What is perhaps most disturbing about this story is the bifurcated reaction of the mainstream media. Almost no one who occupies a chair in a “respectable” media organization has taken the position that O’Reilly is a liar and Fox is filled with liars and it’s about time we stopped taking the network seriously as a news source. Rather, we hear from Politico’s Dylan Byers that “the Bill O’Reilly charges aren’t sticking.” Gabriel Sherman of New York magazine believes they have “backfired.” Jeremy Stahl in Slate says the case is “open to interpretation.” And a front-page New York Times analysis by Jonathan Mahler and Emily Steel describes O’Reilly as “a man who perhaps more than any other has defined the parameters and tenor of Fox News, in the process ushering in a new era of no-holds-barred, intentionally divisive news coverage.” The Times reporters leave it to the experts to decide whether what he says is true, though some of these experts—not incidentally, also cable-news veterans—are not so sure that it matters. “Bill’s credibility with his audience is not based on his record as a traditional journalist,” former CNN/US president Jonathan Klein told the reporters. “His credibility, in the view of his fans, is based on his trenchant analysis of the events of the day, his pulling no punches, his willingness to call it like it is”—which is apparently the way one defines lying, prevaricating and bullying in the world of cable news (and the Times’s “expert” sourcing).
With all the money it makes and all the viewers it misinforms, Fox News has become a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of the mainstream media’s own creation. O’Reilly, Ailes and Murdoch are not trying terribly hard to fool anyone. They know what business they’re in; they are feeding red-meat propaganda to (mostly elderly, white) right-wing knuckleheads. But the rest of the media allowed them to pretend to be an honest, albeit “controversial,” news organization, even as Fox sought to undermine the meaning of “news” in American political debate as well as in the professional canons that underlie it. And by consistently pretending these clowns are serious—well, now the joke’s on us.