Bill O'Reilly reveled in tearing women down and his audience loved it
As I rode the Q train to Midtown Manhattan, I looked over my notes nervously. I tried to recall my media training: Just focus on three things that you really want to get across. Don't say "I think" or "I believe"; launch right in with confidence. Don't just dutifully answer his questions; bridge to the points I want to make. Was my secondhand blazer clean? Were my earrings "appropriate"? Would the makeup artist think my eyebrows were out of control?
I was in my late 20s and headed to The O'Reilly Factor to defend now-deceased journalist Helen Thomas. O'Reilly had referred to her as the "Wicked Witch of the East," and I was joining the show to argue that the most veteran White House correspondent (she covered 10 presidencies) should be evaluated on the basis of her reporting — not on her appearance or age. I felt like an amateur boxer being sent in to fight a heavyweight — intimidated, sure, but also savvy to the fact that being young had its advantages. I was hungry and on the right side of the issue; that had to count for something.
After getting makeup slathered on my face and my frizzy hair straightened beyond recognition, they led me in to get mic-ed up and sit in the hot seat. O'Reilly walked in a few moments later; sat down in his chair, which was raised several inches above all the others; swiveled toward me; and without so much as a hello, barked, "Do you even know what you're here to talk about?"
This moment flashed back to me as I read the headlines of his fall from seeming invincibility this week. Fox News fired O'Reilly after a smart and unrelenting campaign by Color of Change and others to get his advertisers to pull out — causing real economic stress at the notoriously unaccountable television network — and a savvy legal strategy led by Lisa Bloom defending the women accusing O'Reilly of sexual harassment. His off-air behavior, it turns out, mirrored his on-air rhetoric: consistently objectifying and belittling women and people of color.
Just seconds after O'Reilly sat down, the flashing red light fired and we were live.
The debate went fine. I surprised myself by repeatedly calling him "Bill," as if to cut him down to size. I managed to get my talking points in. I held my ground, even scoring a pretty good punch by pointing out that feminists like me stood behind every woman's right to be evaluated based on the quality of her work, not her appearance — even conservative women like Sarah Palin.
He promised on the show to apologize the next day on-air if I had, in fact, ever personally defended Palin's right to be judged based on her leadership capacity rather than her clothes. I sent his producer a blog post that I'd written a few months earlier for Feministing not only defending Palin in exactly such a manner, but against him no less. (He had lambasted her on The View over the price of her wardrobe.) He gave a sort of patronizing apology the next day, practically winking as he told his viewers that the young woman he'd had on the show the previous day had caught him. His whole posture and tone read, "Boys will be boys, am I right?"
Though I'd written multiple books by then, my chyron simply read "Feminist" — a telling sign in and of itself as to what O'Reilly and his team thought about my credentials. In their world, either you're an old hag, like Helen Thomas, or you're a rabid feminist, like me. None of our actual work meant shit inside of O'Reilly's studio. Our value was our capacity to fill roles in his own bizarro world of extremes, not our knowledge or experience (as expertise is actually defined). Caricature is at the core of conservative media's operating model; lure people like me on with the allure of five seconds of fame and a false sense of righteousness, and you've got yourself "good television." Problem is, such "good television" creates hateful citizens. Real viewers saw the real world through O'Reilly's notoriously reductive lens.
No one would be made smarter by our debate. We were just performing our roles. He was the angry father and I was the rebellious daughter, being put in my place. It was a cathartic exercise for his viewers. Like any superhero villain, he needed a symbol of opposition — a generic feminist, bleeding-heart liberal or person of color — in order to demonstrate his ferocity and make himself feel big and tough. In many ways, it was a waste of time and energy. My feminist mentors may have admired me for standing up to the guy, but what I was really doing — at the end of the day — was playing a bit part in his decades-long campaign against anyone that doesn't look, talk and think like him.
Worst of all, my presence energized his followers. When I got back to my apartment that night and opened my laptop, my jaw dropped at the number of new emails in my inbox. I'd never seen anything like it — email after email, hundreds over a few days, referring to me in every single sexist term you can imagine (and some you probably can't). To make things really meta, the majority of them attacked my appearance.
The story I told my parents and anyone else who was worried about me was that it didn't bother me in the least; that's the story I've been telling myself all these years. And yet, I'm struck that I can still remember a few of the barbs in detail. They seeped in. Stuck with me. When I was getting my makeup done before the show started, I had chatted with the producer a bit, realizing that we had gone to the same high school back in Colorado Springs. So when the flood of misogyny came, I thought I'd let him know. He seemed like a decent guy. His response? In a nutshell: "That's horrible. We would never condone that kind of behavior."
Condone? That would be timid. How about model and fuel? And, of course, now we know that O'Reilly wasn't just modeling on-air, but behind the scenes, too.
Which is to say, The O'Reilly Factor wasn't a performance. No matter how much conservative pundits (and probably a few liberal ones) would like to believe they are just "putting on a show" for their viewers, there are real consequences. Hearts and minds are shaped. Citizens are influenced. Policy is impacted. Is it any wonder that a reality television star was elected president when so many Americans have grown accustomed to watching bullies reduce people to types and fan the flames of fear every night on the news?
News, at its best, is about reporting on the urgent issues of the day, teasing out their nuances and making citizens smarter. It's supposed to be a mechanism for fixing society. The O'Reilly Factor was all about tearing it down, making its viewers feel fearful of other Americans and nostalgic for a past that never even existed.
His fall matters. It means that a critical mass of Americans, symbolized by the advertisers that responded to their advocacy, are done playing his game. I'm under no illusion that Fox is going to hold sexual harassers accountable company-wide or change its operating model. A doppelgänger has already been hired to replace him.
What matters is not what happens next at Fox. What matters is what happens next with all of us who spoke out against this kind of discrimination and dumbing down of our political discourse. There is a locker room full of heavyweight bullies pulling punches on the American public — and maybe, just maybe, their time has come.