Just five months ago, Fox News unceremoniously canned Bill O'Reilly, the centerpiece of the network's programming for two decades. The revelation that O’Reilly was a sexual predator triggered an advertiser boycott that forced the network’s hand. The longtime “king of cable news” was dethroned, reduced to peddling a podcast on his personal website.
But tonight, after teasing the announcement throughout his Fox show, Sean Hannity told his audience that he will host his longtime colleague O’Reilly for a cozy interview on tomorrow night's broadcast. Hannity had urged O’Reilly to return to Fox during an interview on his radio show last week; if all goes according to Hannity’s plan, for one night at least, he will get his wish. Hannity said tonight that O’Reilly will talk about “news of the day and his new book”; if the interview is anything like O'Reilly's appearance on Hannity’s radio show, he will use the platform to attack his critics, including women who reported he sexually harassed them. Other networks have made a similarly odious decision to give space to the former Fox host.
But O’Reilly getting the red carpet treatment from a program on the network that fired him should be taken not as a sign of the former host’s strength, but of Hannity’s suicidal willingness to go to war with his own network. Whether on Fox or on the radio, Hannity is now regularly collaborating with someone his network cast off in disgrace.
Hannity has spent the time since O’Reilly left the network engaged in thinly-veiled hostilities with Fox. From his pointed criticism of the network’s treatment of his former producer Bill Shine, who was forced out for his reported role in overseeing the network’s deplorable culture of sexual harassment, to the feverish Seth Rich conspiracy theories that drew criticism from his own colleagues, to his attacks on his Fox colleagues for being insufficiently supportive of President Donald Trump, Hannity has been a problem child. Seemingly incapable of reining him in, the network pointedly announced last month the hiring of a conservative pundit specifically for Hannity’s show -- Tomi Lahren, who lacks basic competence, but makes up for it with loyalty to the president.
Hannity’s unhinged behavior threatens to have a real impact on his bottom line. Advertisers have started dropping Hannity. Thanks in part to Media Matters’ Stop Hannity advertiser education effort, advertisers are learning that financially supporting his political chicanery and Trump’s political interests is bad for business. We’ve seen this story unfold in the past, with O’Reilly and Glenn Beck before him.
Hannity’s apparent decision to add O’Reilly to his stable of guests is a disaster for Fox. The move gives ad buyers who were already concerned that Fox couldn’t control Hannity a new reason for alarm. It gives advertisers who previously abandoned O’Reilly’s show a reason to fear that their ads elsewhere on the network could end up promoting him. And it gives British regulators -- who were already reviewing Fox as part of Rupert Murdoch’s $15 billion bid to purchase Sky -- a reason to worry about the network’s corporate governance and commitment to changing its seedy culture.
Fox knows all this, so it seems more likely that the network was blindsided by a host who’s out of its control than that it is willingly complicit in his effort to promote his former colleague. And Hannity knows it too. He just doesn’t care.
This may be the beginning of Fox’s nightmare -- the last remaining member of its former dream team, openly revolting and daring the network to fire him and let him take his audience somewhere else. It won’t end until Hannity gets his way, or is sent on his way.