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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.

“He seems to be kind of a pathological guy.” Bill O’Reilly biographer Marvin Kitman.

Fox News should have fired Bill O’Reilly a long time ago.

Clearly, O’Reilly should have been ousted over his years-long reported pattern of sexual harassment, which the network spent years enabling and covering up until it was forced to take action this week.

But O’Reilly also deserved to be booted from his lofty prime-time perch for shredding any semblance of ethics in journalism.

I’m thinking specifically about two years ago, when O’Reilly was caught fabricating his resume by claiming to be have been a war correspondent who had a courageous knack for popping up at dangerous hot spots around the world where he witnessed killings firsthand.

Remember? He supposedly risked it all during the Falklands War in a “war zone.” He watched as those four American churchwomen were gunned down in El Salvador in 1981. And he nearly got killed by bricks while covering the bloody 1992 L.A. riots, and witnessed first hand the trauma of an urban civil war in Northern Ireland.

Or something.

Turns out those life-threatening “combat” claims were made up.

Like a modern-day Walter Mitty, O’Reilly just concocted the tall tales in order to make his life seem more compelling and make himself seem more accomplished. It seems the closest O’Reilly ever came to combat duty was filing dispatches from the channel’s never-ending War on Christmas.

The 2015 controversy represented a humiliating and very public undressing. But Fox News didn’t seem to care, and neither did O’Reilly. (He even lied that the media firestorm had boosted his ratings.)

“In a way, it’s impossible to win a debate with O’Reilly because he is not bound by reality,” noted Mother Jones’ David Corn, who broke the story about O’Reilly’s fabrications.

And that’s been the secure bubble O’Reilly built for himself at Fox: He wasn’t bound by reality and neither were his producers or viewers, which meant all bets were off.

In 2011, Glenn Beck lost his highly rated show on Fox when advertisers fled after he called President Barack Obama a racist. That was a big deal because it pulled back the curtain of invincibility and showed that the cable news ratings giant was susceptible to online activism; that boundaries of acceptable behavior could, occasionally, be applied to Fox.

Then last summer, Fox founder and architect Roger Ailes was fired after numerous women reported that the Fox chief had harassed them.

Neither of those sackings compare to the media bombshell that went off when O’Reilly, the most-watched and highest-paid man in cable television news, was fired this week. O’Reilly’s unceremonious sacking is, hands down, the most important personnel move in Fox’s 21 years on the air.

And that’s because, in addition to being part of a seemingly systemic culture of sexual harassment at the network, O’Reilly shaped the Fox News persona. O’Reilly’s bitter, bullying, and self-pitying DNA is the same DNA that defined the channel’s jerk culture for two decades.

Yes, O’Reilly’s a liar and a nativist and a bully (to guests and staffers) who has polluted the public dialoguewithout remorse. But what also defined O’Reilly, and what helped define Fox News for much of the last 20 years, was an ingrained sense of self-aggrandizement coupled with bottomless victimization. That became Fox’s hallmark pathology, suggesting that (wealthy) white middle-aged Christian men in America face an obstacle course full of cultural and political barriers that make life unbearable.

It’s a feel-bad fantasy that revolves around the idea that powerful and often-unseen forces are working against Everyday Joes. And O’Reilly has led that gloomy parade as a kind of Eeyore figure, constantly bemoaning the state of affairs and most often blaming others, usually the less powerful.

That’s been O’Reilly’s M.O.: self-puffery fueled by narcissism and self-pity, coupled with a deeply flawed view of his own abilities. And that’s basically been the Fox News on-air model for two decades: Be brash, make stuff up, tell guests to shut up, and smear people.

And it worked. Propelled by the impeachment of Bill Clinton, followed by the Florida recount in 2000 and the relentless on-air flag waving of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, O’Reilly’s ratings at Fox News soared as he and his cohorts both delivered an openly partisan take on the news and morphed into the marketing wing of the Republican Party.

O’Reilly patented the jerk model and forged a connection with his angry viewers to the point where they didn’t care, for instance, if he fabricated his resume and lied to them about his “combat” reporting from years past.

He was a jerk. But he was their Irish, Long Island-born jerk. The one who told his aging white viewers that together they could stand at the barricades of cultural and political change.

“In a business where there are a lot of reprehensible people, he stood out as particularly dishonest, obnoxious, self-centered,” is how one former colleague described working with O’Reilly.

He was a “pompous jerk,” added Rory O’Connor, who went to high school with O’Reilly and then worked with him at Channel 5 in Boston. O’Connor told Boston magazine that O’Reilly “was despised in the newsroom —  but he didn’t care.”

Marvin Kitman, who interviewed O’Reilly more than two dozen times for the biography he wrote about the broadcaster, told Media Matters in a 2015 interview, “He’s a pretty lousy human being.”

But don’t take their word for it. Take it from the man who gave O’Reilly his Fox News perch, Roger Ailes:

I said Bill, you’re authentic. You’re an authentic prick. It’s just not on the air. Like, you’re a prick to your staff, you’re a prick to management. You’re a prick to your family. You’re authentic. You’re actually a prick. And that has allowed you to become very successful.

But it allowed him to become successful only because Fox News embraced O’Reilly’s persona and built a cable channel around it. And then it spent years looking the other way and enabling its top-rated host despite numerous incidents of reported harassment — because he made the network money.

Today, Fox is belatedly trying to clean house. But the culture runs deep.

 

Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.