In 2015, George Will wrote, “were the lungs the seat of wisdom, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly would be wise, but they are not and he is not.” This week O’Reilly was fired by Fox News, after an internal investigation documented an extended and highly credible history of sexual assault allegations against Mr. O’Reilly. The end of “The O’Reilly Factor” ultimately proves that sheer lungpower is an insufficient remedy for years of vicious and predatory abuse. Because O’Reilly was the dominant figure in American news media for more than a decade, the public will have to come to terms with the legacy of the “No Spin Zone.” But this sort of soul searching is particularly vital here in Cambridge, because like it or not, William James O’Reilly Jr. is a Harvard man.
Harvard produced the person who actually said Morehouse Professor Marc Lamont Hill “looks like a Cocaine dealer.” Who infamously argued that it is impossible to scientifically explain oceanic tides. Who casually explained that black Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ “James Brown wig” is ample reason to ignore her political opinions. For O’Reilly, the ACLU were “terrorists,” same-sex marriages were indistinguishable from bestiality, and homeless people were “criminals” busy “urinating and defecating in the streets.” In 2014, O’Reilly ventured that “there has to be some downside to having a woman president, something that may not fit with that office.” In 2007, he said the female mayor of Virginia Beach should be “at home baking pies.” At times, viewing “The O’Reilly Factor” was difficult. Most decent people would be uneasy watching Mr. O’Reilly scream at the son of a 9/11 victim, or call George Will a “hack,” all on national television. The list goes on.
Very few people live their entire lives without saying something they regret. Good people often say deeply evil things. In 2008, Barack Obama hatefully and memorably attacked rural Americans, claiming they “cling to guns and religion.” There is, however, an obvious distinction between an isolated remark followed by a prompt apology, and a protracted and vicious campaign of mean-spirited, dishonest, and malicious commentary. Mr. O’Reilly fell on the wrong side of that divide.
Of course, none of the above misbehavior really had anything to do with Mr. O’Reilly’s departure. Rather, it was O’Reilly’s cowardly and abusive posture toward female colleagues which eventually forced the network’s hand. In a 2004 sexual harassment lawsuit, a woman claimed O’Reilly “told her to buy a vibrator, called her at times when it sounded as if he was masturbating and described sexual fantasies involving her.” The woman further claims O’Reilly said he would make her “pay so dearly that she’ll wish she’d never been born.” The suit was eventually settled for $9 million.
O’Reilly would frequently mention that he “went to Harvard” as a kind of tasteless offhand boast. The man was nothing if not disingenuous, so it is no surprise that O’Reilly holds no undergraduate letters from Harvard but rather attended a two-year program at the Kennedy School. After the 2008 financial crisis, Jay Light, then the Dean of Harvard Business School, declared it “a time of great introspection for this institution.” The Business School took time to consider how HBS graduates could act so recklessly in global markets. In the same sense, the Kennedy School and Harvard community at large should reflect on how this university produced such a fundamentally indecent human being.
On the September 9, 2007 episode of his radio show, Bill O’Reilly described a visit to Sylvia’s, a famous black restaurant in Harlem. Specifically, O’Reilly described his utter shock at the respectful, clean, kind, and joyous experience he had at Sylvia’s. The total surprise is amusing if predictable: “I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks.” Nothing is more surprising to a racist than black excellence. Nothing flusters a homophobe more than gay love. And this is the ultimate core of the matter. Things like kindness, love, happiness, diversity, and respect challenge the worldviews of people like Bill O’Reilly. Harvard can, should, and in many cases, does promote all of those things. Reflecting on the legacy of O’Reilly and his “Factor,” the University should look to present a compelling counterexample to the forces of hate and cruelty in the universe.
Kiran O. Hampton ’20 is a Crimson editorial editor in Lionel Hall.
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