Maybe it’s a rewrite of Lord Acton’s famous quote as “Pundit power tends to corrupt and absolute pundit power corrupts absolutely,” but whatever the explanation, something has happened to Bill O’Reilly. Bill has always been, shall we say, a tad narcissistic with his palaver about “looking after you” and the “no spin zone,” not to mention endlessly self-referential email praising or damning his latest co-written book or his avuncular vocabulary hints, almost always illustrated as “Don’t be a [fill in the blank] when writing to the Factor,” but we excused him. He was, after all, Bill O’Reilly, the most popular of the popular and a man of many gifts. But of late he appears to have been running off the rails.
He inflated his own interview with Barack Obama, which scarcely broke any new ground, into the confrontation of the century and continues to auction off his scrawled notes for the event as if they were the Gettysburg Address. But that’s the least of it. Always testy, he has started to become genuinely abusive of his guests.
On Tuesday night, when discussing the latest absurdity from Oliver Stone, he began to harass Monica Crowley, seemingly not comprehending what she was saying. That was compounded minutes later when he genuinely didn’t understand what John Stossel was saying and picked a fight with the libertarian commentator over nothing. O’Reilly didn’t even appear to get the message of Orwell’s Animal Farm. I have to assume he read it, but who knows? Both Stossel and Crowley justifiably looked perplexed but, to their credit, rolled with the punches.
All this would be much ado about nothing, but the role of O’Reilly in the coming electoral season is too important. He has leveraged his high ratings into being one of the major spokespeople for the right, perhaps the major spokesperson, even surpassing Rush Limbaugh.
I don’t think this is good. I don’t think a pundit, any pundit, should have that position, and certainly not one as flashy and self-promoting as O’Reilly. For that matter, I don’t think Sean Hannity, although a nice guy, should be in that role either. These men, or their ideas, are not subject to voter approval, only audience approval, a very different thing. Although Roger Ailes is something of a genius and Fox News is to be applauded (highly), the right has become to some degree a victim of Fox’s success. To most of America Fox defines the right — and O’Reilly most of all.
The reason for this is in part because the right has no national leader at the moment, only competing factions. This will continue well into 2015 to 2016, when a Republican presidential candidate is finally chosen. That’s quite awhile. In the meantime many major issues for our country will be greatly in play, including the 2014 election with the Senate in the balance.
Fox News, given that success, has a special responsibility in this and no doubt Roger Ailes knows it. The American public is confused and troubled and in dire need of some education. Our country, at a turning point, needs help. I am the last one to give Ailes advice, but I will anyway. He should keep a bit of a short leash on his hosts to make sure they keep those issues front and center, not themselves. Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier are both doing that well already and their shows, at least for me, are better viewing. They could all be that way. There are bigger fish to fry now than preaching to the choir — or feathering one’s own lucrative nest.