Yesterday, Fox News ousted Bill O’Reilly, who for two decades was the top-rated host with his show, The O’Reilly Factor. O’Reilly’s blustery on-air persona—which inspired Stephen Colbert to create ultraconservative pundit Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Show—minced no words, ever.
As a result, he often said outrageous, offensive, if not downright inaccurate things on the air. For example, he said that the slaves who built the White House were “well-fed and had decent lodging provided by the government.” He called child hunger “a total lie,” and said that feminists should not be allowed to report on Trump “because Trump is the antithesis of” feminism. He’s also been known to make inappropriate comments to women on the air.
O’Reilly’s personal conduct (like that of his former boss Roger Ailes before him) apparently has been similarly offensive. Over the course of his time at Fox News, O’Reilly has been accused of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior involving both women at the network who worked for him and women who appeared as guests on his show. According to The New York Times (NYT), there was a pattern to O’Reilly’s conduct, a pattern not unlike Bill Cosby’s, who similarly has been accused of sexual harassment (and sexual assault). That is, O’Reilly would appear as a mentor to women, offering advice to women and saying he could help them professionally. Then he “would pursue sexual relationships with them, causing some to fear that if they rebuffed him, their careers would stall.”
On April 1, 2017, the NYT reported that they had discovered five women had received settlements either from O’Reilly or 21th Century Fox (the parent company for Fox News), totaling $13 million. Two of those settlements came after Ailes was fired from Fox News last summer after his own sexual harassment scandal. Aside from the five women who received settlements, the NYT reported that two other women “have spoken of [O’Reilly’s] inappropriate behavior.”
The article notes that Fox has known of O’Reilly’s inappropriate conduct since at least 2002; additionally, the network adopted an aggressive strategy in dealing with women who might be considering filing sexual harassment lawsuits against the host. In 2004, Fox and O’Reilly sued a woman for allegedly seeking to “extort” O’Reilly “in return for not going public with ‘scandalous and scurrilous’ claims about him.” O’Reilly hired a public relations firm to “help shape [his] narrative,” with “[t]he goal [of] depict[ing the woman] as . . . promiscuous . . . , deeply in debt, [and] trying to shake down” O’Reilly. The woman filed suit against O’Reilly anyway, and the two sides eventually settled, with the woman receiving about $9 million.
Within days of the NYT story, the advertisers started to flee The O’Reilly Factor. At one point, more than one-quarter of the show’s airtime was purchased by advertisers. But by Friday, April 7—nearly a week after the story broke—advertisers purchased only seven minutes of airtime. In all, more than 50 advertisers pulled their ads from his show.
Finally, yesterday, Fox News dropped the axe.
It’s an appropriate but long overdue move. When confronted with Ailes’ sexual harassment scandal last summer, the network was already aware of O’Reilly’s issues. But, it seems, so long as those settlements—and any new ones—stayed under wraps, everyone could quietly look the other way. The network could purport to create the culture of respect it said it would following the Ailes scandal. And it could keep its cash cow, O’Reilly.
Once those settlements and the stories of other women were exposed, the public was aware—and outraged. Yet it seems it was the loss of revenue (in the form of fleeing advertisers) that finally pushed the network to release O’Reilly, who continues to deny any wrongdoing. It would have been nice, though, for the network to have decided years ago that continuing to employ someone with a continuous string of sexual harassment allegations was not the right thing to do, not because advertisers pulled their ads but because they respected their female employees and guests more than they desired the revenue. Because no one—woman or man—should have to work in what one writer called a “culture of predatory harassment.”
On the plus side, at least O’Reilly (and Ailes before him) was fired. But maybe we’ll get to point where we will eliminate the root problem not because not doing so hurts the bottom line, but because we respect the people in the environment enough not to subject them to the problem in the first place.