Years of sexual harassment allegations and settlements finally caught up to Bill O'Reilly Wednesday, when 21st Century Fox parted ways with Fox News Channel's biggest star and the most popular personality on cable TV news. But O'Reilly's surgical removal from Fox isn't likely to cure cable networks of the disease he helped spread: a culture of on-air bullying and humiliation that now infects programs across the channel lineup.
To the contrary, Fox announced that it was filling the vacuum left by O’Reilly’s departure with Tucker Carlson, another combative host whose specialty appears to be making guests he disagrees with squirm. This conversation-as-blood-sport approach goes back at least to “The McLaughlin Group” and “Crossfire,” two political talk shows that spiced up substantive discussions with contentiousness, but it became a prime-time staple in the O’Reilly era. News anchors, political observers, celebrity chefs, hosts of true-crime shows, sports analysts, stock pickers — there was a bumper crop of TV personalities eager to shout down or talk over opposing viewpoints.
Lamenting the decline of honest debate and enlightening exchanges is a bit like arguing that croquet should be more popular than boxing. Humans like to watch conflict, and savvy TV executives indulge them. Still, O’Reilly could have used his enormous viewership and audience loyalty to try to temper the growing polarization and anger in society. Instead, he fed the toxic sentiment that undergirds our divisions, portraying the people who disagreed with him as not just wrong, but corrupt, morally bankrupt and dangerous to real Americans.
It’s worth noting that Fox acted only after a New York Times report brought O’Reilly’s copious settlements to the surface, prompting advertisers to flee his program in droves. The controversy didn’t hurt his appeal among viewers — to the contrary, his ratings increased in recent weeks — but it threatened Fox’s bottom line. That led Fox to apply again the principles it discovered last year when it parted ways with the news network’s former chairman and harasser in chief, Roger Ailes. Once again, ad dollars speak more loudly than female employees.
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