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Generation O’Reilly

If a conservative media sequoia falls in the woods and no one in the younger demographic group hears it, did it happen?

I’ve caught some flak from readers e-mailing me, criticizing me for not coming to Bill O’Reilly’s defense. More on why I didn’t in a second. First, though, it’s worth thinking about Ian Tuttle’s piece on how O’Reilly and younger conservatives aren’t really in touch. Excerpt:

I appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, Fox News’s flagship evening program, hosted by the now-ousted Bill O’Reilly, in the summer of 2015. An average number of people tuned in that night — somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 million. My conservative friends, twentysomethings, many of them from reliably red states, were not tuned in. But their parents were.

That’s telling. The O’Reilly Factor, which will air its final episode on Friday, was a massively popular news show — for a decade and a half the most popular show — on America’s most-watched cable news network. But The O’Reilly Factor was not for everyone; more to the point, it was not intended to be. Bill O’Reilly’s loyal viewers were largely older, suburban or rural, middle or lower-middle class, generally white, and Republican. At the end of 2016, O’Reilly averaged 3.3 million nightly viewers, but while viewers in the key 25-to-54 demographic increased significantly from 2015 (probably an effect of the unusual election year), they still accounted for less than one-fifth of his nightly audience.

This is entirely anecdotal, but after O’Reilly’s departure was announced, I thought about who among my conservative friends watches O’Reilly. The only person I could think of was my mother, who is 73. In fact, I have lots of conservative friends in my age cohort who complain about the effect heavy Fox watching has on their parents. The general complaint is that their folks have become a lot more opinionated about political issues, and a lot angrier and more bombastic. I once wrote about Fox Geezer Syndrome, and included lots of comments from readers. Here’s one:

I grew up watching very little television. Then when I was in ninth grade we started looking to buy a new car. I promise that’s not a non-sequitur.

It turns out that the new Dae Woo dealership in town had a promotion: test drive one our cars, get a free Dish Network subscription for a year. My dad did the drive, and we got the Dish.

Over the course of the next year Fox News slowly took over our house. For a while, the main thing we watched was the O’Reilly Factor, which became appointment viewing each night. But it expanded from there. When the following summer came around–and I was home during the day–I was shocked by how much my mom watched during the day. Again, we rarely watched TV before this, and now my parents were watching 3, 4, 5 hours of TV a day, and that was almost exclusively Fox News.

It’s hard to exaggerate what effect the transition from major network news to Fox News had. It’s not that my parents’ actual views changed… Though never fundamentalists, they’d always been more or less part of “the Religious Right,” and my parents would always grumble about the liberal bias of mainstream media.

What changed was the intensity with which they held those views. Politics went from a significant but not at all central part of daily discourse to the overwhelmingly #1 concern. The amount of time my parents spent talking (and, presumably, thinking) about politics skyrocketed. As did the level of frustration and anger and vitriol. My parents seemed constantly angry about things over which they had zero control, bitter about matters that had nothing to do with them.

A few years later–recognizing that it was not a healthy influence–my parents got rid of the Dish. At some point my mom remarked that her stress levels had considerably lowered since she stopped watching Fox News. Since then they’ve gone back-and-forth with Dish or cable–one year they’ll have it, the next year they ditch it. But they’ve never returned to binge-watching Fox News.

They still watch it sometimes, and their political views are largely the same. And sometimes they can be angry and bitter about politics. But it’s not constant anymore. It’s not the regular state of being. I think the spell has been broken. They recognize at least some of the limitations of Fox News–they laugh at how ridiculous Sean Hannity is, for instance–and they do a somewhat better job of avoiding being completely sucked into things that have no relevance to their lives.

Yesterday I was talking with a conservative Evangelical friend in his early 30s. He’s really concerned that the fallout from Trump is going to be devastating for religious conservatism. I share his views. In his strong and necessary piece for National Review, David French considers the moral and reputational cost to conservatism of the “toxic” celebrity culture of the Right. Excerpts:

There are those who say that the Left is “taking scalps,” and they have a list of Republican victims to prove their thesis. Roger Ailes is out at Fox News. Bill O’Reilly is out at Fox News. Michael Flynn is out at the White House. Those three names — the head of the most powerful cable news network, the highest-rated cable news personality, and the national-security adviser — represent a stunning wave of resignations and terminations.

But this isn’t scalp-taking, it’s scalp-giving. Time and again prominent conservative personalities have failed to uphold basic standards of morality or even decency. Time and again the conservative public has rallied around them, seeking to protect their own against the wrath of a vengeful Left. Time and again the defense has proved unsustainable as the sheer weight of the facts buries the accused.

Moreover, the pattern is repeating itself with the younger generation of conservative celebrities. The sharp rise and meteoric fall of both Tomi Lauren and Milo Yiannopoulos were driven by much the same dynamic that sustained O’Reilly for years, even in the face of previous sexual-harassment complaints — Lahren and Yiannopoulos were “fighters” who “tell it like it is.” O’Reilly was the master of the “no-spin zone” and seemed fearless in taking on his enemies.

What followed was a toxic culture of conservative celebrity, where the public elevated personalities more because of their pugnaciousness than anything else. Indeed, the fastest way to become the next conservative star is to “destroy” the Left, feeding the same kind of instinct that causes leftists to lap up content from John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and Stephen Colbert. Liberals use condescending mockery. Conservatives use righteous indignation. That’s not much of a difference.

The cost has been a loss of integrity and, crucially, a loss of emphasis on ideas and, more important, ideals. There exists in some quarters an assumption that if you’re truly going to “fight,” then you have to be ready to get your hands dirty. You can’t be squeamish about details like truth or civility or decency. When searching for ideological gladiators, we emphasize their knifework, not their character or integrity.


The conservative movement includes some of the best and most admirable people I’ve ever met. It also includes its share of grasping, ambitious fame-hounds, people who live for the next Fox hit and angle to write this year’s version of the “liberals are sending this country to hell” bestselling book. But bad character sends a country to hell just as surely as bad policy does, and any movement that asks its members to defend vice in the name of advancing allegedly greater virtue is ultimately shooting itself in the foot.

Read the whole thing.

How should Fox transition into remaining a conservative (ish) network, while replacing its aging audience as it dies off? Because that audience is old:

The median age of a primetime Fox News viewer is 68, according to Nielsen. That means half of the channel’s viewers are older than 68. CNN’s median primetime viewer, meanwhile, is 59. Fox News still has more total viewers in the 25-to-54 demographic that advertisers covet, but CNN and others are gaining.

It’s possible Murdoch and his sons, James and Lachlan, who are acquiring control of their father’s media empire as he ages, see all this as a good thing. Fox News, for now, has a monopoly on the “older, conservative viewer.” As currently-old conservatives get even older and, eventually, die, a new generation of viewers will replace them.

But how long can that last when you’re not attracting younger audiences? Today’s young people are watching less traditional TV and more online content—especially for their news (some of which cater to their sensibilities far better than banal news networks can). Fox News can’t afford to just wait around for these younger viewers to become old.

That’s an interesting point. I don’t know about you, but I don’t watch Fox not because I am opposed to Fox, but because I don’t watch cable TV, period. I get my news online and, when I’m driving, from public radio. If I had cable TV I would definitely watch Tucker Carlson’s show, because he’s fresh and unpredictable. If they gave Mollie Hemingway a show, I’d watch the hell out of it. But I don’t know that it’s possible for any network to win me back as a cable subscriber. There are just too many other interesting things to do, and having a TV connected to Netflix streaming and Amazon streaming satisfies all our televised entertainment interests.

I think David French is correct about the toxic influence of conservative celebrity culture, but then, John Derbyshire was right back in 2009 when he wrote in TAC about how conservative talk radio wrecks the Right. I don’t know that it’s possible in this media environment to avoid the dangers of ideological celebrity culture on either side of the political divide.

What interests me, though, is how this plays out with younger people who don’t care as much about TV. Does TV have to grow more extreme in an attempt to capture their attention? What? In my case, cable and broadcast TV hasn’t been part of my family’s life for years, and that’s just fine. Whenever I would go visit my dad in the past few years, I was jarred by how the people on Fox seemed to be barking at viewers. I don’t know if watching CNN would have felt different — I mean, I don’t know whether what I experienced is something particular to Fox, or whether I had grown so unaccustomed to cable news that all of it seemed to come on way too strong. Probably the latter. Whatever the case, I didn’t want it.

Readers, do you see different news media habits with you and your parents’ generation (or your children’s generation)? Talk to me.



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