Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Fox News on the losing side of this culture war

Fox still has the biggest ratings in cable news despite the staggering loss of three-fourths of its evening lineup in the past eight months.

But it's also still on the wrong side of patriarchy and male privilege. And the recent firings of host Bill O'Reilly and co-President Bill Shine underline how much trouble the network is in, thanks to its culture of sexual harassment.

Fox can brag all it wants about its continued ratings dominance and how it thinks the network actually got better when Tucker Carlson replaced Megyn Kelly after she left in January for NBC News despite the offer of more money to stay. But Team Fox is whistling past the graveyard with such talk.

With his bully-boy, brow-beating, interview style, Carlson, who has now moved up in the batting order to the 8 o'clock slot replacing O'Reilly, is very much part of the larger, male-centric cultural problem at Fox — not any kind of solution.

In looking for a larger historical narrative while writing about the 2016 presidential election, I came to the conclusion that we were at a tipping point in American life away from centuries of patriarchy and male privilege.

I based that on the fact that of some of the most talked-about moments in the primaries and general election featured women going toe to toe with men and besting them: Kelly calling out Donald Trump in the first primary debate for his misogynistic remarks, and Hillary Clinton using preparation and well-honed rhetorical skills to shred him in their first TV debate.

And then, there were the moments during the campaign where men were punished in a highly public way for their sins: Billy Bush fired by NBC in the wake of the "Hollywood Access" videotape, and Fox News founder Roger Ailes being forced out in July in the wake of a sexual harassment suit by Gretchen Carlson that the network settled for $20 million. Kelly's testimony that Ailes had harassed her early in her career played a role in his ouster as well.

There were smaller moments that also fit the pattern of male privilege — from talking over women to sexually assaulting them — coming under attack.

In October just after the "Access Hollywood" video surfaced, Kelly struck another blow when she took down one of the great I-can-talk-louder-than-you gasbags of American politics: Newt Gingrich. He's another baby boomer guy who, like Ailes and comedian Bill Cosby, apparently didn't get the memo that their era was over.

During an interview on "The Kelly File" about Trump boasting in graphic language of sexually assaulting women, Kelly used the term "sexual predator" to describe the GOP candidate. That kind of female impudence was too much for Gingrich to bear.

He lost it as he tried to bully her into repeating after him that Bill Clinton is a sexual predator.

But Gingrich's bluster was no match for Kelly's steely sense of authority in dealing with blowhards. She ended the interview by dismissing the former Speaker of the House like a schoolboy with an instruction to spend some time working on his "anger issues."

I saw such media moments heralding a new age in gender relations.

And then came the spectacular defeat of Clinton in November, which led me to decide that I was wrong about the deeper gendered meaning of what we were seeing. I took some comfort in the fact that everybody who wrote extensively about the election was wrong about something in the wake of Trump's victory.

But the forced departures of O'Reilly and Shine at Fox News the last two weeks, coupled with the buzz surrounding Kelly's arrival at 30 Rock to start her new job at NBC, have me thinking again that maybe media, politics, gender and culture are converging on a point of epic change in American life — at least when it comes to men exploiting, harassing and assaulting women in the workplace.

That sense of cultural shift is the best explanation I can think of for the ground-shaking energy that fueled the Women's March on Washington Jan. 21, Trump's first day in office.

Trump temporarily held off the forces of change on Nov. 8 not because he was on the right side of history or such a great candidate. He held them off because Clinton was such a bad one with all her defense-of-Bill baggage, Wall Street speaking fee secrecy, email server problems and a guy named John Podesta running her billion-dollar campaign using Gmail.

Trump might look like The Little Dutch Boy of the moment holding his finger in the dike of patriarchy, but the rising tide of gender equity is inevitable, and being on the wrong side of it will be deadly.

It's already very bad business for 21st Century Fox, the parent company of Fox. That's why Ailes, O'Reilly and Shine were sent packing despite the huge earnings they delivered over the years to the corporate coffers.

The boycotts that drove all but a handful of low-rent sponsors away from O'Reilly's top-rated show underscored the economic power of women — and the American media industry's respect for that clout.

On a global front, the impact of lawsuits by current and former Fox employees who have leveled charges of harassment, discrimination and retaliation are already playing a role in 21st Century Fox's effort to gain full control of Sky UK, a TV and broadband internet provider based in the United Kingdom.

A government agency recently extended its investigation into the fitness of 21st Century to own such a massively important communications platform in the UK. At least one U.S. law firm representing plaintiffs against Fox has sent a letter to the UK regulators urging them to oppose 21st Century's bid for full ownership.

Firing O'Reilly will cost Fox millions of dollars short term. Losing in the bid to take over Sky would cost the company hundreds of billions long term.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., the Justice Department is still investigating 21st Century for its handling of payments to women who claimed sexual harassment and abuse over the years.

That's what life looks like on the wrong side of this epic cultural shift.

It is not clear whether Rupert Murdoch, the 21st Century Fox patriarch who allowed the culture of sexual exploitation to take root at Fox News, understands it yet. It is said that he wanted to keep O'Reilly.

But his sons Lachlan and James understand, and that's why they tried to keep Kelly while firing the old boys.

She's now working across the street, though, along with Greta Van Susteren, who left her 7 p.m. perch at Fox News in September and is now on MSNBC during the 6 o'clock hour. The Murdoch brothers, meanwhile, are stuck with Tucker.

I know Carlson's ratings were initially better than Kelly's while he was on at 9 in her old time slot. But where else were the 63 million people who voted for Trump going to go looking for news-talk in prime time?

Any channel trying to do traditional journalism like CNN was all but wall to wall with negative stories and analysis about Trump because of his erratic behavior those first few months in office.

And besides, ratings have been up year-to-year for almost everyone in cable news, thanks to Trump's arrival in the White House.

Even with that built-in audience of Trump supporters, Carlson still only wound up basically tied with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow in April in the key news demographic of viewers 25 to 54 years of age.

I am not in the business of saying who is or isn't on the right side of history, as President Obama was wont to do.

But I am guessing Maddow, Kelly and Van Susteren, all of whom now work at 30 Rock, are closer to it when it comes to the end of male privilege and patriarchy than anyone at Fox News.

The Murdoch brothers have a lot of hard work ahead if they want to get out from under their father's deadly culture and really be a 21st-century company.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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