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