I opened the newspaper yesterday morning and was hit by parallel stories of two outsized, flawed human beings brought low.
Tragic novels are written about this stuff. Serious dramas staged. Melodramatic operas performed. It’s the oldest story in the book, and it keeps being reenacted. But when it happens in the real world, the tragic figures, the mythic egos, the massive waste of talent, are all reduced to a petty, sordid mess. Except for the victims, the ruined lives, the families torn apart, the children scorched for life. Not just the children of the victims—the children of the perpetrators, too.
Hernandez and O’Reilly. Two highly skilled men from different backgrounds, one literally throwing his weight around the football field, the other throwing his verbal jousting skills around the world of politics.
Two men adored by their fans for their physical and verbal skills. Both imbued by their celebrity and fame with hubris, believing themselves immune to legal or moral scrutiny. They basked in the public eye, unashamed by the hidden activities that might have given pause to men with better judgment, if only because of how much they placed at risk. Family, reputation, moral standing, annual income in the multiple millions. And for what? Visceral thrills, excitement, power, sex. The equal purview of young men with overabundant testosterone, middle-aged men struggling to maintain their fading prowess, and old men trying to keep death at bay.
One, unable to escape the chains linking him to a history of petty crime, drugs and violence. The other, unable to recognize or admit to the egregious contradiction between his abusive actions behind the scenes, and the moral high ground he laid claim to when onstage, a shining pillar of conservative values.
Neither man acted alone; each had supporters and enablers. And because of their ability to generate coin, both went further, lasted longer, and did vastly greater damage, than they should have.
In the case of Hernandez, his employer was smart enough to have peeled away out of disgust or self-preservation the moment he was arrested. But he had a team of lawyers made possible only by his wealth and celebrity. And criminal accomplices from whom he couldn’t—or didn’t want—to sever his connection. Was hanging himself with a bedsheet in a cell an act of cowardice? Or was it the ultimate admission of guilt? Perhaps he did the honorable thing, saving his family from having to live with the shame of a father incarcerated for life. One can, after all, grieve for the finality of death.
O’Reilly was supported by a culture of abuse that may not have been started by the obscene Roger Ailes, recently ousted from Fox News, but was certainly encouraged and permitted by him. And by the Murdoch clan, now claiming the moral high ground so sullied by O’Reilly. Too late, and too little. Only time will tell whether the Murdochs are really interested in a culture made safe for women employees.
An irony here is that one of the conservative values O’Reilly espoused—the power of the market free to regulate itself (that is, the power of the dollar to carve the riverbanks of commerce) is what really brought him down. It wasn’t the Murdoch family suddenly ashamed by the behavior of a favorite son. It was the mass defection of advertisers afraid of losing market share. Despite a new contract designed to limit their risk and to moderate his behavior, O’Reilly leaves Fox with glowing comments on his journalistic prowess, but not a word about the reasons for his firing. He leaves with a severance in the multi-millions.
When left to do its work unimpeded, the free market sometimes results in the right outcome, but it does so for dollar-denominated reasons. Perhaps that’s the best possible outcome in an imperfect world. But it frequently lets the most guilty walk away with pockets full of cash.
Another irony is that the perpetrator of the less extreme crimes turns out, at least in some eyes, to be the morally inferior of the two. Whatever his other qualities, Hernandez was a violent man driven by anger and jealousy, unknowing or uncaring of the difference between right and wrong. But O’Reilly clearly knows the difference. He held himself up to be a paragon of virtue, all the while ravaging the women around him sexually, and when that didn’t work, destroying them professionally. His hypocrisy makes him far more offensive as a human being and as a man. More ironic, he’s still around to deny all allegations. But he’s just putting into practice what he’s learned works well. Say something often enough, with sufficient certainty, and eventually people begin to believe it. As of now, Holt, his publisher, plans to keep selling his books. They hope he continues to be the money machine he has been. Will O’Reilly remain a conservative icon despite his loss of moral authority? We’ll see how the free market plays with this, and if it isn’t happy, whether it will send Holt a strong enough signal.
Violence is not going away. Neither is sexism and abuse. But someone wrote recently that abuse of women will only decline when mothers raise their sons to respect and honor women. That’s only partly true. It will continue until sons see their fathers treat women with respect and honor, too. When employers encourage a just culture that makes it prohibitive to engage in sexism and violence. When employees, communities and people passing by point it out and make it unacceptable. And when those in power follow the same example in their own lives.
Hernandez Photo: AP Photo/The Boston Herald, Ted Fitzgerald, Pool
O’Reilly Photo: Richard Drew/AP file