When the allegations about Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes came out, the mainstream media had a field day. But there was no larger feeding frenzy. Last year it was a “Fox News” story, not a “societal problem” story. It took the Harvey Weinstein allegations to get the mainstream press to start asking uncomfortable questions about its own institutions. I can think of several reasons for this, but one that stands out is the tribalism of media itself.
The Fox stories confirmed, to one extent or another, what a lot of mainstream liberals think about Fox or about conservatives generally: They’re retrograde. They’re bad. That’s the kind of thing that goes on over there.
It’s related to what some reporters I know at Fox call the “Fox News effect” (not to be confused with some blather from David Brock using the same term). If Fox goes hard at an important story, a lot of other outlets will reflexively go soft on it. I’m sure the folks at the Media Research Center can produce the total minutes Fox dedicated to Fast and Furious, Benghazi, Lois Lerner’s IRS, the VA, etc., compared with the other cable news networks or the broadcast newscasts. This isn’t to say that Fox doesn’t occasionally over-cover or under-cover some stories too. There’s no scientific formula for how much airtime or resources any particular story should get, and from the outset Fox has prided itself on not reflexively following the lead of the New York Times on every news event.
But back to the sexual-harassment thing. One of my longstanding gripes is how when conservatives do something bad, it’s proof of the inherent badness of conservatives and conservatism. But when liberals do something bad, it is immediately turned into an indictment of America itself. Joe McCarthy’s excesses were a window into the nature of conservatism, according to historians, intellectuals, and journalists. But when liberals — Attorney General Palmer, Woodrow Wilson, et al. — did far worse, the villain was America itself. When conservatives are racist, it is because they are conservatives. When liberals are racist it is because racism is an “American sin.” In other words, liberalism is never wrong. I could go on at length about this.
Similarly, the sexual-harassment story is now being covered — largely correctly by my lights — as an American story, not a story about liberals. Again, that’s fine. But three points come to mind.
First, is it crazy to think that there’s a problem specific to liberalism at work here? I mean this all started with Harvey Weinstein, and he first thought he could survive the scandal by promising to go after the NRA. Where did he get that idea? Maybe because he had good reason to think it would work?
Perhaps there are a lot of liberal men who think they can buy indulgences by toeing the party line on equal pay and Title IX, and emptying their bladders over things like Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women.” To be fair, in recent weeks, quite a few liberals have been coming to grips with the fact that Bill Clinton survived the exposure of his predations precisely because he bought such indulgences. It’s worth remembering that he even admitted that sexual misbehavior should take a backseat to winning when he chastised Donna Shalala, his HHS secretary, for criticizing his behavior — at a cabinet meeting set up to let Clinton apologize for his behavior:
The participants said Shalala rejected what she took as Clinton’s implication that policies and programs were more important than whether he provided moral leadership.
“And then she said something like, ‘I can’t believe that is what you’re telling us, that is what you believe, that you don’t have an obligation to provide moral leadership,’” one participant recalled.
“She said something like ‘I don’t care about the lying, but I’m appalled at the behavior.’ And frankly, he [Clinton] whacked her, let her have it,” this source said. The president told Shalala that if her logic had prevailed in 1960, Richard M. Nixon would have been elected president instead of John F. Kennedy, the source said. After that, no other Cabinet member had anything critical to say, the participant added.
The second point is the reverse. The stories of sexual harassment at Fox were entirely newsworthy and legitimate on the merits. But not because Fox is “right wing.” Yet it seems fairly obvious to me that the press enjoyed the Ailes and O’Reilly stories precisely because they involved toppling someone else’s icons. Where there was barely constrained glee in the voices of many pundits and reporters when it came to exposing the sins of Ailes and O’Reilly, there’s equally obvious remorse when it comes to Matt Lauer, Mark Halperin, NPR’s David Sweeney, and, obviously, Bill Clinton. It speaks well of the media that it’s reporting these things anyway. But it would be a good thing for the press to meditate on what that remorse (and glee) says about its own tribalism.
Last, it’s simply worth pointing out that many conservatives have now embraced the Clinton position. Substitute John F. Kennedy for Donald Trump and you have precisely the argument that Clinton made to Donna Shalala, only now many conservatives are making it. Likewise, with Roy Moore. Winning is more important than literally anything Roy Moore has said or has allegedly done. It seems that, just like sexual harassment, no party has a monopoly on cynical expediency. The problem lies not in ideology but in human nature.