Nearly six months after Fox News parted ways with Bill O’Reilly, Today finally offered him the chance for redemption. In a segment Tuesday morning, Matt Lauer asked O’Reilly about the sexual harassment charges leveled against him while O’Reilly insisted that the allegations were untrue—little more, O’Reilly argued, than a conspiracy born of aggrieved leftist and lying women.
For nearly ten minutes, Today gave O’Reilly—a man who has been accused of sexual harassment by five women, paid out a $9 million lawsuit for sexual harassment in 2004, and who has been accused of domestic violence—the opportunity to deny the most recent claims against him and promote his new book. “Not one time did I have interaction with HR or have complaints filed against me,” O’Reilly told Lauer in his familiar recalcitrant (or maybe just dickish) tone.
Today gave O’Reilly the opportunity to strongly imply that his most recent accusers were liars and that, perhaps, all sexual harassment lawsuits are hysterical fictions spun to impeach men like himself. “Every company has these [sexual harassment] lawsuits,” O’Reilly said. “If you’re a public figure, you cannot win [sexual harassment] lawsuits,” he added. “Every accusation is a conviction,” O’Reilly added with little challenge from Lauer. O’Reilly then took the opportunity—on national television—to plug a story undermining the credibility of one his accusers, published on his own website and the conservative website Newsmax.
The whole spectacle was a dismal one; O’Reilly proclaimed his innocence and touted his book and website while Lauer was left attempting to write O’Reilly’s redemption arc for him. “Since your firing have you done some soul-searching?” Lauer asked. “Have you done some self-reflection? Have you looked at the way that you treated women... [do you] think about it differently now than you did at the time?” O’Reilly had not; nor was he interested in the form of redemption offered up by Today, insisting instead that he had a team of lawyers and that truth would prevail. O’Reilly’s talking points were nearly identical to the emails sent by O’Reilly’s legal team and published by Politico in March.
The redemption arc is familiar, a staple of primetime television where terrible men apologize for their misdeeds and promise never to do such terrible things again. Lauer worked hard to see that narrative unfold on Today, but for men like O’Reilly, there’s simply no point in the public act of confession and forgiveness. Why bother to apologize when there are simply no public consequences for terrible men? Such penance seems quaint while the public discourse requires no rehabilitation but instead passes accusations of politically motivated conspiracies as nothing more than the rational presentation of “the other side.”
It was an astounding decision by Today to even invite O’Reilly on the show—the weak interview, underpinned as it was by a kind of desperate need to produce a sentimental apology narrative—and Lauer noted that the sexual harassment questions were quid pro quo. After roughly eight minutes, the pair joyfully transitioned to a conversation about O’Reilly’s new book. If Today’s decision to welcome O’Reilly on the show was questionable, then it seems to be the standard act of a media that pays lip service to “resistance” while tousling Donald Trump’s hair or inviting Sean Spicer to joke at the Emmys or facetiously entertaining the apology narrative from a “mean” Tucker Carlson.
The question remains: Why bother giving men like O’Reilly the opportunity for redemption? The arc was never convincing; such apologies always rang hollow even when the requisite “soul-searching” was publicly acknowledged. O’Reilly and his ilk seem to have figured that out long ago and instead use outlets like Today, eager for that perfect minute of morning television, to transform himself into a martyr made of lying women and left-wing agendas.