NBC News anchor Brian Williams was recently caught making up stories, and not just one story but a lot of them, habitually, all of them self-aggrandizing.
Media types on the left initially responded by making excuses for Williams, but now they have struck back by seizing on similar self-aggrandizing statements by Fox News Channel’s’ Bill O’Reilly, which somehow evens everything out. Or maybe puts the right on the defensive. As the Daily Kos declares, “So if anyone should lose their job over any of this, it would be most advantageous to the television viewing audience, and to society in general, if it is O’Reilly.”
They obviously think they’ve struck some kind of counter-blow that damages the credibility of the right. It’s not going to have the effect they think, and I’m pretty sure they don’t understand why. So let me explain it.
There is a basic disequilibrium in which scandals involving politicians or journalists on the right simply don’t have the same implication as scandals involving politicians and journalists on the left. And it’s not just the usual hypocrisy of each side wanting to protect the people or ideas on its side—a dynamic charted by The Federalist‘s Sean Davis.
Nor is it because Bill O’Reilly just isn’t that important a figure on the right. The left has erected a caricature of Fox News as the right-wing propaganda outlet, so they naturally assume that a prominent host there must be a tribune of the right. But O’Reilly has never been an ideological or “movement” conservative. He is more idiosyncratic, curmudgeonly, and pragmatist—and I don’t mean that in the good sense of being practical, but in the sense of not being too concerned with overarching principles or logical consistency.
There’s a more important reason why scandals involving authority figures don’t have the same impact on the right. It’s simple: we expect those who wield power and influence to abuse it.
A news anchor telling lies to puff up his self-image and pad his résumé? Yawn. Must be Tuesday. I mean seriously, if you didn’t already think Bill O’Reilly was a bit of a pompous, self-regarding blowhard, you just haven’t been paying attention.
But on the right, we don’t need politicians or journalists or any other leader to be spotlessly good. In fact, our whole worldview and our political ideals are based on the assumption that people in authority cannot be trusted, so therefore we shouldn’t give them too much power. And to the extent that we have to give them power, we should keep them constantly on the defensive with checks and balances. As Jefferson put it, “let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”
So it’s not that O’Reilly shouldn’t be held accountable if the claims against him are true (which they appear to be). It’s that none of this particularly demoralizes or disillusions me. Rather, it confirms a healthy skepticism about the media and the government.
But this kind of scandal is, or should be, demoralizing for the left. They require the public to have a sense that the media—or at least the right kind of media, the respectable, properly vetted mainstream media—is going to give us the real truth. They need their supporters to believe that they are really, really informed about politics, unlike those knuckle-dragging rednecks who watch Faux News. They need them to believe they are so well informed that they are able to pick out smart, informed, well-intentioned, compassionate politicians whom they can trust to do the right thing and who won’t be, say, influenced by all those multi-million-dollar donations their foundation received from foreign countries. Which is to say that their worldview requires that scandals like this not exist, that they be mere conspiracy theories dreamed up by the vast right-wing, er, conspiracy.
This analysis also applies to the Willie Soon case, where the left thinks it has uncovered a devastating scandal because a scientist skeptical of global warming was found to have accepted funding from oil companies. I think this has all the earmarks of a witch hunt. But even taken at face value, the charges against Soon miss the point. If it’s true that scientists might be corrupted by their funding—then what does this say about the warmthers who are dependent on money from the federal government, or from George Soros and Tom Steyer? Aren’t they corruptible, too? So if we should be skeptical of everyone, then we’re back to looking at the evidence and not at the people who present it. Which is supposed to be how science works, isn’t it?
Call this the O’Reilly Disequilibrium. When someone on the left is caught in a scandal, it is proof that power corrupts and therefore that no one should be given too much of it. When someone on the right is caught, it’s proof of the same thing. So a Bill O’Reilly scandal doesn’t cancel out the message of a Brian Williams scandal. It amplifies it.
That’s why it doesn’t fundamentally disturb me if Bill O’Reilly is embellishing his journalistic exploits. And when the left complains that we’re not taking it seriously enough, I will reply that we take it far more seriously than they do. We have taken the human capacity for dishonesty, corruption, and abuse of power so seriously that we want to make sure our whole political system is built around it.
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