The dispir­it­ing tale of Bill O’Reilly

The Washington Post - - WASHINGTON FORUM - RUTH MAR­CUS

The Bill O’Reilly saga has three vil­lains: the re­volt­ing former an­chor him­self, the net­work that ig­nored ac­cu­sa­tions of se­rial abuse, and a broader sys­tem that pun­ishes con­fronta­tion and en­ables si­lence and com­plic­ity. Each de­serves flay­ing — along with Pres­i­dent Trump, so ea­ger to vouch for O’Reilly and dis­miss sug­ges­tions of wrong­do­ing.

O’Reilly’s be­hav­ior — al­legedly pres­sur­ing women to have sex­ual re­la­tion­ships, re­tal­i­at­ing against them if they re­fused and warn­ing them about com­ing for­ward — doesn’t re­quire much more in the way of con­dem­na­tion. Let’s fo­cus, in­stead, on the dis­grace­ful cir­cum­stances of his de­par­ture from Fox News.

When the New York Times re­ported this month that the net­work and its star an­chor had paid about $13 mil­lion to set­tle sex­ual ha­rass­ment suits brought by five women, O’Reilly cast him­self as a tar­get of ex­tor­tion and said his de­ci­sion to set­tle was driven by — get this — a sense of pa­ter­nal re­spon­si­bil­ity. He was set­tling “to spare my chil­dren,” O’Reilly said, as “a fa­ther . . . who would do any­thing to avoid hurt­ing them in any way.” If there is any­thing more sick­en­ing than O’Reilly’s re­ported be­hav­ior, it is stoop­ing to use his own chil­dren as a shield and the ex­cuse of fa­therly love to evade re­spon­si­bil­ity.

O’Reilly’s lawyer, Marc Ka­sowitz, one-upped his own client in moral re­pul­sive­ness when, on the eve of the an­chor’s de­par­ture from Fox News, he com­plained that O’Reilly “has been sub­jected to a bru­tal cam­paign of char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tion that is un­prece­dented in post-McCarthy­ist Amer­ica.”

Sen. Joseph McCarthy used the power of his of­fice to make un­founded smears of trea­son, and helped ruin the lives and ca­reers of hundreds of Amer­i­cans. Here, O’Reilly is the fig­ure with McCarthyite power, not the vic­tim, no mat­ter how hard he tries to present him­self as one. In­vok­ing the ghost of McCarthy should be done nearly as care­fully as making a Hitler anal­ogy. At least White House press sec­re­tary Sean Spicer was de­ploy­ing the Holo­caust anal­ogy in the ser­vice of de­nounc­ing war crimes.

If any­thing, Fox News’s con­duct is even more con­temptible than that at­trib­uted to O’Reilly, driven as it seems to have been not by sick com­pul­sion but by cool fi­nan­cial cal­cu­la­tions: Pay­ing off its an­chor’s al­leged victims made bet­ter busi­ness sense than clean­ing up its al­ready soiled work­place. Most as­ton­ish­ing, the net­work signed its lat­est con­tract with O’Reilly not only af­ter the forced de­par­ture of Fox News chair­man Roger Ailes over sim­i­lar com­plaints but also when it was fully aware of the im­pend­ing pub­li­ca­tion of the Times ar­ti­cle. As The Post’s Paul Farhi re­ported, Times re­porters “had sent Fox’s ex­ec­u­tives a long list of ques­tions, plac­ing se­nior ex­ec­u­tives on alert months in ad­vance of its pub­li­ca­tion.”

In other words, it wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily a prob­lem for Fox News if O’Reilly was ha­rass­ing women, or even if O’Reilly’s be­hav­ior was cost­ing it mil­lions in set­tle­ment money — so long as his mar­ket power was such that he made the net­work mil­lions more in ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue and ca­ble fees. The news that O’Reilly will walk away with a sev­er­ance pack­age worth a re­ported $25 mil­lion is salt in the wound in­flicted on ev­ery woman who works at Fox News — no, make that ev­ery Fox News em­ployee who be­lieves in a work­place free of such be­hav­ior.

It would be nice to think that the rest of cor­po­rate Amer­ica will no longer tol­er­ate O’Reilly-es­que be­hav­ior. Cer­tainly, the pub­lic out­cry against O’Reilly and ad­ver­tis­ers’ con­se­quent flight from his pro­gram are ev­i­dence of change. Com­pa­nies now have manda­tory sex­ual ha­rass­ment train­ing and HR de­part­ments that are sup­posed to in­ter­vene. Yet in prac­tice, the tol­er­ance may be greater than zero for those who are star per­form­ers, and while the Fox News cul­ture may be par­tic­u­larly toxic, it is not unique. See the de­scrip­tion by a former en­gi­neer at Uber about what hap­pened when she com­plained of sex­ual ha­rass­ment there.

Mean­while, le­gal con­straints and so­ci­etal reper­cus­sions com­bine to dis­suade women from com­ing for­ward. Com­plain­ing of sex­ual ha­rass­ment re­mains risky busi­ness. Women fear look­ing like trou­ble­mak­ers — or worse. Stay­ing in your job may be­come un­ten­able, find­ing an­other im­pos­si­ble if you have taken le­gal ac­tion. At the same time, rules re­quir­ing that dis­putes be me­di­ated, or set­tle­ments reached only with the pro­viso of gag or­ders pro­hibit­ing dis­clo­sure, as hap­pened in O’Reilly’s case, serve to keep ha­rass­ment hid­den and to pro­tect ha­rassers.

Fi­nally, there is Trump, who, in the af­ter­math of the Times ar­ti­cle, de­clared, “I don’t think Bill would do any­thing wrong.” He prob­a­bly doesn’t — and doesn’t see any­thing wrong with some­one in his po­si­tion rush­ing to O’Reilly’s de­fense. Just an­other dis­turb­ing twist in an al­ready dispir­it­ing tale.

BREN­DAN MCDER­MID/REUTERS

Bill O’Reilly on the set of “The O'Reilly Fac­tor” in New York in March 2015.

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