The Firing of Bill O’Reilly
Fox News fired its most popular host, Bill O’Reilly, this week. The firing came after The New York Times reported details of more than $13 million paid to women who worked on or appeared on O’Reilly’s show. The women had accused O’Reilly of sexual harassment. O’Reilly at first “denied the claims have merit,” but Fox apparently concluded otherwise.
It must have been a difficult conclusion at which to arrive. O’Reilly has been a ratings and economic juggernaut for Fox. He attracts about 4 million viewers, and in 2015 the program generated about $178 million in advertising revenue.
I commend Fox for making a courageous decision that will no doubt cost it millions of dollars in the short term.
I do not want to put O’Reilly on trial here, but it is fair to say that Fox would not have made this decision unless the evidence was compelling. A statement released by Fox read, in part, “After a thorough and careful review of the allegations, the Company and Bill O’Reilly have agreed that Bill O’Reilly will not be returning to the Fox News Channel.”
O’Reilly’s fans are attempting to paint him as a victim of a politically correct environment. Ed Martin, president of Eagle Forum, the organization founded by Phyllis Schlafly, wrote: “O’Reilly is a folk hero to the regular folks in America who know the truth.”
I have a different perspective. I commend Fox for making a courageous decision that will no doubt cost it millions of dollars in the short term. What is sad is that a man many people saw as an effective spokesman for their values has been rendered impotent because of his character.
This story is not a new one, of course. Moses, David, and Samson are just three of many powerfully gifted men whose character flaws kept them from being and doing all that God intended for them. More recently, Roger Ailes and Michael Flynn have likewise risen because of their competence and fallen because of their character. Young media celebrities such as Tomi Lahren and Milo Yiannopoulos have flamed out in spectacular fashion.
But National Review columnist David French has pointed out that the rises and falls of these conservative celebrities may be as much our fault as theirs. French writes that we have created a “toxic culture of conservative celebrity” in which we value not the character of our leaders, but rather their ability to inflict wounds on our political enemies. “Knifework, not character or integrity, is what we demand from our ideological gladiators,” French writes. “We’re paying the price.”
Lessons from the O’Reilly Episode
So what can we learn from the O’Reilly episode? Here are a few possible lessons:
First, we should demand character, not merely competence, from our political leaders and cultural spokesmen. Those who oppose conservative and Christian ideas will seize any opportunity to discredit the message by attacking the messenger. We should be careful about whom we look to as spokespeople.
Secondly, let’s remember that “conservative” does not always equal “Christian.” We live in an era in which the culture is trending away from Christian ideas and toward secularism. So conserving what came before often — not always, but often — means conserving Christian ideas. But when and where that is not the case, we should be careful to promote Christian ideals and not merely conservative ideology.
We should take a good, long, hard look in the cultural mirror and remember Shakespeare’s words: “The fault . . . is not in our [media] stars, but in ourselves.”
Thirdly, we should remember that the ends do not justify the means. The Christian worldview is true, but it is not merely true. It is also good and beautiful. If we resort to the ugly, the evil, and the banal in our public discourse and private lives, we undermine the truth of the story we want the world to hear.
Finally, let’s not depend so much on our media stars to do the heavy lifting of cultural change. Here at the Colson Center we talk often about “de-professionalizing” the work of the Gospel, including the work of cultural change. By that we mean that raising our kids means more than just sending them to the right youth group. And cultural engagement means more than following a media celebrity on Facebook or retweeting a clever meme.
I often speak to young people who are burning with enthusiasm to “make a difference” in the world. My counsel to them is usually “If you want to change the world, first make your bed.” We should remember that the best evidence for the transformative power of the Gospel is the testimony of our own transformed lives. Christians should live differently if we want our ideas to have credibility in the public square.
To conclude: I cannot say with certainty whether Bill O’Reilly is guilty or innocent of the sexual harassment charges, but the evidence we do have, and his spectacular fall from public favor, should lead to a teachable moment for the conservative movement and Christians in particular. We should take a good, long, hard look in the cultural mirror and remember Shakespeare’s words: “The fault . . . is not in our [media] stars, but in ourselves.”
Warren Cole Smith is an investigative journalist and author as well as the Colson Center vice president for mission advancement.