It takes three things for a scandal to reach soap opera status: a celebrity, sex and cable. The Bill O'Reilly mess promised all three.
O'Reilly, 55, who was sued for alleged sexual harassment last week by a 33-year-old producer, is host of the highest-rated show on the highest-rated cable news channel. (He also broadcasts on radio two hours daily.)
The sex in the O'Reilly case, like everyone's, is somewhat risible -- replace thong in the Oval Office with loofah in the Caribbean to get an idea. The long verbatim quotes in the complaint suggests that Andrea Mackris, the woman bringing the suit, has audiotapes. Add a nice dollop of hypocrisy on the part of a family-values proponent in an ostensibly happy marriage and you've got yourself a good month's worth of shows featuring lawyers, counselors and clergy chewing the whole thing over.
But the O'Reilly scandal lacks one critical factor to drive it forward: constant coverage on "The O'Reilly Factor." There's no bigger scold or sterner values enforcer on TV than O'Reilly -- he feasted on Bill Clinton like no other -- and ordinarily he'd be on top such a story. Unless, of course, he was the one sitting in the eye of the storm.
To be fair, right after he filed a preemptive extortion claim against Mackris and her lawyer, he briefly mentioned his predicament on his show, without denying the charges or pressing himself on whether they were true.
Otherwise, a hush has fallen over the Fox News commentariat, and its brothers and sisters in arms. Apparently, there's no morals police to police the morals police. I like to scold as much as the next person, but when the shocker about virtues czar Bill Bennett gambling away hundreds of thousands of dollars came out, I didn't demand he stop gambling, just that he stop scolding the rest of us for the vices we try but sometimes fail to overcome. Ditto for Rush Limbaugh, who needed treatment for his addiction, not prison.
Right-wingers, of course, were late to the cause of sexual harassment. (Remember how they were convinced that Anita Hill was just trying to lynch Clarence Thomas?) They didn't embrace it until Paula Jones did, and then they worked it to nearly lynch a Democratic president.
For women, sexual harassment is a dicey proposition. There are no shield laws, so the complainant needs to be a near saint, or at least never to have worn a short skirt. Mackris is not an ideal plaintiff. Why didn't she hang up the phone on O'Reilly? Why go to dinner with him? At the same time, on the face of it, she has a strong case. She didn't want to give up a job at the top of the talk-show chain. She returned to Fox News on the promise the sex talk would not resume, then asked her boss to stop when it continued.
The law aside, you'd think that even a star would have to answer to someone. In her suit, Mackris alleges that O'Reilly said his boss, Roger Ailes, would give no quarter to some psycho complaining about the commentator. So far, O'Reilly continues to broadcast, and Mackris is at home on enforced "sick leave."
O'Reilly is now hiding behind his lawyer while picking his media spots, places where the grilling goes lightly. The morning after he discussed the case on his own show, he was perched on a stool next to Regis and Kelly, known for coddling, not questioning, celebrities. He promoted, without irony, his new children's book.
This week O'Reilly canceled two other promotional appearances. He knew that on CBS' "The Early Show" -- where Martha Stewart kept maniacally chopping cabbage with a large knife while insisting she wanted to focus on her salad, not the "ridiculousness" -- no one would let him focus on childrearing.
It's too bad we won't have O'Reilly taking apart O'Reilly. The highest use of celebrities is to act out morality plays. Brittany Spears' 55-hour marriage about the time President Bush backed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage proved that heterosexuals are by far the greater threat to heterosexual marriage.
In the end, however, celebrities inhabit a value-neutral zone. If O'Reilly is anything like Marv Albert or Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Clinton, he will come out better in the end than his accuser. Even when you win a sexual harassment case (or settle, like Paula Jones), you lose (Paula Jones).