One of the problems with the infotainment industry sector known as cable news is that it is, well, entertaining. Even when they’re not trying to be. To wit, during post-Irene coverage, a CNN anchor whose name escapes me, with a turd-under-the-nose blueblood sort of posture and delivery, was trying to cover first the people who were dumb enough to stay on outlying islands to the result that 2,500 of them are without road access to the mainland for perhaps two weeks. And then he tried to manage an interview with a woman who was among twenty-three stranded in a rural area of New York. The whole sequence was macabre.
But then there are the deliberate entertainers, the punditry hosts who raised FOX News to dominance or transformed the inept MSNBC into a GOP fundraising bogeyman. The persistent, even seemingly teflon Keith Olbermann has landed on his feet at Al Gore’s network, Current, with a version of Countdown that sounds much the same, and only looks any different as a matter of budget. And yes, we know Keith is politically active and wears his bias on his sleeve. Yes, we know how conservatives loathe him. But it’s so much more fun when he tells the latest story of FOX News’ Bill O’Reilly, himself a lightning rod of such comedic scale that you can’t write this kind of fiction. Mr. O’Reilly topped yesterday’s “Worst Persons in the World” list, and Olbermann clearly enjoyed the hell out of explaining the logic behind that:
You may recall years ago before he was fired from his syndicated radio show, that a caller mentioned my name to O’Reilly and he responded by saying that the caller’s name would then be turned over to Fox security, and soon he’d be receiving a little visit from the police. You may also recall there was a little problem with Bill and one of his producers, and his phone calls to her about three-ways and loofahs, and improbably about falafels.
Today, the two topics merged into one. This is going to be easier if I just read the first paragraph directly. Shall I?
“Last summer, Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly came to believe that his wife was romantically involved with another man. Not just any man, but a police detective in the Long Island community they call home. So, O’Reilly did what any concerned husband would do, he pulled strings to get the police department’s internal affairs unit to investigate one of their own for messing with the wrong man’s lady.”
Wait, Internal Affairs investigated Mrs. O’Reilly’s alleged internal affair?
Gawker has identified the Nassau County Internal Affairs Unit detective actually assigned to investigate Billo’s alleged cuckolder. “The source provided contemporaneous e-mail traffic to support his account. He told me, ‘You’ll never guess what happened to me the other day. Do you know Bill O’Reilly?’ I got called into my boss’ office saying they wanted me to meet with these two PIs”—that would be Private Investigators—”working for O’Reilly to go over some information because a detective was having an affair with O’Reilly’s wife.”
He’ll turn this over to Fox Security! He’ll be receiving a little visit from the local authorities!
“The investigation was highly sensitive for two reasons, the source said. One, it was ordered directly by then-police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey, and, two, O’Reilly was at the time considering making a major donation to the Nassau County Police Department Foundation, a private, not-for-profit foundation Mulvey helped found in 2009 to raise money for construction of a planned $48 million police training facility at Nassau Community College. These internal affairs cops were on the case at the behest of Mulvey in order to get O’Reilly’s funds,” the source said.
Oh, great. So now it’s not trying to get the cops to get a cop to stop an alleged affair with Mrs. O’Reilly. It’s trying to get the cops to stop a cop to stop an alleged affair with Mrs. O’Reilly, in exchange for donations to the policemen’s charity. So where’s the evidence?
Unfortunately Gawker not only has records of Mrs. Billo buying her own house down the street from the family home, and being removed as a director of the O’Reilly Family Foundation, but the Nassau Police Commissioner kind of confirmed the investigation when he told them, “I don’t know if the investigation is ongoing or concluded,” Mulvey said, “so I wouldn’t comment.” You just did.
This sort of tabloid infamy does, of course, detract from our political culture in many ways, but one contribution that seems overlooked is the fact that these sorts of scandals distill for viewers and voters the basic integrity of the people they trust to deliver them any sort of information. Bill O’Reilly is a standard bearer of the FOX News political operation. To the one, there is a question of the unnamed source; certainly the story told Gawker, of all outlets, could be a pop-culture political play. To another, even setting aside the questions of whether or not O’Reilly gave money to a police charity and what that suggestion might have to do with the internal affairs investigation, we still get to see further evidence of the farce about conservative “family values” politicking. In terms of human beings, of course we always hope a marriage apparently on the rocks can be secured or otherwise resolved amicably. But in terms of one whose celebrity presently orbits conservative politics, including assertions of moral propriety, well, Bill wanted to cheat on his wife, his wife apparently cheated on him, she’s moved out and been kicked out of the family charitable foundation—it makes much of the politicking something of a farce. Marriage equality advocates and sympathizers can chortle at the sanctity of the O’Reilly marriage if they are so inclined, and mock conservative “family values” arguments. Those focused on corruption can enjoy the whiff of political favors in exchange for money. Liberals get more ammunition against the conservative push to keep government out of people’s lives.
The idea that Mr. and Mrs. O’Reilly have failed to respect the sanctity of their marriage is not particularly important. But the irony arising from the tale is a tempting smorgasboard most likely poisonous throughout. The schadenfreude is powerful but corrupting. Yes, many will find some measure of satisfaction in Bill O’Reilly’s latest embarrassment. Certainly, Olbermann does, as will many of his viewers. But in the end it is not the apparently decaying O’Reilly marriage that is so important but, rather, what the details of this sordid episode suggest.
We can certainly denounce Mr. Olbermann for enjoying the latest twist in a long-running dispute of both personal and professional natures, but the tale underscores the paucity of the FOX News pogrom against reality. Once again, we see the impracticality of the conservative sociomoral platform. And, indeed, once again we are reminded that Bill O’Reilly, one of the most prominent of conservative propaganda mouthpieces in the nation, continues to carry certain baggage that causes the appearance of his integrity to sag. The gravity of the stakes is what makes it important. This is the platform in motion. And this is the mouthpiece stripped bare. Whether it is the drug-addled misery of a radio host, or a prominent homophobe having his luggage lifted by a gay prostitute, or a television star failing to thrill either his wife or the producer he wanted to cheat with, what comes through most clearly is an appearance of hypocrisy, and the implication that everyone in the world ought to be aware of just how useless the conservative sociomoral lament really is.
There is a reason conservatives cannot live up to their vaunted Golden Age of Family Values: it never really existed.