No matter where you stand on Bill O’Reilly—he’s a serial abuser who deserved his canning or he’s the subject of “a brutal campaign of character assassination that is unprecedented in post-McCarthyist America,” as his lawyer just put it—the underplayed story of the week is the easy ride being given to his bosses at Fox News Channel.
The network has known since at least 2002 of O’Reilly’s—what shall we call them?—appalling ways around the newsroom. According to the New York Times, which threw a saddle on O’Reilly in January and rode him down hard to his demise, Fox paid a small settlement to a junior producer whom he verbally berated at high volume. (She signed a confidentiality agreement and left the channel.) In 2004, an O’Reilly producer sued him and Fox for sexual harassment. He countersued and promised to fight the suit but settled, paying $9 million out of his own pocket. In 2011, he likewise settled with a Fox Business Network host who accused him of sexual harassment. In 2016, Fox News settled sexual harassment claims directed at O’Reilly by two additional former Fox News employees. Later that year, another Fox personality filed sexual harassment charges against the network, naming O’Reilly as one of her harassers.
That’s a lot of money, and a lot of allegations. Yet the network waited until the Times assembled the full docket against O’Reilly before it finally took any measures against its popular prime-time host. Surely somebody at Fox, which was O’Reilly’s employer for 20 years, bears some culpability for his alleged conduct. The first somebody, of course, would be Roger Ailes, founder of the Murdoch-owned network, and the man who hired O’Reilly. But he’s not around anymore. Ailes was part of the executive suite that approved sexual harassment settlements in cases filed against him and O’Reilly, and last summer the network dumped him against a similar backdrop of harassment charges and settlements.
If Ailes and O’Reilly had to walk the plank, why not current Fox co-presidents Bill Shine and Jack Abernethy? Shine figures in a sexual harassment suit filed against Ailes by current on-air personality Julie Roginsky, who claims the executive did not investigate her harassment complaint and then retaliated against her. Last year, Fox settled a sexual harassment complaint leveled against Abernethy and O’Reilly, Law Newz reported in January. Even if you assume their innocence—and I do—they had to know about the years-long pattern of accusations against O’Reilly and the settlements paid. And given the amount of money paid to protect O’Reilly against the charges, some drawn from the Fox treasury, surely uber-boss Rupert Murdoch knew what was going on. What’s his responsibility for waiting so long to take action? Moreover, what did Rupert’s son James Murdoch know? As Michael Wolff writes today, the network belongs to him now.
Double-speaking for itself Wednesday, Fox News parent company 21st Century Fox issued this brief statement: “After a thorough and careful review of the allegations, the company and Bill O’Reilly have agreed that Bill O’Reilly will not be returning to the Fox News Channel.” As my Politico colleagues wrote this morning, shouldn’t the thorough and careful review of the allegations have taken place long ago? The network, it’s worth mentioning, renewed O’Reilly’s contract in the same time frame that it was considering the allegations against him, according to the Wall Street Journal. That’s neither thorough nor careful. That’s malarkey.
The corporate culture orchestrated by maestro Murdoch over the decades has traditionally shied away from doing the right thing—until he doesn’t have a choice. In 2011, Murdoch endured the charges of phone-hacking and bribery charges against his News of the World tabloid as long as he could and then stanched the damage by dramatically closing the entire paper. The sacking of O’Reilly follows that template: Resist, resist, resist, resist some more, and then fold to protect the core and live to transgress again. Also, take excellent care of the alleged transgressors. Ailes got $40 million from Murdoch on his way out. O’Reilly is said to be getting up to $25 million. Remember Murdoch executive Rebekah Brooks, who resigned over the phone-hacking scandal? Rupert hired her back.
If sexual harassment happened at Fox, it happened because Fox countenanced it, countenanced it some more, and then again. If the network is guilty, it denied women their rightful position in the workplace and by extension denied Fox viewers their best work. By paying settlements and winking about the settlements O’Reilly paid, did Fox put profits ahead of decency? Were settlements just another cost of doing business—like a capital expense?
One important thing to consider is that O’Reilly is a massively valuable national brand—his show reaped $446 million in ad revenue from 2014 through 2016. His loutishness, which he telegraphs with his leering and eye-rolling, is on-brand in a way that it wouldn’t be for other big TV names. If he did harass fellow employees—and I leave it to you how far the evidence and the settlement tilt toward that judgment—such workplace conduct would be consistent with his on-air persona: Blustering, insulting, domineering, duplicitous, bullying, egomaniacal and mendacious.
Down to the charges of sexual harassment, O’Reilly resembles our current president, a point made at length by Justin Peters in Slate. And like our president, he’s too stubborn and obstinate ever to surrender to his accusers. That’s not a chip you detect on his shoulder: It’s a boulder. O’Reilly’s infinite sense of aggrievement also help him connect his brand with his viewers, whose median age is 67. For many networks, the O’Reilly settlements would have been seen as a potential PR nightmare from the start. But Fox draws only fuel from attacks by the mainstream media, feminists and Slate writers–and it can afford a different calculus.
This week’s O’Reilly coverage has read like a giant Irish wake, but he’s not dead yet. Where he might have been content to retire in a couple of years, his sacking will only embolden him. The calls for an advertiser boycott of his show, which were successful, was only partly about the sexual harassment charges, as I recently wrote. His most ardent foes would oppose him with the same vigor if he became a saint. And for his most ardent fans? The sexual harassment charges, the scathing New York Times investigations, and the liberal boycotts will only Super Glue their relationship together. In their accounting, those attacks are a badge of honor.
So if the boycotters who drove off O’Reilly’s advertisers and scuppered his show want to gloat, they should get it out of their systems this week. Like Trump, O’Reilly connects on a visceral level with enough Americans to have produced a loyal audience. Like the Trump faithful, true O’Reilly devotees don’t care about sexual harassment charges. Hell, many don’t care about sexual harassment, period. They love him because he has captured and channeled their voice, and knocking him off Fox News won’t silence him. They’ll follow him. Without missing a beat, O’Reilly could regain his audience by taking his act to the 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. time slot at the Trump-friendly Sinclair Broadcasting chain, which owns more than 150 stations. In Sinclair-less markets, O’Reilly could syndicate the new show—call it O’Reilly Refactored.
I promise you. You’ll have Bill O’Reilly to kick around for a long time.
Is O’Reilly educable? In 2003, I wrote of his habit of telling people to “shut up” on his show. He stopped doing it, but also denied that he had such a habit! Tell me to shut up via email: Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts make jokes about sexually harassing my Twitter feed, which has denounced my RSS feed for using hate speech.
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