On Wednesday, April 19, Fox News and its parent company, 21st Century Fox, announced that they would be terminating their professional relationship with Bill O’Reilly, the prime-time host of The O’Reilly Factor. A.k.a. they fired him.
The announcement comes after an April 1 New York Times story about an investigation into O’Reilly. Namely, that during his twenty-year career at Fox, O’Reilly and Fox paid out roughly $13 million to women who made allegations of sexual harassment by Mr. O’Reilly.
Social activists applauded the triumph of justice over injustice. However, in their haste to crow about this immediate victory, they forgot that the poison root of the issue still festers.
Since the article’s publication, more than 80 advertisers pulled support for The O’Reilly Factor, which was consistently the top-rated program in cable news. The initial Times article placed The O’Reilly Factor‘s earnings from 2014 to 2016 as $446 million from advertising. According to market research group Kantar Media, the amount of on-air advertisement bought dropped from nearly 16 minutes to eight minutes in just two weeks.
The Times reported that women inside the company expressed outrage and questioned “whether top executives were serious about maintaining a culture based on “trust and respect,” as they had promised last summer when another sexual harassment scandal forced the ouster of Roger E. Ailes as chairman of Fox News.”
The investigation found five women who had been paid off to avoid continuing forward with allegations of sexual harassment. Some of the alleged harassment consisted of O’Reilly taking interest in a woman, promising to help her career, and then making sexual advances on her. Other reported actions from Mr. O’Reilly were lewd comments, verbal abuse, and phone calls where it sounded and seemed as if O’Reilly were masturbating.
In the initial statement, and in articles from Fox since, the company has characterized O’Reilly positively. An internal memo, signed by Rupert Murdoch and sons Lachlan and James, all company executives, described O’Reilly as “by ratings standards…one of the most accomplished TV personalities in the history of cable news…In fact his success by any measure is indisputable.”
In an article centered on the news of O’Reilly’s departure, author Howard Kurtz called O’Reilly “the biggest star in [Fox’s] 20-year history.” Kurtz ended his article by writing, “Even most of his critics acknowledged that O’Reilly…is an extraordinary broadcaster.”
Wednesday evening, Fox News anchor Bret Baier addressed O’Reilly’s departure on air, saying, “Bill O’Reilly, the biggest star in the 20-year history of Fox News, is leaving the network in the wake of mounting allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct.” CNN reported on Thursday morning that the payout O’Reilly would be receiving will end up somewhere in the “tens of millions.” In the payout after his ouster, Roger Ailes received $40 million.
The continued characterization of O’Reilly as a star is troubling. It undercuts any progress the company claims to have made in the aim of strengthening “trust and respect.” The language and message Fox is sending is clear. By refusing to condemn O’Reilly they are making the point that his sexual harassment was acceptable as long as he was making them money.
They were fine paying $13 million dollars because what he was bringing in was so much more. And it was not until investors began pulling out—until O’Reilly became a liability— that he was let go from the company.
It also actively reinforces the notion that bringing complaints about things like sexual harassment against people in power is oftentimes fruitless. O’Reilly preyed particularly on women in subordinate positions, promising them jobs or promotions or access. He outranked them in power, money and influence. And he outranked them in importance, at least in the eyes of Fox. For the five women who had the courage to come forward, to deal with the career ramifications of being honest, there might be countless others, who did not want to come up against the might of an entire corporation.
Yes, eventually Bill O’Reilly was out of a job. But if the Times had not done their investigation, if the advertisers had not pulled out, it’s impossible to gauge when Fox would’ve grown tired of bankrolling O’Reilly’s predation. They didn’t grow tired of it in the twenty years O’Reilly was in their employ. Because that’s what it boils down to—they paid money, to the women in payouts and to him in salaries, to keep him in a position of power, the same one he would abuse to harass women. If they hadn’t been caught, every sign points to the likelihood that 21st Century Fox would’ve kept bailing O’Reilly out.
And so while Twitter erupts in the small and immediate victory of O’Reilly’s firing, we lull ourselves into complacency and forget the real meaning behind the story. Fox News is not dedicated to an atmosphere of “trust and respect.” They tolerated sexual harassment in exchange for monetary benefits.
They did not fire Bill O’Reilly because he was a sexual harasser. They did not fire him because people found out. They fired him because he cost them money.
O’Reilly is the head of the hydra—you cut it off and another one grows. The poison and power of corporations like Fox does not lie in extremities like O’Reilly. They originate from the core. The problem with Bill O’Reilly wasn’t just Bill O’Reilly. It always was, and still is, Fox.