Conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly was back in the news this week after a NewYork Times report revealed Fox News had offered him a new contract shortly after he settled a $32-million sexual harassment suit, the largest claim against O’Reilly known to date.
Unsurprisingly, O’Reilly immediately said the Times — and the media at large — were trying to smear his good name. He also said he had definitive “evidence” that nothing in the article was true. What was this undeniable proof? First, O’Reilly published an affidavit where Lis Wiehl, the woman who received the $32-million settlement, said she wouldn’t pursue further legal action against the former anchor nor Fox News. But the absence of a formal complaint doesn’t mean serious sexual misconduct didn’t take place, as noted by such a large payout. Second, he posted letters, which allegedly came from former colleagues Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, thanking him for being a good friend. O’Reilly didn’t provide much context, so we’re left wondering: What the hell do these notes have to do with the half a dozen women he’s purportedly paid off amidst sexual misconduct allegations?
Bill O’Reilly seems to have assumed that neither of these woman would speak up, which didn’t happen in either case. Gretchen Carlson took him head-on via Twitter multiple times. And in response to O’Reilly’s comments, Kelly released an email she claims she sent to Fox News executives last November, mentioning her own issues with O’Reilly’s alleged behavior months before the NewYork Times broke its initial story about his settlements this past April. She also said that despite O’Reilly’s assurances that he’d never received a complaint against him, that was a lie; she herself had complained. Maybe a year ago, the nice notes O’Reilly shared would’ve cast doubt on Carlson and Kelly, but today, it looks like a ridiculous Hail Mary from a publicly embarrassed O’Reilly.
The truth is, it’s likely Bill O’Reilly was hoping he wouldn’t have some ‘splaining to do. This is a classic old-school move, where men think women simply won’t be believed, especially women who are seen as somehow flawed. He was banking on you, me, and everyone else saying, “Oh, these women say Bill had pristine morals. Nothing to see here!” Just watch O'Reilly's interview with Glenn Beck.
For a guy who serves a cultural commentator, the guy has certainly missed quite a bit of it.
In less than a month, powerful men are going down in domino-like succession. Harvey Weinstein is just the tip of the iceberg. Since that New York Times piece went up less than three weeks ago, we’ve seen over a dozen high-profile men across a number of industries felled by harassment charges. Some highlights include:
● Amazon’s programming chief Roy Price resigned after being put on leave following public allegations of sexual misconduct from a female producer.
● Celebrity chef John Besh stepped down from his restaurant group amid allegations of rampant sexual harassment.
● Vox Media fired editorial director Lockhart Steele for sexual harassment, while in the U.K., GQ let go of political commentator Rupert Myers after sexual harassment and assault allegations came up online.
● Fight For $15 campaign executive Scott Courtney resigned after revelations of misconduct towards women.
● Tech entrepreneur Robert Scoble quit following numerous sexual harassment allegations.
● Harvey Weinstein’s brother Bob is now embroiled in his own sexual harassment scandal while trying to publicly salvage his company.
What we’ve learned over the past three weeks — or rather, what was confirmed for most women — is that perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault can act however they want in public as long as they show results; they expect little reprimand even if they’re absolute monsters behind the scenes. In fact, these men — whether it’s well-known industry “bully” Harvey Weinstein or a man touting high moral character like O’Reilly — are banking on public opinion of their success to create reasonable doubt against anyone who crosses them. Many are smart and try to cover their tracks; using their positions of power, they create situations of plausible deniability by preying on women they consider weak or less influential. And when they’re caught red-handed, they try to throw in numerous red herrings in the hopes that people won’t actually ask how these events are related.
Except the tides are changing — and fast — and this is not the month for men to victim-blame. The wool is off our eyes: We know that publicly declaring your so-called morals — whether that’s rattling off hypocritical feminist ideals on Twitter like Ben Affleck, or in O’Reilly’s case, writing a damn children’s book on manners — doesn’t absolve you from acting predatory in private.
Like many women, I feel a strange mix of skeptical and hopeful about how long these changes will last. And as every woman knows far too well, high profile stories shed light on just a small number of men who commit harassment and assault against women. The reality is there are thousands of stories that won’t ever get national news coverage, yet these women still need our support. There’s so much work to do.
But let’s focus on the hope. Right now, these once-infallible men are grasping at straws. Even a year ago, people might’ve fallen for O’Reilly’s claims that he’s a man of high moral character being smeared by women who are just jealous or greedy or bad.
Today, people just aren’t buying it. While you might have serious ideological differences with Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, you still believe them when they share their stories. Maybe they had to say nice things to keep their careers alive at Fox News, a place where alleged behavior like O’Reilly’s appears to have run unchecked by management. And men are finally learning that they’ve got to seriously step it up. Let’s believe we’re finally turning some sort of corner.
Bill O’Reilly’s time has come and gone. This case was already a trainwreck for him. Now he’s just ensuring that it happens in slow motion.
LilyHerman is a contributing editor at Refinery29. Her work has been featured in Teen Vogue, Glamour, Allure, TIME, Newsweek, Fast Company, and Mashable. Follow her on Twitter.
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