In a farewell segment to recently fired host Bill O’Reilly, “The Late Show’s” Stephen Colbert thanked the former Fox News star. He had, after all, inspired the “conservative gasbag” character that Colbert rode to fame on “The Colbert Report.”
“I owe a lot to Bill O’Reilly,” Colbert said Wednesday. “I spent over nine years playing a character based largely on him — and then 12 months in therapy, to de-bloviate myself.”
It was one of dozens of celebrity goodbyes (or good riddances) to O’Reilly on Wednesday, a man who ripped up and reshaped the modern media landscape over his 20-year reign at the Fox News Channel.
The blustery, argumentative “O’Reilly Factor” host led a conservative revolution against what he often described as “the liberal mainstream media,” brazenly breaching the wall between political commentary and “no-spin” reporting. On Fox News, which was essentially built around O’Reilly, the old model of balanced, if dueling, punditry was replaced by just one voice: his. The man, not the news, was the star.
With O’Reilly, Fox News became the nation’s top-rated and most influential cable news network, holding sway over public opinion, an increasingly divided and divisive cultural conversation and, inevitably, election outcomes.
It’s hard to imagine that Donald Trump would have had a viable path to the presidency if not for that other cocky white guy who’d been lamenting the death of American greatness since the ’90s.
O’Reilly’s talking points often set the agenda for the rest of right-leaning media, his Fox co-workers and the stump speeches by many elected conservatives on Capitol Hill. “Liberal values are being jammed down our throats,” was a common O'Reilly refrain. “Fair-minded, American traditionalists” were under siege by a politically correct nation of “snowflakes.”
Whether a deep belief or a brilliant marketing strategy, O’Reilly leveraged that sentiment into a multi-million dollar media empire that included multiple bestselling books, all while sounding as defiant and argumentative as your stubborn blowhard uncle.
He warned about the dangers of rap music. He was personally outraged by the public outrage over a Trump tweet: “Happy #CincoDeMayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!,” tweeted the presidential hopeful last May. O’Reilly saw nothing wrong with the holiday greeting and rolled his eyes as he asked, “Eating a taco on Cinco de Mayo is now offensive?” And he provided a positive spin to Michelle Obama’s negative take on slavery: The slaves who built the White House “were well-fed and had decent lodgings,” he argued.
He had the moxie and cachet to bulldoze out of any tight spot and still flatten the competition.
O’Reilly was too big and too bossy to fail … until he was fired this week following numerous sexual harassment allegations launched an internal investigation at the network.
“I have been extremely proud to launch and lead one of the most successful news programs in history,” he said in an apology-free statement released Wednesday. “It is tremendously disheartening that we part ways due to completely unfounded claims. But that is the unfortunate reality many of us in the public eye must live with today.”
It’s another huge blow to Fox News, whose chairman and chief executive, Roger Ailes was fired last summer because of sexual harassment claims filed against him. The fall of both media giants raises big questions about where Fox goes next.
Both men were instrumental in creating a cable TV news-scape cut along party lines. You like Trump? Watch Sean Hannity on Fox. A fan of Obama? Rachel Maddow on MSNBC is for you. Offer viewers what they want to hear rather than what they should know.
And the more controversy, the better. O’Reilly addressed the lack of federally recognized Jewish holidays like this: “Overwhelmingly, America is Christian … if you are really offended you got to go to Israel, then.” His description of U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters’ hair: It looked like “a James Brown wig.”
O’Reilly referred numerous times about his experience in a combat zone while covering the Falklands War as a CBS News correspondent and wrote in a memoir how he’d been one of the few reporters brave enough to wade into a violent protest in Argentina. His claims were refuted by former colleagues, historical footage and basic facts stemming from those events. He stubbornly held his ground until the controversy fizzled.
Similar claims against NBC’s Brian Williams involving a war assignment he claimed to be on in Iraq forever affected the younger anchor’s career after he apologized for saying he was somewhere he was not. O’Reilly didn’t not miss the chance to rip on William’s shameful “distortions.”
It was a hubris that made for great comedy.
Jon Stewart’s version of “The Daily Show” premiered within a few years of O'Reilly's. The two hosts, like classmates you can’t choose, essentially grew up together. If anyone came to represent the red state/blue state polarization of the country, it was them. And Colbert, once a “Daily Show” correspondent, found his inspiration, modeling “The Colbert Report” off “The Factor.”
Colbert made absurd blanket statements with a narcissistic confidence, leaning into the camera with a raised eyebrow and knowing smirk. O’Reilly was in on the joke, however. He appeared more than once on Colbert’s show. Little did he know he was influencing a generation of other left-leaning, future hosts in his wake such as John Oliver and Samantha Bee.
It didn’t seem all that surprising, however, that the veteran anchor indulged Colbert. O’Reilly often seemed as amused with his own on-screen persona as Colbert was.
He didn’t bleed his words like the furious and emotional Glenn Beck or come off as serious and strident as Hannity. He appeared entertained by his lightning-rod status, no matter the evening’s talking points (the American Civil Liberties Union is “fascist,” the left wants “power taken away from the white establishment.”)
O’Reilly was, after all, shaped by a “mainstream media” that he’d later dismiss at every turn. He was a weatherman and local reporter in the 1970s, a correspondent for CBS in the ’80s, and eventually an anchor and host for the TV tabloid news magazine, “Inside Edition.”
When Fox hired O’Reilly to host his own show, then called “The O’Reilly Report,” in 1996, it was three years into President Clinton’s first term. Far-right radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh were cultural phenomenons. Fox News and O’Reilly were television’s answer.
Now, when America has a dedicated fan of Fox News in the White House, its biggest star has taken a hit. Other personalities from the far-right news cycle are also feeling the strain.
Stephen K. Bannon, who ran the popular far-right digital news platform Breitbart News Network before becoming President Trump’s advisor, is reportedly being pushed out of the inner circle of the White House.
Milo Yiannopoulos, the alt-right’s premier media star, lost a six-figure book deal and his title as Breitbart columnist over remarks that critics said endorsed pedophilia.
Colbert, whose ratings have surged since Trump took office, addressed the sudden absence of the media’s most prominent conservative voice Wednesday.
“O’Reilly’s suddenly off the air,” he said. “He was here like a week ago, and then gone.… This is huge. It’s like looking at your front yard and the big oak tree is just gone. I’m sure the oak tree said some disturbing things about young black men, what with their rap music and neck tattoos, but it had been there forever, and your grandpa liked to stare at it.”
And without the news media’s tallest tree throwing shade, it’s unclear what the future holds for the legions of reporters, shows and fans he infuriated — and influenced.