The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Bill O’Reilly says Roger Ailes always had his back. And that was precisely the problem.

Roger Ailes in 2015. (Charles Sykes/Invision via Associated Press)

Disgraced former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly writes in an op-ed for USA Today: “When stuff hit the fan, as it will when you are doing daily political commentary in a polarized nation, Roger [Ailes] had my back.” The founding chief of Fox News died at age 77, kicking off a round of polarized appreciations and condemnations.

Truer words have never come from O’Reilly, who, like Ailes, left Fox News after sustaining allegations of sexual harassment. The timing for O’Reilly was unfortunate. His big problems landed just weeks ago, after the New York Times reported that he had been involved in five settlements over the years over allegations of sexual harassment or plain workplace mistreatment. Ailes had already been ousted from the network — he left last July — and wasn’t there to make excuses for O’Reilly this time, as he was for the lion’s share of O’Reilly’s two-decade-plus career at Fox News.

Follow Erik Wemple's opinionsFollow

“He defended me in public even while sometimes mocking me in private,” writes O’Reilly in USA Today. “He was genuine, charismatic, profane, generous and sincere in his beliefs. He could be brutal verbally but if you were straight with him, he would protect you.”

Oh, Mr. O’Reilly, we know how he would protect you. He protected you after very well-substantiated questions in 2015 emerged about your tales of reporting in conflict zones across the globe. Credible folks contradicted your accounts; your explanation was that politically motivated liberals were attacking you. And Ailes had your back. “Fox News Chairman & CEO Roger Ailes and all senior management are in full support of Bill O’Reilly,” asserted a statement from the network.

And the steadfast support of Ailes surely comforted O’Reilly as he allegedly mistreated co-workers, as documented by the New York Times.

In return, O’Reilly forcefully defended Ailes after the Fox News chief himself came under fire last July as a result of a sexual harassment lawsuit from former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson. “In this country, every famous, powerful or wealthy person is a target. You’re a target,” O’Reilly said last July on Seth Meyers’s late-night show. “I’m a target. Anytime somebody could come out and sue us, attack us, go to the press or anything like that. Until America — and that’s a deplorable situation … adopts the English system of civil law whereby if you file a frivolous lawsuit and you lose, the judge has a right to make you pay all court costs. Until we adopt that very fair proposition, we’re going to have this out-of-control tabloid society that is tremendously destructive. I stand behind Roger 100 percent.”

With Ailes’s passing ends this most unsavory of friendships: Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, two aging, super-rich guys who were both accused of using their status as news big shots to pursue sexual encounters. Though journalists often pine for a boss who’ll have their back, it’s an overrated trait in the news business. The loyalties of news executives must extend to ethics and the imperatives of journalism, not to the careerism of some bigoted hack who just happens to score high ratings.