At­ti­tudes about sex that doomed Bill O’Reilly hid in plain sight

The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT) - - OPINION - By Kather­ine Tar­box

For years when I was grow­ing up, Fox News was the sound­track of my fam­ily home. I’m con­vinced my fa­ther slept with it on so he could sub­limely ab­sorb more Sean Han­nity, Bill O’Reilly and friends.

So my par­ents were thrilled in Au­gust 2002 when pro­duc­ers from “The O’Reilly Fac­tor” called to book me for a seg­ment to pro­mote my book “A Girl’s Life On­line.” Be­fore tap­ing the show, O’Reilly came out to in­tro­duce him­self, and my mother was giddy to tell him that she watched him when she was hot and sweaty, while on the tread­mill. O’Reilly seemed baf­fled.

Though this was al­most 15 years ago, I can re­mem­ber the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing a guest on “The Fac­tor” so well be­cause it’s an episode that still haunts and dis­turbs me to this day. And the dis­mis­sive way O’Reilly dealt with my own his­tory as a vic­tim of as­sault made the al­le­ga­tions that fi­nally pushed Fox News to fire him this week feel all too fa­mil­iar.

At 19, I ap­peared on “The O’Reilly Fac­tor” to tell my story in the hopes that it would pre­vent sex­ual as­sault. Six years ear­lier, I had been mo­lested by a man I went to go meet af­ter I spent six months de­vel­op­ing an on­line re­la­tion­ship with him. The as­sault oc­curred in 1996 and re­sulted in a land­mark fed­eral case.

O’Reilly chal­lenged me about the fact that I de­cided to go meet this per­son I didn’t know. He then in­sisted that at 13, I should have known bet­ter than go meet some­one, and I should have been able to pre­dict what would hap­pen. Fair enough; in the back of my head, even then, I did know I was tak­ing a mas­sive risk. In typ­i­cal O’Reilly preach­ing, though, he told me I made a huge mis­take and ap­peared to sug­gest that I de­served to be­come a vic­tim of sex­ual as­sault be­cause I knew I was do­ing some­thing I shouldn’t have done.

I sat there speech­less. I stared at him. All I could think to ask was, “You’ve never made mis­takes at 13?” His an­swer, “Well, that’s a re­ally big one to make.”

Of course, I didn’t know it when I was on the air, but the women whose ac­cu­sa­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment forced O’Reilly out of his job say he was al­ready sub­ject­ing them to sex­ist re­marks, leers and worse at the time. Which means that in O’Reilly’s mind, meet­ing a stranger off the In­ter­net who you think is your friend at 13 is a mis­take. But sex­u­ally ha­rass­ing your staff as an adult is just fine.

A num­ber of his view­ers were so out­raged by his treat­ment of me that he felt moved to ad­dress it the fol­low­ing night. One viewer wrote to tell him he’d “judged” me in a way that was “very un­fair” and “cruel.” O’Reilly dis­agreed. “I didn’t do that,” he said on air.

“I pointed out that she made an enor­mous mis­take, so that chil­dren watch­ing ‘The Fac­tor’ would get the point.”

I couldn’t stom­ach watch­ing him af­ter that. I ac­tu­ally agreed with many of his po­lit­i­cal be­liefs, but not his hypocrisy. I can only won­der how many peo­ple watched the night I was on, who saw that in the “no-spin zone,” it was ac­cept­able to blame the vic­tim. I can only won­der how many other vic­tims he blamed when they ap­peared on his show. (He did it of­ten enough that it be­came a fre­quent trope for his crit­ics.) I can only won­der how many other vic­tims watched those nights and then chose to be silent for fear that they, too, would be blamed.

Over the past decade, I ran into O’Reilly a hand­ful of times for events at the Na­tional Cen­ter for Miss­ing & Ex­ploited Chil­dren. As they played videos of vic­tims, I would won­der if he was try­ing to fig­ure out who be­came a vic­tim “by mis­take” and who was a “real” vic­tim. I never said any­thing to him, and he couldn’t have cared less who I was.

I never said any­thing to him, be­cause I be­lieved that his hubris and karma would set­tle the score. But that didn’t hap­pen un­til peo­ple spoke up. Fox News per­haps made its most “fair and bal­anced” de­ci­sion by fir­ing O’Reilly for his sex­ual ha­rass­ment of women. But the net­work has known about O’Reilly’s treat­ment of women for al­most two decades. It was all si­lenced be­cause the show, at its peak, was earn­ing $178 mil­lion. The net­work only be­gan in­ves­ti­gat­ing when ad­ver­tis­ers such as Mercedes-Benz and oth­ers pulled out. O’Reilly’s bosses only cared when his be­hav­ior cost their bot­tom line.

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