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Opinion Bill O’Reilly, a man without a counterattack

Bill O’Reilly. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)
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Every so often, Fox News superstar Bill O’Reilly gets himself in trouble for infractions ranging from the slight to the serious. His detractors — this blog included — proceed to take a multi-platform approach to hammering him for his stupidity/offensiveness/nastiness/other. Being a combative and engaging sort of fellow, the King of Cable News appears to delight in answering the critics. And those lash-backs share a little something in common.

Dial back to the 2012 presidential election. As returns were flowing in with bad news for Republican candidate Mitt Romney, O’Reilly commented on the set of Fox News: “It’s not a traditional America anymore, and there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.” The Post editorial board knocked the host for his suggestion. “In other words, the problem was too many voters of color,” wrote The Post at the time.

Such criticism, inveighed O’Reilly in a heated rebuttal, was evidence of The Post’s “far left” orientation. “Pinheads” also got some rotation in the pushback.

There was a playbook at work. In 2015, a number of news organizations reported on a series of exaggerations/embellishments/lies that O’Reilly had told regarding his past reportorial exploits in conflict zones such as Argentina, Florida, Central America and other places. David Corn of Mother Jones (where — full disclosure — the wife of the Erik Wemple Blog works) led that particular round of reporting. O’Reilly’s response? “This guy is [a] far-left assassin,” said O’Reilly. Also: “Mother Jones and the far-left websites couldn’t care less about the truth. They’re in the business to injure. This is a political hit job.”

Last summer, O’Reilly claimed that the slaves who built the White House were “well fed” and were provided with “decent lodgings.” An enormous number of people familiar with the horrors of slavery offered feedback. O’Reilly responded, in kind, with a tweet hammering the “far left loons” responsible for an alleged distortion of his assessment, which was prompted by remarks from then-first lady Michelle Obama.

According to reports, Fox News settled a sexual-harassment case against popular host Bill O'Reilly and the network's co-president, Jack Abernethy. The complaint was filed by former host Juliet Huddy. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

Moving up the timeline a few months, O’Reilly sampled the widespread dissatisfaction with a segment by protege Jesse Watters, who last October rolled through New York City’s Chinatown in search of comments on the presidential election. What he churned out, however, were Asian stereotypes. This backlash, O’Reilly said in a chat with colleague Chris Wallace, was the work of “far-left websites, far-left precincts.”

Now O’Reilly is really in trouble. He’s under scrutiny not for stuff he’s said on air, but for stuff he did off air. A Saturday New York Times article detailed how O’Reilly and Fox News paid out $13 million in settlements to five former staffers who had suffered alleged sexual harassment or just plain abuse from the host. There’s a former on-air personality (Juliet Huddy); a former junior producer (Rachel Witlieb Bernstein); a former anchor (Laurie Dhue); a former “O’Reilly Factor” producer (Andrea Mackris); and a former Fox Business host (Rebecca Gomez Diamond). In response to these complaints, O’Reilly came up with the implausible explanation that the settlements were a means of protecting his family.

Just like other prominent and controversial people, I’m vulnerable to lawsuits from individuals who want me to pay them to avoid negative publicity. In my more than 20 years at Fox News Channel, no one has ever filed a complaint about me with the Human Resources Department, even on the anonymous hotline.
But most importantly, I’m a father who cares deeply for my children and who would do anything to avoid hurting them in any way. And so I have put to rest any controversies to spare my children.
The worst part of my job is being a target for those who would harm me and my employer, the Fox News Channel. Those of us in the arena are constantly at risk, as are our families and children. My primary efforts will continue to be to put forth an honest TV program and to protect those close to me.

As we pointed out in a previous post, other cable news titans are also “in the arena” and are not forced to pay out big settlements to complainants. Nor does the protect-the-family excuse take into account O’Reilly’s vindictiveness. Joe Muto, the famed former Fox News “mole,” worked for years as a producer for the “O’Reilly Factor” before being outed and ousted for his interior spying. “If he thought somebody was trying to rip him off about harassment allegations, he’d fight to the death before giving up an single dime. He’d rather spend $10 million in legal fees fighting a case of someone he believed was lying about him than paying them off to go away,” says Muto, who expressed a qualified admiration for O’Reilly in his book “An Atheist in the FOXhole: A Liberal’s Eight-Year Odyssey Inside the Heart of the Right-Wing Media.” “In his mind, protecting the family would be fighting the allegations rather then letting them go away quietly.”

On his show Monday night — the first since the New York Times’s article — O’Reilly was silent on this topic.

There’s a reason why O’Reilly’s defense is so awkward, oblique and unconvincing: These accusers cannot be feasibly accused of serving some “far-left” agenda. They worked, after all, at Fox News and Fox Business.