After firing Bill O’Reilly just five months ago over sexual-harassment allegations, Fox News now seems to be playing a role in rehabbing him.
On Tuesday evening, the former cable-news primetime king will appear on his former in-house rival Sean Hannity’s show. Even if the interview doesn’t touch upon the “far-left conspiracy” O’Reilly believes was behind his ouster, the chat might represent Fox’s tacit endorsement of an alleged serial sexual harasser who cost the network millions of dollars in legal settlements and lost ad revenue.
With Hannity returning to the 9 p.m. ET time slot this week, now directly competing with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, he will interview Rush Limbaugh and House Speaker Paul Ryan. Additionally, it seems, Fox has no problem bringing back its tainted ex-ratings leader for a star-studded jolt in viewership.
“Sean Hannity. Bill O’Reilly. The powerful opinions you have to hear on the hot topics that have America talking,” a Fox News promotional ad boasted this week. “The interview you don’t want to miss is only on Hannity.”
“They’re thinking that selling what’s left of their souls is worth it to try to generate ratings to beat Maddow,” a former Fox executive bluntly speculated to The Daily Beast.
One current Fox News producer, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, fretted that the interview “sends the wrong message” to viewers and employees alike that the network is not concerned with holding O’Reilly accountable for his misconduct and how it harmed the network.
It does ring odd that Fox News would so readily hype O’Reilly’s return to its airwaves, just months after distancing itself from him: Most notably, the network yanked Watters’ World host and former Bill-O henchman Jesse Watters off a U.S. speaking tour with his ex-boss.
To be fair, O’Reilly has been on a media blitz for his latest book, Killing England, with an infamously tense appearance last week on NBC’s Today show. The difference, of course, is that Matt Lauer didn’t just help promote a book; he confronted a blustery O’Reilly about the sex-harassment allegations.
Hannity will almost certainly do no such thing.
Based on their two previous radio interviews, Tuesday evening’s TV chat will likely be nothing but pleasant and playful banter between two giants of the genre about Trump, O’Reilly’s book, and other topics du jour.
When they broached the subject of O’Reilly’s firing in one radio interview, the pair went off on the “far-left” organizations they believe are behind the sexual-harassment allegations and corporate boycotts that have dinged Fox News over the past year.
Hannity himself had gone to war with Fox following the firing of Ailes’ one-time right-hand man Bill Shine, warning that such an ouster was “the total end of FNC as we know it.” He started an “#IStandWithShine” hashtag and promoted a new group called “Stop the Scalpings,” aimed at fighting the “well-funded destruction campaigns” against right-wing media personae.
O’Reilly and Hannity’s rapport, as of late, has been so friendly that Hannity himself even suggested last week there’s a remote possibility of his ex-colleague returning full-time to Fox.
“Do you want to come back? I think you should come back,” he told O’Reilly in one chat. “I know your fans would like you back on too, and there’s not a day that goes by that people don’t ask me, ‘How’s O’Reilly doing? When is he coming back?’”
Little more than a year ago, however, prior to Roger Ailes’ ouster over his own set of sexual-harassment allegations, anyone inside Fox News would have told you that tensions often ran high between Hannity and O’Reilly.
“[They] have basically no working relationship,” former O’Reilly Factor producer Joe Muto wrote in his 2013 tell-all book, An Atheist in the Foxhole. “Their shows are back-to-back, yet they’re barely on speaking terms. O’Reilly is convinced that Hannity is trying to sabotage his show, and vice versa.”
Muto continued: “The two of them fight constantly, almost entirely through intermediaries and over the pettiest of issues—mostly over guests… 90 percent of the squabbling is over which show gets which guest on which night.”
This writer can confirm. While working at ABC, my then-boss was set to promote an upcoming 20/20 special on Fox News, and an ugly war of words broke out between the Hannity and O’Reilly teams over who got to have him at all.
But now that O’Reilly believes himself to be a victim of an “orchestrated hit by far-left organizations,” he and Hannity have become the warmest of allies.
Fox News declined to comment on-record.