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Bill O'Reilly: Fall of a news icon

The firing of Fox News provocateur Bill O'Reilly has been covered by the general news business as if he was the cable fraternity's equivalent of Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite.

He was neither, although he did take on some major liberal organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and show-biz celebrities, such as George Clooney and Michael Moore, who have defended progressive causes.

The breathless accounts of Mr. O'Reilly's demise provided only sketchy recitations of his alleged sexual harassment of female Fox News employees — the grounds on which 21st Century Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch canned him and agreed to pay his accusers millions of dollars in settlements.

Mr. O'Reilly was best known and followed for his endless self-promotion and his transparent cheerleading for favorite conservative public figures, including President Donald Trump.

He reached the peak of his personal fame and influence as a classic practitioner of mass exploitation in the same fashion that Mr. Trump mobilized and marketed public fears and prejudices, as a self-appointed, fearless voice of the American working stiff.

In 2010 on the panel show "The View," moderated by Barbara Walters, two other panelists, Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar, walked off the set when Mr. O'Reilly declared that "Muslims killed us on 9/11." But his star as a television lightning rod for controversy continued to rise.

Building on the vast explosion of public communication in the electronic age, Mr. O'Reilly made himself an influential megaphone for one segment, but not all, of the nation. The phenomenon of American news consumers tuning prominently or even exclusively to political pundits and commentators whose sentiments they already share was a particular boon to Mr. O'Reilly and fellow mass agitators of the conservative and the liberal political persuasion alike.

There always has been a basic ideological division in American politics over the role government should play, either as minimalist overseer of the private marketplace or as an active force striving to level the playing field for all. While Mr. O'Reilly was often seen by like-minded viewers as a defender of the little guy, his increasingly conservative views also made him a darling of right-wing partisans.

In the end, however, it was a continuing string of allegations of sexual harassment from female colleagues at the workplace that was his undoing at Fox News. A recent New York Times investigation and report of settlements he and corporate parent 21st Century Fox made with accusing women finally led high-dollar advertisers to withdraw their support in droves.

Mr. Trump himself defended Mr. O'Reilly, saying: "I don't think he should have settled, because you should have taken it all the way. I don't think Bill did anything wrong. ... He's a good person." It was advice Mr. Trump has claimed to have followed after similar allegations, while he also settled in many civil cases.

Mr. O'Reilly's 1996 marriage ended in divorce in 2011, and the latest sexual allegations came in the wake of another Fox News scandal, when a founding executive, Roger Ailes, was fired by owner Rupert Murdoch and his two sons over similar workplace harassment charges.

On a broader stage, this internal crisis for Fox comes in the context of a beleaguered journalism profession under siege from President Trump, his allies and associates, who employ, among other devices, the accusation of "fake news."

The Trump camp's intentional manufacture of lies and misstatements, labeled by Trump aide Kellyanne Conway as "alternative facts," has muddied the political dialogue among both reporters and commentators like Mr. O'Reilly. The public is left as the victims.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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