kirsten Powers? Yes. Peggy Noonan? Of course. I was intrigued, from time to time, by the work of Megyn Kelly, who talked about her Catholic faith quite a bit in that Vanity Fair feature that was released as she moved into superstar territory. She also stood up to the frat-house side of the Fox News operation (and in a certain GOP candidate's White House campaign).
Did anyone else note this statement from Kelly, in that feature?
“I think that there’s a spiritual component to my personality that is completely unutilized in my current job.”
The new Times piece notes that Kelly clashed with O'Reilly and Ailes.
Mr. O’Reilly was an early defender of Mr. Ailes and Fox News during that sexual harassment scandal last summer. His support remained resolute into the fall, after the company had reached agreements to settle the harassment claims. ... In November, he chided Megyn Kelly, his colleague at the time, after she described being sexually harassed by Mr. Ailes in her memoir.
“If somebody is paying you a wage, you owe that person or company allegiance,” he said on his nightly show, without mentioning Ms. Kelly by name. “You don’t like what’s happening in the workplace, go to human resources or leave.”
There is much more that I could say here. However, allow me to state my main point once again: I do not know if what appears to be a Fox News divide between moral conservatives a moral libertarians has anything to do with the allegations about the O'Reilly-Ailes axis and its dark side, to say the least, in regards to showing respect for women in the workplace. However, I do think that this would be an interesting question to ask, as Fox News tries to evolve and change.
The key is that there are many different kinds of conservatism in American life and politics. The various brands do not agree on how to approach many important subjects -- linked to journalism, religion, culture, marriage and lots of other things.
When push comes to shove, these kinds of beliefs matter. To confess my bias: As an Orthodox Christian I believe that what we believe can have consequences from time to time, in a sinful and imperfect world.
What brand of conservative is O'Reilly? Ailes? Did they clash with other brands of conservatism in that newsroom?
Journalists may want to look into that. In other words, don't assume that all conservatives believe the same things. Just saying.