Bill O’Reilly is a performance artist, and his genre is “resentment news.”

Sunday I appeared on CNN, trying, along with 'Reliable Sources' host Brian Stelter, to describe what's different about Fox News— and to explain why Bill O'Reilly isn't in trouble with his bosses for making stuff up. These are my notes.

2 Mar 2015 8:30 am 24 Comments

First, the clip:

And here are my notes, attempting to explicate what I said on CNN.

1. Fox News Channel is a niche product. A very successful niche product: news for people who don’t trust the rest of the news media. (Total audience for the three network evening newscasts: about 25-27 million. O’Reilly on his best night: 3.3 million.) If the rest of the news media is raising questions about Bill O’Reilly’s veracity, this is not only not a problem for Fox. It’s the sort of event that turns the gears of the machine. “Trust us: they’re not to be trusted.”

2. I hear this a lot from people on social media: ‘O’Reilly is an entertainer, not a journalist!’ I know what they mean. They’re not wrong. But I think it is more correct to say that O’Reilly is a performance artist. The medium is television. The genre is “resentment news.” I first wrote about it in 2003:

There’s never been a face-of-the-brand in network news who is deliberately styled hot (in McLuhan’s terms.) O’Reilly blows up a lot. He is wired for argument and controversy because he is willing to fight the spin of others with righteous spin of his own. And he has another advantage, for which he does not get enough notice. He’s willing to make fans by having active enemies. Indeed, making enemies is basic to his appeal, and that’s where Terry Gross and the rest of the establishment press factor themselves in. They supply what O’Reilly’s genre — resentment news — demands.

In 1989, Bill O’Reilly quit ABC and became host of Inside Edition, a syndicated news-derived program sold to local stations. In the Establishment’s view, this is like moving to the trailer park. Thus, it took an outsider — in fact, an outcast — to make the imaginative leap from cool to hot in evening news. Not that there weren’t models. One obvious reference point for O’Reilly’s success is Sidney Lumet’s Network, the movie classic, (1976) that projected so brilliantly what angry populism would look like if it one day seized hold of TV news.

3. Nick Lemann wrote this about O’Reilly in The New Yorker in 2006: “Like every artist, he has created a territory that is distinctively his, and under anyone else’s supervision would not cohere.” That is true. Lemann goes on:

Part of the pleasure of “The O’Reilly Factor” is knowing that O’Reilly is a guy with a temper, and he might lose it. He reddens, sits up, and presses the guest, who may begin to stammer helplessly (in which case O’Reilly usually pulls back), or to backpedal and make excuses… (in which case O’Reilly keeps boring in), or to insult O’Reilly (in which case O’Reilly may begin yelling—the big payoff). He’s the beat cop for the American neighborhood, who may have been a little excessive at times, may occasionally have run afoul of Internal Affairs, but law-abiding folks trust him because they know he’s on their side. His liberal guests are like suspects he’s pulled over: in the end, he’s probably just going to frisk them and let them go with a genial warning, but if they try anything, well, he carries a nightstick for a reason.

4. In resentment news there are different stories every day, but the narrative never changes. A corrupt elite is trying to put one over on the decent, hard-working people of this country, and to destroy the simple virtues that made America great. There are many symbols of that — the news cycle provides them — but only one thing is ever symbolized.

5. The urtext for all analyses of The O’Reilly Factor is Richard Hofstadter’s classic essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics:

I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes… It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant. Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content… The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.

6. Roger Ailes made a fateful decision when he created Fox News in 1996. He could have marketed it as the conservative alternative in news, or news that respects traditional values. That would still call out the market segment Fox is made for, and draw a contrast with the establishment media. It would have the additional advantage of being true— more or less. But as everyone knows Ailes did not do that. Instead: Fair and balanced. We report, you decide. As O’Reilly puts it: a no-spin zone. This guaranteed that a state of war with the so-called liberal media would always prevail at Fox because the obvious differences between the news agenda at Fox and the news agenda at NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS and NPR could not be explained as our spin vs. their spin. It had to be the heroic truthtellers at Fox vs. the forces of darkness at the other networks.

7. Here, Roger Ailes exploited a weakness in establishment journalism that in 1996 was dimly understood by its practitioners— or not understood at all. There was a submerged ideology in American newsrooms, populated as they were by people who were more cosmopolitan than “country,” more secular than religious. Journalists in the U.S. were vaguely progressive in the sense of welcoming social change (up to a point) and identifying (up to a point) with those who had grievances against traditional authority. Certainly there weren’t many denizens of the American newsroom eager to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop,” or who had supported the Vietnam War, or who saw Ronald Reagan as a cultural hero. And there weren’t many alert to the ideological undertow in a mission statement still popular among journalists: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Critics on the left are correct to say that if this is liberalism it is very weak tea. But critics on the right are correct to say that it sure isn’t neutral professionalism. Roger Ailes understood that the “mainstream” journalists his network was built to attack had an ideology that they were unwilling to defend, because they had never recognized it as an ideology. Instead they used terms like “news values.” They talked about standards and credibility and objectivity and being a good professional. They still do this.

It’s not that these terms didn’t mean anything, but they couldn’t capture enough to account for the world view that did in fact prevail in American newsrooms and did in fact conflict with the way a portion of the country — the conservative portion — saw things. That is the conflict that gave rise to Fox News. It was partly due to a misrecognition by journalists of their own belief system. They aren’t as liberal as the cartoon characterizations that are now commonplace on the American right, but they aren’t successful at taking the view from nowhere, either.

8. Finally, as I said on Twitter:


Great article. Clearly explais what Fox, O’Riely are about. (And why John Stewart’s takedowns are so right-on and fun.). Send it to Fox for official comment?

Howard West says:

The genius, and tragedy, of Fox News is that they’ve essentially built a one-way door for their audience. The principle narrative at Fox is that the “other guys”, the political liberals and the”Lamestream Media” to borrow a Panlin-ism, are fundamentally dishonest and morally contemptible. An audience member who accepts that narrative confers on themselves a sort of moral superiority. Rejecting or abandoning that narrative then becomes more than just changing ones mind, it almost becomes an act of social treason, taking up the cause of “those people”.

Amazing how little Colbert was able to damage O’Reilly with a decade of spot-on parody. Glad the latest revelations are at least having some effect.

Meanwhile Jon Stewart will criticize Bill behind his back, but never to his face.

Ah, but he has. Stewart has had O’Reilly on The Daily Show many times, and he has not held back.

The more I thought about the O’Reilly/Brian Williams comparison, the less relevant it seemed. It’s really O’Reilly and Jon Stewart that are the matched set. It makes sense that they have debated.

For social conservatives, instead of telling at their TV sets, there is O’Reilly, on your TV set, yelling.

For social liberals, instead of sneering at their TV sets, there is Stewart, on your TV set, sneering.

That comparison makes a lot more sense than O’Reilly and Brian Williams.

I agree and find it very interesting. Not the Williams/O’Reilly mismatch, but that Stewart is a better match than any MSNBC host (Schultz, Matthews, O’Donnell, …).

If O’Reilly and Stewart are the matched sets (which I think you are correct) it’s helpful to imagine how a similar scandal would play out should Stewart be caught lying about his personal accomplishments. It would also *not* hurt him with his audience, and moreover there would some who would say “he’s a comedian on comedy central…it’s we’d expect him to lie to make himself look good.” The ways Stewart and O’Reilly would “lose” their audience is to be less entertaining. The more I see it the more I see how the comparison is apt! I’m more curious how they are different than alike. They are mirror inverses in some ways, Stewart is sincere and pretends he is not, O’Reilly isn’t sincere but pretends his is.

Patrick Marren says:

But Stewart, as he said openly to Fox News last week, DOESN’T lie, and Fox News lies CONSTANTLY. So does O’Reilly, starting with his whole “Irish Catholic working class Levittown” shtick, which is baloney. His father was an executive, and he never lived in Levittown. He had a comfortable upper-middle class upbringing. I take that personally, because although my father also was an executive, we had 11 people living in a 2-bedroom house. The O’Reilly lies just multiply from there. Stewart, on the other hand, openly challenges Fox to come up with things he’s lied about. And they can’t find any, because he’s playing it straight and they are not.

PopeRatzo says:

That’s “both sides do it” intellectual sloppiness on your part, Mr Rosen.

I’m not a fan of either, but if you took a moment, I bet you can see the important difference between O’Reilly and Stewart.

Besides the obvious, one of them doesn’t pretend to be a straight-talking tough guy who’s been in war zones.

That’s “both sides do it” intellectual sloppiness on your part, Mr Rosen.

Is it? What did I say both sides do?

Did I say both sides claim they were in places where they were not?

Did I say both make stuff up about their journalistic heroism?

Did I say both Stewart and O’Reilly wave away any problems with factual accuracy in their biographical accounts?

Did I say they were fundamentally the same?

No. I didn’t. I said there was a stronger basis for comparison between Stewart and O’Reilly than between O’Reilly and Williams. And I said both did something with radical discontent among a portion of the viewers. Thus:

For social conservatives, instead of telling at their TV sets, there is O’Reilly, on your TV set, yelling.

For social liberals, instead of sneering at their TV sets, there is Stewart, on your TV set, sneering.

Stronger basis for comparison means we can make that comparison— and find many differences between the two, including on the ethics of making stuff up.

“Roger Ailes exploited a weakness…”

He also exploited a strength: the long-established credibility of news reported on TV.

Mankiewicz says:

Yes, O’Reilly is a TV performer, bloviator, and phony populist. He’s successfully refined that coarse TV media model developed by Joe Pyne back in the 1960’s. There’s obviously an audience for that niche.

O’Reilly does not do news/journalism. Neither does FoxNews nor ABC/CBS/NBC/CNN. Commercial charlatans with barely submerged ideology are the norm.

O’Reilly’s politics are mainstream Republican Party– big government, leftist NeoConservatism. He “shoots at liberals”, but also at capitalists, paleoconservatives, libertarians and peace advocates.The American political establishment is firmly left-liberal and left-neoconservative, with bulk of the public elsewhere.

During these days clean stand up comedy matters a lot.Even it should be as kind of that can be also suitable to listen among the family members Its an art form to deliver jokes without using profanity, nor bad four letter words, no sans overt racism or sexism, as a good comedian ‘paints mental images’ into the minds of the audience, enabling them to use their imaginations, walk along the trail of the story/joke to its ending.

jmignault says:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Tiny bit.

Tiny bit who?

I fail to see how your comment is even a tiny bit relevant to the fucking subject at hand.

Professor Rosen —

I think this post successfully catches the spirit of Ailes’ enterprise. Four points, in the spirit of amplification rather than disputation:

Motive — note that Bill O’Reilly’s first response to David Corn’s Mother Jones story was not to dispute its accuracy but to impugn its origin. This response evinces a worldview that the most important aspect of a piece of journalism is not its accuracy or falsity, but whose cause it advances. Thus, for O’Reilly, motive is the determining factor in assessing any piece of news: if the motive is pure the story is justified; if the motive is malign the story must be condemned, even if true. We must assume that this worldview applies not only to assessing the work product at guttersnipe left-wing rags, but also to the internal editorial judgment at FOX News Channel itself.

Tabloid — I am aware that PressThink’s criterion for deciding whether one is witnessing journalism at work is this test: Does this Information Reduce Uncertainty? Under such a test, tabloid journalism is anathema. The instincts of a tabloid journalist are to take factual information as raw material and to construe the most sensational, scandalous, controversial, argumentative conclusion from those raw facts. The end result almost certainly does not reduce uncertainty, but it does create a bona fide piece of tabloid journalism. FNC not only hired O’Reilly from the tabloid Inside Edition, it is also owned by Rupert Murdoch himself, Fleet Street’s king of the tabloids. In this sense, O’Reilly is certainly a journalist, albeit an entertaining one, not “an entertainer” instead. FNC’s tabloid roots are as important as its political ones in understanding Ailes’ innovation in the late ‘90s. Its graphics were splashier; its writing vernacular; its tone-of-voice less formal. Thus FNC’s overall positioning as right-wing populist is a matter of both substance and style.

Niche — the right-wing populist politics of resentment against the liberal establishment media has been a continual presence, since the invention of broadcast television news, especially with regards to its favorite bête noire CBS News. You can draw a direct line from Murrow’s challenge to Joe McCarthy…through the William Westmoreland Vietnam War documentary…to Dan Rather talking back to Richard Nixon…to the Texas Air National Guard story on 60 Minutes II. Nowadays, we tend to view the fragmentation of the news media into countless niches — some with specialist content, some ideologically inflected — as a phenomenon of the digital Internet. But for broadcasters, there was an intermediate phase of fragmentation, enabled by satellite technology. FNC followed in the footsteps of the revival of AM radio as a political-talk medium after the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. FNC’s target audience had always existed as a political segment; the new technologies of satellite and cable allowed it to be carved out from the general broadcast audience as a discrete niche.

The Cold War — I quibble with your assertion that prior to 1996, establishment journalism presented itself as being non-ideological, even while it practiced the unspoken and unadmitted ideology of weak-tea liberalism. At least as far as the network television news was concerned, there was an explicit organizing ideology that insulated it from the criticisms of niche right-wing populists. That ideology was anti-communism. The agenda and priorities of the network nightly newscasts were shaped, first and foremost, by the overarching priorities of the Cold War. The Cold War decided where foreign bureaus were located; it made the triad of White House-Pentagon-State Department the center of its inside-the-Beltway coverage; it dictated what stories would lead the nightly newscasts and what would be subsidiary. It is not that domestic wedge issues did not exist prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union; it that they were secondary to the anti-communist organizing principle. The weak-tea liberalism of network television news could only be exposed and attacked by Ailes’ tactics after the protection afforded by the Cold War had been stripped away.

Thanks, Andrew, for your thoughtful (as always) comments.

I agree about Cold War Ideology as taken-for-granted among the three major networks, except that by 1996 the memory of that period had begun to fade.

My remarks on the submerged ideology of mainstream journalism apply mostly to domestic politics. Foreign policy is a different animal.

Dan Rather on being a patriot and journalist after September 11th:

“What I want to do, I want to fulfill my role as a decent human member of the community and a decent and patriotic American. And therefore, I am willing to give the government, the President and the military the benefit of any doubt here in the beginning….”

tretower424 says:

Two Things:

1. JMIGNAULT: Congratulations! Your comment so elegantly put that guy in his place, concurrently giving us a hilarious (and non-dirty! Ha!) joke. Well-played, Sir! (Or Ma’am!)
2. Kudos for this article: Insightful, articulate and well-researched.”Resentment News”–I love it! As they say, “Bitter is the ‘New Black.'”

Bill Valenti says:

Fox News: born not to inform, but to inflame. And O’Reilly is the poster boy for the pugnacious bullshit that is Fox’s “brand”.

Richard Aubrey says:

FNC has an additional function; prediscrediting.
If a person says something which is likely true but which is inconvenient for the liberal argument, the lib says, “You got that from Faux Snews”, and, presto, the fact is discredited. Doesn’t matter if the source was, say, the BLS website. If it’s inconvenient for the libs, FNC is there to discredit it.
But, anyway, how much has Fox paid to Richard Jewell? Did FNC have to defend the TANG thingy, or was that somebody else? Who got busted blowing up trucks? Editing George Zimmerman’s talk with a dispatcher? A Zimmerman juror’s comments afterwards? Was it Fox that made up a story about McCain and an affair with a lobbyist? Ran a hit piece on Darryl Issa which had to be reluctantly withdrawn? Sent anybody to Wasilla to go through Sarah Palin’s dumpster?
Ailes would be out of a job if there wasn’t a market the rest of journalism isn’t serving. Which, as J.R. notes, they could if they had eyes to see but their “news values” prevent it.

Any self-styled “liberal” who discredits a “likely true” statement as an inconvenient falsehood is acting illiberally in the extreme.

Taking your examples, Aubrey:

Anyone who defames an innocent security guard on the say-so of an unnamed FBI source…or who relies on forgeries to bolster journalism…or who fabricates explosions…or who distorts the audio record by false editing…and so on…

…is no liberal. And anyone who justifies such behavior as an embodiment of the liberal tradition is flying under a false flag.

By definition, what it means to be “liberal” is to be skeptical, open-minded, to favor the provisional over the doctrinaire, to distrust tradition, to base one’s beliefs on evidence, to uphold relativism in morality, to embrace cultural pluralism; just as what it means to be “conservative” is to rely on tradition, to uphold eternal verities, to trust the judgment of one’s elders, to follow the established beliefs of cultural authorities, to value stability and conformity.

What you describe — attempting to discredit a true statement by calumniating its origin — is the behavior of neither a liberal nor a conservative, but of a propagandist.

Richard Aubrey says:

Andrew. Yeah. But they call themselves journalists, so there’s that.
It’s been reported that the NYT cropped George and Laura Bush out of pic of the Pettus Bridge event. If the NYT actually did that, and FNC did not, who’s wrong?
If the NYT actually did that and FNC reported it, who’s wrong?
See “rhetorical questions”.
In addition, the use of FNC as a pre-discrediting tool is not restricted to journos. It’s quite common pretty much anywhere.
I recall going around on a feminist board about male privilege and mentioned the rate of workplace deaths. “You got that from Warren Farrell” was the discrediting comment. I hadn’t heard of Farrell at that point and was referring to work comp stats. But that’s the way pre-discrediting works. I gather Farrell is not in good odor with feminists, so he’s one of the go-to guys when inconvenient facts have to be managed.

Peter Mullen says:

This post is flawed from the outset. To compare O’Reilly’s show with the Big 3 evening broadcast news shows is ridiculous. O’Reilly should be compared against the likes of Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart and other false newscasters. O’Reilly is a talk show host and that’s about it, albeit a relatively successful one based on viewership. I’ll agree that the Fox taglines are no longer accurate. They are neither fair nor balanced. But I will submit that none of the Big 3 are either. Their lack of objectivity continues to confuse the general public if not drive viewers away.

Richard Aubrey says:

As Matt Drudge said, when asked about his accuracy by a bunch of journos, that he’d not had to pay any money to Richard Jewell. The egregious screwups by electronic media haven’t been committed by FNC. Now, of course, there are all kinds of replies like…they haven’t been caught yet, and they overemphasize this or that for ideological purposes. Since nobody else does that, I guess it’s apt. But, still…. There’s no lingering scent around FNC of exploded trucks.

Kenneth Fingerman says:

Bill is quite the character on the new!

Kenneth Fingerman