Roger Ailes

Our Fox News question remains: Was there any real religion factor in career of Bill O'Reilly?

Our Fox News question remains: Was there any real religion factor in career of Bill O'Reilly?

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 political philosophy at the heart of this news operation.

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Future of Fox News: Will moral conservatives keep buying what Bill O'Reilly is selling?

Future of Fox News: Will moral conservatives keep buying what Bill O'Reilly is selling?

In a way, this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tun that in) isn't really about the religion angle in a major mainstream news story. No, this episode is a lot stranger than that.

Here are the two key equations at the heart of my latest conversation with host Todd Wilken.

First of all, millions and millions of Americans watch talk-TV commentary shows -- usually the ones featuring hosts with political and cultural views that mirror their own -- and it appears that they think they are watching the news. This happens on the left (think MSNBC and most of CNN) and it also happens, of course, on the right with Fox News.

The bottom line: Millions of Americans do not know the difference between basic news and advocacy news and commentary. They don't understand that many journalists are still committed to keeping bias, opinion and open advocacy out of their news work. This is having a serious impact on public discourse.

Meanwhile, there is this second fact: Millions of moral, cultural and religious conservatives are watching Fox News day after day, night after night, without giving any thought to what BRAND of conservatism is driving the particular commentary show that they are watching. (NOTE: Fox News does have one or two news shows left, such as Special Report, that mix basic news reports with commentary, often from panelists on the left, right and middle. It is interesting that this show was originally created by Brit Hume, a religious and cultural conservative with a long and solid background in mainstream news.)

Truth is, the whole Fox News operation has never been all that interested in the role that religion plays in America and the world, other than a few segments dedicated -- think "Christmas wars" -- to hot-button topics. Yes, commentator Todd Starnes focuses on religion quite a bit in his opinion pieces and analysis work on radio, but that isn't hard news or prime-time material.

So why would Fox News have little or no interest in religion?

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Tale of two Foxes: What kind, or kinds, of conservative values drive Fox News?

Tale of two Foxes: What kind, or kinds, of conservative values drive Fox News?

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:

Bill O’Reilly Thrives at Fox News, Even as Harassment Settlements Add Up
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.

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Star of the moment Megyn Kelly offers mere glimpses of her Catholicism in autobiography

Star of the moment Megyn Kelly offers mere glimpses of her Catholicism in autobiography

When talented Time magazine colleague John Moody became a top Fox News Channel founder 20 years ago, the Religion Guy thought, “He’d better have a golden parachute because this is probably going to fail.”

After all, pioneer CNN was thoroughly entrenched, and newborn rival MSNBC had rich corporate resources.

Ha. Nielsen tabulations show FNC not only topped those news competitors for all of 2016 but drew the #1 audience among all cable TV channels. Remarkable. The question now becomes whether the defection of 9 p.m. shining star Megyn Kelly to NBC will hurt ratings.

Don’t bet against Fox News. But, hey, how about giving religion correspondent Lauren Green more airtime! Think about it. What percentage of Fox News viewers are concerned about issues of religion, family and culture?

Inside FNC, that which Ailes (Roger, that is) produced a tumultuous year. And the same for Kelly, who just issued an autobiography, “Settle For More” (Harper). The Guy approached this book with mild interest, but was quickly swept up by insider scoop about her role in the Roger Ailes sexual harassment scandal and her behind-scenes account about dealings with the new president and his followers.

The months of Donald Trump strangeness were perhaps without precedent in news annals.

Imagine trying to give fair coverage to the Trump campaign despite the candidate’s harangues and alongside followers’ social-media filth and death threats with armed guards accompanying your youngsters. Journalistic fame can exact a high price. An evangelical hero, attorney David French, suffered similar abuse from fans -- this is a must-read -- after becoming a NeverTrumper.  

Apparently due to the publishing deadline, Kelly doesn’t moralize about  Mr. Trump’s “Access Hollywood” bragging about unwanted sexual groping.

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