Last week, Frank Rich wrote a lengthy essay for New York magazine meticulously making the case for why it might be time to ignore Fox News, that despite seeming to be a powerhouse when it comes to ratings the network is actually in a very serious slide into oblivion. One of the points he made in support of this theory is that Fox News's bread-and-butter is spewing angry talking points and made-up scandals meant to confirm the biases of its audience -- and that audience, while relentlessly devoted, is growing smaller by the day. The number of new viewers it's luring into its epistemic bubble isn't enough to make up for the current viewers it's hemorrhaging and will continue to as they age out.
Fox News knows this. It really does. Roger Ailes doesn't want to admit it, but the moves he recently made in prime-time prove he understands the reality that his creation's fortunes are changing. You know who else knows this? Bill O'Reilly. His pre-Super Bowl interview with Barack Obama the other night, which could have and should have been a genuine news-making bonanza, turned out to be exactly what you would've expected from him and Fox News: it was a laughable rehashing of every inane conservative "gotcha" of the last couple of years, just put to the man who's been at the center of Fox News's derangement during all of it. Instead of real questions and a hearty debate, even an aggressive and adversarial one, you got Benghazi, the IRS, and the Obamacare rollout glitches. Contrary to the cacophony over these supposed issues inside the Fox bubble, most Americans don't consider any of them top-priority or even moderate-priority items. To Fox News's fanatics, they're huge; to everyone else, they hardly matter. And that, in a nutshell, is everything that's wrong with Fox News.
O'Reilly has never taken criticism very well; he's a notorious hothead in general. But his furious reaction to an article by the Washington Post's Dana Milbank is more than just O'Reilly being O'Reilly; it reveals the frustration of a man who realizes he and his organization aren't being taken very seriously by anyone outside the bubble. For years, Fox News was at least somewhat coddled by its objective counterparts in the press simply because media people have a gentleman's agreement about beating up on each other. Between its waning influence, though, and the desperate flailing it's doing in response to it, as well as Gabriel Sherman's recent Ailes autobiography that reduced the mighty leader of Fox News to so much pop culture carrion, the gloves are off. Milbank's column in the wake of the Super Bowl Sunday interview cleanly dissected the amount of time that O'Reilly spent on each Fox News shibboleth and structured it as a series of percentages. 40% of the interview was spent on Benghazi; 30% on the Obamacare rollout; 20% on the supposed targeting of conservative organizations by the IRS (what was, in reality, nonsense). He also said that he counted 42 times that O'Reilly seemed to be hostile toward the president.
In response to this column, O'Reilly basically lost his shit.
From Talking Points Memo:
"He's a weasel, in my opinion. Beneath contempt," O'Reilly told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.
O'Reilly said that Milbank shouldn't expect an invitation to the "No Spin Zone" anytime soon partly because "the audience despises him."
But O'Reilly couldn't care less about Milbank.
"I care that the Washington Post employs him," O'Reilly said. "That's what I care about. Whatever he says, doesn't bother me because I know where it's coming from. But the fact that the Washington Post would employ a guy like that — I mean, it's really disturbing."
Really, it's not about Milbank.
"But I’m not on a jihad against Milbank. I’m on a jihad, a holy war, against declining standards of journalism. The Washington Post editors — if they watched the interview, which, God knows if they did or not — had to know that Milbank was lying," O'Reilly continued.
"And they had to know that he was lying for a reason, that he’s a far-left zealot. It’s okay to be a liberal columnist, but once you cross the line into lying to promote what you want, then the paper’s got to take action.”
So, yeah, Milbank basically breaks down the interview piece by piece to show how divided the country is politically, and O'Reilly calls him a weasel and thinks the Post should fire him. Now granted, O'Reilly is speaking to his regular conservative audience on Hewitt's show; he's back in friendly territory. He can say whatever he wants and be assured that no one will fact check him. But his response is, even for O'Reilly, a little over-the-top. Disregarding the comical claim that O'Reilly, who works for Fox News, is concerned about the "declining standards of journalism," he seems to truly be angry that he got to sit down with the president of the United States and it's being brushed off as just another stunt from the red-headed stepchild of the cable news media. For all his bluster and occasional phony insouciance, O'Reilly really does want to be taken seriously as a newsperson.
Unfortunately for him, the only place he's taken seriously is at Fox News. Safely inside the bubble. And that's a problem for both him and Fox News.