Whenever a mob forms—even a righteous mob whose cause seems just—I get the willies. This week, a mob has arisen to punish Bill O’Reilly for his alleged sexual harassing ways by sapping his Fox News Channel show, “The O’Reilly Factor,” of its sponsors. So far, at least 47 advertisers, including Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, BMW, Mitsubishi, Lexus, Orkin and Allstate, have dumped their buys on his show, according to CNN; more are sure to follow.
Cheerleading the boycott with pitchforks held high over their heads are the faultfinders at Media Matters, David Brock’s sometimes useful agitprop outfit, which has been waging a declared “war” against Fox since at least 2011. If the charges of sexual harassment against O’Reilly are true—the $13 million Fox and O’Reilly have paid in settlements to five women suggest they very well could be—the campaigns may succeed in capitalizing on his self-inflicted wounds. Media Matters wants Fox to fire O’Reilly and take seriously the culture of sexual harassment that Fox and former CEO Roger Ailes—accused of sexual harassment himself—have allegedly sanctioned.
It constitutes no endorsement of O’Reilly, Fox or sexual harassment—which all decent people vocally oppose—to pause and think through the consequences of the calls for advertiser boycotts. Obviously, advertisers have every right to decide what sort of programs their spots air against. Before the scandal broke, Mercedes, BMW and others purchased time on O’Reilly’s show not because they agreed with his idiosyncratic right-wingish political views or approved of his bullying TV demeanor. They were, presumably, agnostic on those points. They advertised because they believed his viewers were likely to buy their products. Today, they’re changing that tune, fleeing the show because O’Reilly’s foes have convinced them that their advertisements signal approval of the man.
This is dangerous. Long ago and far away, corporate advertisers believed that every minute of every broadcast hour was a reflection of their brand. Media scholar Cynthia B. Meyers notes in a conversation with me that radio broadcasting started out as branded content. Corporate sponsors controlled the shows, canceled programs and fired entertainers when displeased, she says. These patterns of corporate protest fertilized the ground in which the anticommunist blacklists thrived. “Anticommunists called for product boycotts to punish sponsors who hired certain talent; sponsors reacted by asking their agencies to screen the talent,” Meyers says. I don’t know about you, but I consider Mercedes and BMW automotive experts whose ethical teachings should be regarded as suspect. The last thing I want is a mediasphere in which advertisers regain the power to determine what is acceptable fare and what is not.
When we encourage corporate advertisers to police content and commentators, we end up with Alcoa’s dumping Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s after he embraced controversy and sparred with Joseph McCarthy. “If we demand every advertiser avow allegiance to every social, economic or political position taken by news commentators in whose program their ad appears, we’ll end up with crappy advertising and worse journalism—or we’ll end up with an amalgam of advertising and journalism that would be indistinguishable from propaganda,” says Michael Socolow, a professor of journalism at the University of Maine.
Of course, nobody is policing O’Reilly’s content directly. Instead, they’re using the harassment accusations to implore advertisers to scuttle his show. Media Matters President Angelo Carusone has called for O’Reilly to be fired over the charges, but Carusone’s organization would want O’Reilly sacked if he were as chaste and pure as a Mother Superior. The charges just give them an opportunity to destroy O’Reilly by other means. Every strident television voice knows that his enemies will eventually appeal to his advertisers to silence him. Remember the uproar that followed Bill Maher’s pronouncement on ABC’s Politically Incorrect shortly after 9/11, in which he accused the U.S. military of cowardice for “lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away”? According to Maher, sponsors turned away from the show after the controversy his words elicited, and after several months the network canceled his show, citing poor ratings.
The expectation that advertisements equal approval of an anchor or commentator’s conduct, be it on-screen or off, takes us to places I’d rather not visit. Few of the people who read the news to use and comment on it on TV are pure of spirit and action. If we’re going to call for advertising boycotts against accused harassers (remember, Fox and O’Reilly have only arranged settlements with the accusers, not lost a case in court), why not boycott suspected cheaters, too? Well, because sexual harassment is against the law and the laws against cheating are null. But you get my drift. The other possibilities are endless: We’re not that many years removed from a world in which an outed homosexual anchor or commentator would have faced boycott calls for their “immorality.”
The O’Reilly boycott is a bad idea. Even if you hate the guy, think of it this way: It may end up energizing calls for advertising boycotts against the on-air talent you like, inspiring timidity among ad buyers who are already too timid. My preference—call it self-interest—is for advertisers to place ads against content that connects them to the audiences they covet, not content or personalities they approve of.
Do boycotts even work? Many defecting O’Reilly sponsors are merely moving their ads to other Fox shows, as the New York Times reports, permitting them a bogus moral victory while still reaching those coveted Fox viewers. Meanwhile, other less controversy-adverse companies have been placing their spots before the 4 million viewers who tune into O’Reilly’s show each night. Boycotts like this rarely discipline anybody in the long run, as the boycott histories of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh attest. Although both men have trouble attracting major advertisers—Media Matters called for stations and sponsors to “Flush Rush”—both continue to hold their central places in the talk-show environment. So the Fox juggernaut will roll on and the O’Reilly show, which collected $446 million in ad revenue from 2014 through 2016 and attracts the most viewers on cable news, is in no danger of collapsing. As Andrew Tyndall writes in the Hollywood Reporter, O’Reilly’s audience is so large that it makes Fox’s placement on your cable dial indispensable. His viewers are as likely to dump him as Trump’s followers were after the “pussy” comments—and those were on tape.
If you don’t like O’Reilly and want to protest his alleged behavior, here’s my advice: Don’t watch his rotten show.
Erik Wemple has the story of the time O’Reilly called for a boycott. Go ahead and boycott my column. You’ll be in good company. Send boycott suggestions to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts have been accused of harassing my Twitter feed. My RSS feed crosses picket lines.
This story was updated to include an increase in the number of defecting advertisers.
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