Of the Kremlin’s apology request, O’Reilly said on air, “So, I am working on that apology, but it may take a little time. Might want to check in with me around 2023.”
Weeks later, O’Reilly commented on a “60 Minutes” piece on Putin’s victims. “Did you see the ’60 Minutes’ thing last night Lesley Stahl did about all the Putin people that got poisoned and hit in the head and they are in a coffin?” Around the time of the Helsinki summit in July 2018, O’Reilly in his post-Fox News incarnation bashed Putin on his own website: “Vlad is a psychotic megalomaniac.”
The network’s ideological agenda, of course, shaded the former host’s take on Russia, as when he declared in July 2016 that he didn’t “care” if Hillary Clinton’s emails were hacked by Putin.
Tucker Carlson, who took over O’Reilly’s time slot, has brought a fresh sycophancy to the Putin coverage. “Why do I care what is going on in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia?” Carlson asked in 2019. “And I’m serious. Why do I care? Why shouldn’t I root for Russia? Which I am.” He backpedaled on those remarks before affirming them again: “I think we should probably take the side of Russia if we have to choose between Russia and Ukraine. That is my view.”
And just before Putin started pummeling Ukraine in a “border dispute,” Carlson suggested that American liberals were a greater threat: “It may be worth asking yourself, since it is getting pretty serious, what is this really about? Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?”
The Kremlin isn’t quite so dismayed with the words of this 8 p.m. Fox News host. Russian state TV, in fact, has been playing clips of Carlson’s helpful commentary. The regime will take any propaganda victories it can get as it fights for its misinformational life. Securing a sympathetic voice at the top-rated cable-network show in the United States isn’t a bad prize.
So how did Fox News progress from a Putin antagonist to a Putin apologist in this time slot?
By trial and error, with an accent on the latter: Carlson in November 2016 slid into the 7 p.m. vacancy left by departed host Greta Van Susteren, then hopped to 9 p.m. following the departure of Megyn Kelly, and finally to 8 p.m. in April 2017 after O’Reilly was dismissed over a sexual harassment scandal. Before all this prime-time slot-hopping, Carlson was sort of kicking around at the network, hosting weekend editions of the risible “Fox & Friends” franchise. That appeared to be his comeuppance for having flamed out at CNN and MSNBC.
Once in front of Fox News’s evening audience, Carlson hosted with a vengeance. He filleted liberals, shouting them down and laughing in their faces; he positioned himself as the populist enemy of establishment Washington; he invented a hypocritical slogan about serving as the “sworn enemy” of lying, groupthink and other scourges; and he camped out on the extreme fringe of the era’s hot debates: Democrats weren’t just mistaken, they “hate” America. Immigrants don’t just create service-delivery problems for municipalities, they make the country “poorer and dirtier.” Your leaders weren’t just incompetent now and again, they harbored contempt for you and your family.
Into that same trend fits Carlson’s on-the-fly recalibration of Putin. When Trump in 2019 came under fire for withholding military aid from Ukraine for corrupt reasons, Carlson wondered aloud about the prudence of favoring Ukraine over Russia. Surely the MAGA crowd would enjoy that thought experiment.
It’s just that now it has backfired. The atrocities piling up each day in Ukraine vindicate O’Reilly’s analysis of Putin and vanquish Carlson’s. Every time Russian forces shell an apartment building or a maternity hospital or a family hustling for safety, it’s fair to ask Carlson: Is this the horror you minimized? What do you have to say about Putin now?
As Politico’s Jack Shafer has noted, Carlson has pretty much reserved this space for himself: “While Carlson deserves points for having an original point of view on Ukraine, his originality has not produced much in the way of imitators.”
“O’Reilly fundamentally did like the idea of democracy and was pro-American,” writes Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, via email. Carlson and Putin, by contrast, “are both fundamentally ethno-nationalists,” he contends.
None of this is to romanticize the days of Bill O’Reilly on Fox News. He proved himself to be an awful, awful man, driven by pettiness and spared by an immunity to consequences from the hypocrisy that he ladled out on his highly rated program. That he embraced a fact-based analysis of Putin doesn’t rehabilitate him.
It does, however, set down another marker for how far from reality Fox News has drifted over the past five years.