Melinda Henneberger

Melinda Henneberger: Bill O’Reilly thinks our values have slipped, and he’s right about that

Wendy Walsh, a former “O’Reilly Factor” guest, says Fox host Bill O’Reilly invited her to dinner, offered her a job, then turned on her when she wouldn’t follow him to his hotel room.
Wendy Walsh, a former “O’Reilly Factor” guest, says Fox host Bill O’Reilly invited her to dinner, offered her a job, then turned on her when she wouldn’t follow him to his hotel room. AP

Moralizing is dangerous work, as any number of former TV preachers could have told Bill O’Reilly.

Did the hypocrisy that led to their humiliation keep him from repeating their mistakes or stop the Fox host from wagging his finger at America? Nah. Papa Bear is no snowflake, after all.

In fact, the importance of not being one of those feathery, easy-to-melt bits of weather is the subject of O’Reilly’s new book, “Old School: Life in the Sane Lane.” It’s co-written with his old college friend Bruce Feirstein, the James Bond screenwriter and satirist whose 1982 book “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche” also pined for the days when “Men were men. Women were sex objects.” (And as my old college friend, the math teacher Rose Sterr, always says, “Behind every little tease is just a little bit of truth.”)

The pair’s well-timed new book offers readers life lessons — specifically, how to live by the code of 1950s and 1960s Long Island, where O’Reilly grew up, in a time when you would not have caught James Dean “pulling a Bruce Jenner.”

“Now,” by contrast, the best-seller explains, “there is an ongoing conversation between traditional Americans and those who want a kinder, gentler landscape full of ‘conversations’ and group hugs, folks who believe that life must be fair and that, if it is not, there has to be a ‘safe space’ available where they can cry things out. I cringe when I see this kind of stuff and immediately time travel” to a place where problems were settled physically — fists only — where parents were “told nothing unless the police or fire department arrived,” and where “boys never bothered girls because of the ‘Brother and his large friends’ rule.”

Since sexual harassment thus did not exist in the Old School, well obviously there was no need for any silly snowflake training on that topic. Only, as The New York Times reported April 1, Mr. Old School and his employer have nonetheless paid out some $13 million to five women who — brothers and their large friends notwithstanding — accused O’Reilly of sexual harassment over the years. O’Reilly says he repeatedly paid large sums to settle these false claims only to protect his children.

President Donald Trump, who bragged about grabbing women’s genitals on that 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape, stood up for his friend O’Reilly and said his only mistake was to settle. Fans are sticking by him, too; viewership of O’Reilly’s top-rated show not only hasn’t suffered any, but is up about 10 percent since the original story ran. Maybe he’s not guilty, supporters say — or no more so than Bill Clinton, whose “master of disaster” crisis communications expert O’Reilly has hired.

Still, O’Reilly is now on vacation, either until April 24 or forever, reportedly while the Murdochs who own Fox debate his utility. 21st Century Fox has now hired the same law firm that investigated harassment allegations against O’Reilly’s ousted former boss, Roger Ailes. This time, they’re to look into an allegation from former “O’Reilly Factor” guest Wendy Walsh that he invited her to dinner, told her he wanted to hire her, then turned on her when she wouldn’t follow him to his hotel room.

If he does lose his job, it will be because the market served as a moral force of last resort; dozens of advertisers no longer want to be associated with O’Reilly’s show.

If that happens, it won’t herald a victory for the snowflakes and “whiners” O’Reilly can’t stop whining about. But that it took Fox so long to launch a probe does prove his point that some old-school values no longer apply.

That’s why Fox will oust O’Reilly only if he costs them more than he makes them. It’s why much of the public only believes or cares about allegations against those with whom they disagree. And it’s a problem the market can’t solve.

This column originally appeared in USA Today.

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