Has Bill O’Reilly’s moment of reckoning finally come?
This weekend, the New York Times published a scathing report detailing allegations from multiple women who say that O’Reilly sexually harassed them or acted inappropriately. For a total of $13 million, Fox News’ parent company 21st Century Fox — as well as, in some cases, Bill O’Reilly himself — paid five of these the women not to pursue litigation. Two of the women’s stories had been previously reported, dating back to 2004, and the Times’ investigation also covered three other cases that were settled, plus two accounts involving women who are not pursuing litigation. That’s a total of seven different women.
O’Reilly has vehemently denied all of the accounts. “Just like other prominent and controversial people... I’m vulnerable to lawsuits from individuals who want me to pay them to avoid negative publicity,” he said in a statement to the Times. He added that he paid the settlements to put the controversies to rest, in part to spare his children the embarrassment of a lengthy trial.
This falls perfectly in line with how the conservative right often writes off sexual harassment: It’s not real. It’s an issue simply made up by feminist killjoys who want to squelch the big boys’ work vibes when they can’t take a joke or a compliment. Or, as O’Reilly himself put it back in 2004, that women use sexual harassment as “a club” — a way to threaten or manipulate powerful men.
The thing is, the women accusing O’Reilly of sexual harassment — and accusing Fox of a culture of sexual harassment — aren’t left-wing feminists. They are the women who work at Fox or who appear on Fox, who presumably believe in the Fox News worldview. This isn’t about the “out-of-control leftist” feminists railing against right-wing men once again. This is right-wing women against right-wing men. And that’s what makes this story particularly frustrating, but also particularly illuminating: Because when you can’t argue this is just another ideological battle in the culture wars (it’s not left vs. right, Democrat vs. Republican, MSNBC vs. Fox), the sexual and power dynamics are laid bare. The reality of the problem is much harder to ignore.
And the alleged problems here are profound. The Times’ reporting revealed a repeating pattern: O’Reilly would take interest in certain women, offering them advice and promising career help, before hitting on them or asking for sex. When they said no, hurting his fragile male ego, he’d blunt their career prospects in retribution. More specifically, the allegations against O’Reilly include everything from berating a young woman in front of her colleagues to calling a producer to describe his sexual fantasies about her while seemingly masturbating.
These reports are especially damning for Fox News right now, since just last year the network’s (previously presumed to be untouchable) CEO, Roger Ailes, was ousted from the company after his own adventures in sexual harassment finally came back to bite him. Now, with allegations against O’Reilly back in the news, this doesn’t just feel like a pattern; it seems like a company-wide culture problem at Fox News.
"This network is the Bill Cosby of corporate America. Women over and over again are driven out," Lisa Bloom, a civil rights attorney, told CNN on Sunday.
Soon after the Times published its story, a vocal group of Twitter users swooped into action. Advertisers are now leaving en masse. More than 50 companies, including Mercedes-Benz, Allstate, and Bayer are diverting their dollars from the popular cable news show, leading many to wonder if indeed we liberals — we who believe women deserve to be free of sexual harassment at work — might actually get him this time.
And yet, even still, it’s hard to believe that any of this will really ruin Bill O’Reilly. Perhaps if women keep coming forward, and the heat remains on, this could become the network’s Cosby moment. But even if O’Reilly is let go (presumably with a huge payout like his old boss Ailes) it’s hard to stay optimistic about how much this will really change things.
Most damning for the cause is the fact that the most powerful man in the world just took the time out of his busy day to stand up for his favorite host. “I don’t think Bill would do anything wrong,” President Trump told the Times yesterday.
If you'll recall, allegations about Bill Cosby’s sexual assaults had been out there for years also. But they didn't create any type of critical mass until years after he stopped being a corporate asset and Hannibal Buress, a male comedian, mentioned it — and it went viral. The message: Seven women, 10 women, 20 women, whatever. The number of stories doesn't matter until two things happen: The accused is no longer of use to a corporate entity and another man validates the allegations. He doesn’t even have to be a serious dude; Buress is best-known for playing Ilana’s FWB on Broad City.
And while Fox News women, 20 in total including lynchpin Gretchen Carlson, were able to take down Ailes, it was something the Murdoch sons were reportedly already itching to do anyway. O’Reilly is a different kind of asset. O’Reilly has been Fox News’ hottest property for 20 years. The O’Reilly Factor is the No.1 show in cable news, which reportedly brings in close to $500 million a year to Fox. He is on TV every single weekday. He even has the support of the President of the United States, as well as millions of viewers who want to believe him over the women accusing him.
O’Reilly’s viewers clearly aren’t shaken by sexism. They can overlook — indeed celebrate — things like the time O’Reilly wondered, “There’s got to be some downside to having a woman president?” Or the time he lamented the fact that he can no longer make sexual jokes in the workplace. Or most recently, when he was unable to respond to Rep. Maxine Waters argument without making a “dumb” comment (as he himself referred to it in his apology) about her hair.
Fox won’t be able to quietly write him a check for $40 million to go away (as it did for Ailes) and just hope their most loyal viewers, who would likely react in disgust if they took him off the air, don’t notice the change.
Even the advertisers he has lost likely won’t make a difference. According to Adweek, the flight of ads is expected to continue, but it is not expected to be permanent. Crucially, the companies are not pulling their ads from Fox News programming entirely. What this means is that Fox is still raking in dollars while advertisers simply wait for the news cycle to wear out, for people to chill, and for it to be safe for them to return to O’Reilly’s primetime spot.
And return they will.
As long as there are still huge numbers of people watching the show, advertisers would be stupid to ignore them. And as long as huge numbers of conservative people continue to overlook O’Reilly’s sins and tune in, women — whether they are liberal or conservative — will continue to lose.