Tone down those Bill O’Reilly departure celebrations
Here in the moist, green, and liberal Northeast, a lot of people are cheering that Fox host Bill O’Reilly was asked to leave the station. After a New York Times story that the O’Reilly and Fox had paid five women $13 million to settle sexual misconduct allegations, a combination of social media pressure and advertiser pull-back caused the Murdoch family, which owns Fox, to seek his departure. And I personally take some satisfaction in that. I never liked him much, thought he was a bully, and saw him as intellectually dishonest. But we all should hit pause for a moment on the celebrations because of the way his ouster was engineered. It sets a dangerous precedent.
I’m not a big television guy. In fact, we never made the switch to set-top box when analog went off the air. We’ve been getting our video off the Internet when necessary. On a PC, I have seen several match-ups of O’Reilly and Jon Stewart, who is as far from O’Reilly on the political spectrum as is humanly possible. I loved to watch them spar. Here’s an example. For those who prefer the long form, there’s this. Stewart never gave O’Reilly an even break, and it’s to O’Reilly’s credit that he was willing to submit to Stewart’s flamethrower wit. But, although they appeared to be nearly equals on the stage — both wealthy, well-spoken, middle-aged, white men — it’s worth pointing out the differences in their exits from their respective networks.
Stewart left with full honors, beloved by his audience, colleagues, employer, and guests. It was as if we had lost a national institution, and we sorely missed his voice during the presidential election. O’Reilly left with the string of legal tin cans tied to his tail making an increasingly loud racket as he slunk off to enjoy his millions far from public view. So, for those of us who believe in poetic justice, this moment was one of our finest.
And yet. And yet. What disturbs me is not the outcome but the methodology. Another Times story in the aftermath analyzed how O’Reilly was unseated. Essentially, organizations like Color of Change, Media Matters, and Sleeping Giants organized media campaigns quickly, mobilizing millions of people to begin a boycott of O’Reilly’s advertisers. Two-thirds of the advertisers, who had seen this narrative before, jumped out in front of the impending train wreck and pulled their ads from O’Reilly’s show. Although Fox noted that the financial impact was minimal, it did understand that the corrosiveness of the altercation could lead to worse and decided to cut its losses. All this happened during the short month of April.
O’Reilly makes a good proxy for this case because he is an unattractive protagonist. But look what just happened. A mob just ran a guy out of town on a rail, tarred and feathered. Like lynch mobs of old, the crowd was getting impatient waiting for the wheels of justice to turn and so took things into its own hands. Great that it happened to their guy. But it could happen to our guy just as easily.
We’d like to think that the populace embodies a kind of wisdom, but we know it ain’t so. Look at the outcome of our election. And that’s what the Founding Fathers understood when they created the Rube Goldberg that is our legal system. They wanted to introduce friction into the process so that the majority couldn’t easily overrun a minority. Now, O’Reilly is hardly a protected class, but it’s clear that online activist organizations have become highly self-aware and can now mobilize quickly, and that advertisers have become hyper-sensitive to these types of pressures and are increasingly likely to be proactive in pulling their ads. There’s less and less friction in the system, and, as has happened repeatedly already, technology is running far out in front of ponderous social and legal institutions.
So, while I’m happy at the proximal outcome, I’m bothered by the longer-term implications. We have entered an era of electronic mob rule, and it can’t end well.