Spinning, spinning, spinning—you have entered the “no spin zone” and not Bill O’Reillys.
Bill O’Reilly, Fox News’ prime-time celebrity, has made tens of millions characterizing much of the political and media establishment as operating in spin zones where up is down and down is up. O’Reilly’s show, parts journalism, audacity, and bombast, has proved a potent audience magnet. Now O’Reilly finds himself spinning away aided by a legal team and crisis manager.
O’Reilly is accused of unwelcome sexual advances. It is a fact that claims against O’Reilly and Fox have been settled for millions of dollars.
What interests me about this episode is the emerging power I wrote about in my book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow. There is a new type of leader that pushes back and has the tools to do so.
While Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the early 90s, I took on Howard Stern who had a morning radio show that reached millions and was popular with boys in their early teens. The FCC prevailed, and Stern’s vulgar routines were eventually taken to pay radio.
The FCC actions and successes against Stern indirectly invited thousands of complaints against a variety of TV and radio shows. Most of the complaints were not actionable, as the Constitution’s free speech protection is quite expansive and should be.
Most objectionable speech is underwritten by commerce. If companies don’t advertise, shows fail. If video games are not bought, the producers fail. If music is not widely purchased, then it is soon forgotten. In the case of O’Reilly’s show, tens of millions are spent each year by advertisers reaching his audience. They are now dropping his show by the dozens.
When I chaired the FCC, communications were largely hierarchical—a handful of companies controlled distribution. No more. Today some of the most successful media helps us link-up around interests, points-of-view and a range of other considerations. In short, pushing back is, if not simple, at least realistic.
The new power is in the networks, and I am not talking about broadcast and cable networks. The new power is in personal and then collective networks enabled by the Internet and a range of communication’s devices and social media aggregators like Facebook and Twitter.
In the case of Bill O’Reilly, Rolling Stone reports, “The activists who organized the hugely successful Women’s March on Washington have been advocating a boycott online, encouraging their nearly 500,000 Twitter followers to share their stories of workplace harassment using #DropOReilly. (The hashtag had garnered some 39 million impressions in just two days; according to the analytics company Keyhole.).”
Some worry that personal network bullies will emerge and that valuable content will be quashed. I do not. Boycotts are not easy. The leader has to start with an idea and a few adherents and then multiply the pressure through quantum leaps. If activist networks become the new power, then competitive ones will also emerge. O’Reilly has 1.7 million Twitter followers; plus, major advertisers are not easily bullied unless the facts stare them in the face.
The free speech guarantee is an integral force in protecting America. In part, it is now stronger because pushing back against powerful forces is possible. The evolution of the power to push back will be fascinating to watch.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.