“Bill O’Reilly has helped set the bar for the normalization and dissemination of right-wing hatred, offering incendiary commentary about sexual harassment and assault, gender, race and ethnicity, low-income people, the LGBTQ community, Muslims and refugees, immigrants, and reproductive rights” — Media Matters for America.
Bill O’Reilly’s public downfall was a long time in the making—set in motion by a string of sexual harassment claims and the hemorrhaging of high-profile advertisers from The O’Reilly Factor, a Fox News channel mainstay and money maker.
According to reporting by the New York Times, for a period that spanned 15 years, O’Reilly and 21st Century Fox (the parent company for Fox News) together settled five separate allegations of sexual harassment brought by female Fox employees (which included accusations of verbal abuse, unwanted advances and explicit comments) for $13 million. And since that report was published, more women have come forward alleging gross and inappropriate behavior by Fox’s biggest star.
O’Reilly’s cable news program was, and remains, a cash cow for Fox News. It is nothing short of a testament to the show’s money generating power and vaulted cable ratings perch that Fox News kept O’Reilly on payroll as the company quietly purchased the silence of his accusers for over a decade. In a nod to television’s obsession with re-runs, the so-called swift end to O’Reilly’s career at Fox News was preceded by a similar scandal involving Roger Ailes, the network’s co-founder and then-chairman. Accused of multiple acts of sexual harassment, 21st Century Fox paid out $35 million to Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox News anchor, and several unidentified women to settle their lawsuit against Ailes. Fox News also lost two top hosts, Greta Van Susteren and Megyn Kelly (who later accused Ailes of sexual harassment) and paid $40 million in severance to Ailes in the ensuing fallout.
Following the ouster and made-for-television-scandal of Roger Ailes, 21st Century Fox released a statement that vowed to, “continue our commitment to maintaining a work environment based on trust and respect. We take seriously our responsibility to uphold these traditional, long-standing values of our company.” Yet, O’Reilly remained on the payroll (his last contract even included a clause for his termination in case any new cases of harassment came to light) and women who claimed to have suffered under his abuse were being quieted, as per usual.
It is clear that if Fox News could not be moved by decency to maintain a “work environment based on trust and respect,” it was certainly moved by dollars.
O’Reilly was also a problematic figure in many other ways. He has a long and well-established history of making racist remarks. Days before his expulsion from Fox News, O’Reilly watched a speech Rep. Maxine Waters gave from the House floor discussing patriotism in our nation’s current political environment, and his response was to mock her hair, calling it a “James Brown wig.” Outraged that a college president was criticized as racist for posting a picture of his staff dressed in sombreros and mustaches, O’Reilly claimed that if you go to any Mexican restaurant in the world, staff comes out, “singing ‘Guantanamera’ with the sombreros on.” I’ve had my own brushes with O’Reilly, including an interview where he demanded that leaders such as myself “stop the BS” in relation to reducing what he coined “the Black crime problem.” But it was neither racism, nor the bitter fruits of sexism that ended O’Reilly’s storied rise at Fox News.
Fox News had a choice to make: keep O’Reilly, whose ratings were still strong despite the scandal, or hurt the bottom line and lose 90 advertisers, and counting, who had stampeded away from the taint of scandal. Despite O’Reilly’s repeated denials of the harassment claims and support from people like Sean Hannity, a Fox news contributor who is now facing his own accusations of sexual harassment, and President Trump, who has his own colorful history with women, including boasting about grabbing them, and dealing with his own accusations of sexual harassment, Fox News could no longer bear the cost of keeping their star contributor.
But while O’Reilly may be down, he is far from out. His permanently tarnished reputation aside, we haven’t seen the last of Bill O’Reilly. Just days after his unceremonious ouster from Fox, O’Reilly is making his media comeback online, resuming his ‘No Spin News’ podcast. His publisher has said he will continue to publish O’Reilly’s books. And he received a sizeable parting gift from Fox News in the amount of $25 million—a year’s worth of his salary.
There is a victory to celebrate here, but it is a qualified one. If, at the highest levels of leadership, we commit to the belief that “women, children, and men have inherent dignity that should never be violated.” The rise and money-padded fall of O’Reilly sends a mixed message, to say the least, to women and men in the workplace.