It’s only fitting Donald Trump would speak out in support of Bill O’Reilly, as he did Wednesday. Because, were it not for the precedent set by this most unorthodox of presidents, the embattled Fox News anchor would be facing an entirely different set of circumstances than the predicament he finds himself in now.
That may seem a strange notion; after all, Trump doesn’t have anything to do with the sexual harassment allegations unearthed by The New York Times earlier this week that discovered $13 million in settlements paid over the years by O’Reilly’s employer to multiple women accusing him of serious misbehavior.
But there is a subtle but profound Trump-O’Reilly connection here, one that speaks to the tone the new president’s administration has set for the country’s cultural climate.
There was a time not too long ago when the allegation of serial sexual harassment was a guaranteed career killer, as Bill Cosby and O’Reilly’s svengali, Roger Ailes, found out the hard way. In the cruel optics of media-driven scandals, the veracity of their misdeeds was almost besides the point; the mere whiff of a lot of smoke meant American consumers would conclude there was, in fact, a fire, which led to their downfall.
But those incidents occurred before another similar impropriety came to light late last year. Surely, it was thought, a presidential candidate couldn’t possibly survive the existence of an audio recording that demonstrated the brute awfulness with which he proudly professed to treat women.
But that’s just what Trump did.
And if enough of the nation voted to get him into office, that essentially absolves him of the sin he committed: boasting to “Access Hollywood’s” Billy Bush about grabbing a woman’s private parts, all while being taped.
Consequently, the America that came out the other side of this election is not the same one as before. Its collective moral compass has been re-calibrated. What we expect of public figures has changed; the bar has been lowered.
So if a presidential candidate could successfully deflect everything the way Teflon Don did over the past year, the calculus over at Fox News might be that O’Reilly could weather his own storm. Or at least he and Fox News could be emboldened to think they could.
Which is why, so far, their counteroffensive is to simply batten down the hatches in silence. Had this occurred in 2016, we would have seen the parent company move quicker to at least pay lip service to the outrage that has fueled all these advertiser pullouts.
While roughly half the country may be apoplectic over Fox News doing nothing to reprimand O’Reilly, here’s what 21st Century Fox is thinking: Those people aren’t O’Reilly’s audience. To Fox News viewers, O’Reilly’s crisis is playing out entirely in a parallel universe populated by liberals motivated by hatred toward them. In the conservative world, the Susan Rice saga is the morality play of the week. It sharpens their own animus toward left wingers, whose combination of ignoring Rice while fixating on O’Reilly is just another symptom of what they see as liberal hypocrisy.
As for Trump himself, once again the unthinkable becomes the new normal: A sitting president speaks out in support of a man under a cloud of suspicion for heinous conduct. This would have never happened just a short time ago, which is exactly what advantages O’Reilly. There’s new rules to the game, and Fox News is playing by them.