21st Century Fox was back on the defensive Saturday after the New York Times revealed a new sexual harassment settlement involving former Fox News star Bill O’Reilly that was set just a month before the company signed O’Reilly to a lucrative new contract.
O’Reilly was fired by Fox News in April following the Times’ report that he had been involved in settlements of harassment and sexual harassment claims with five women totaling $13 million, dating back to 2002. On Saturday, the Times reported that O’Reilly personally reached a settlement in January with former Fox News legal analyst, Lis Wiehl, for $32 million, a fee far larger than previously disclosed settlements. In February, Fox News set a long-term contract with O’Reilly that included a huge salary boost.
In a lengthy statement, Fox News parent company 21st Century Fox defended the decision despite the company’s awareness of O’Reilly’s personal settlement with Wiehl. Fox emphasized that the new contract gave the company an out if further harassment claims were made against its star anchor. Two months after the contract was inked, O’Reilly was fired amid the firestorm over the Times’ initial report of the five settlements and the company’s investigation of additional allegations.
However, the timing of the Wiehl settlement paints a damning picture of Fox leadership’s willingness to keep O’Reilly in the fold despite its public statements about its efforts to ensure that 21st Century Fox divisions fostered a healthy and inclusive working environment for all employees. At the time O’Reilly’s new deal was set, Fox News was still reeling from the ouster of its founder and leader, Roger Ailes, amid sexual harassment scandal that led Fox News to reach a $20 million settlement with former anchor Gretchen Carlson.
“When the company renewed Bill O’Reilly’s contract in February, it knew that a sexual harassment lawsuit had been threatened against him by Lis Wiehl, but was informed by Mr. O’Reilly that he had settled the matter personally, on financial terms that he and Ms. Wiehl had agreed were confidential and not disclosed to the company,” 21st Century Fox said in a statement. “His new contract, which was made at a time typical for renewals of multi-year talent contracts, added protections for the company specifically aimed at harassment, including that O’Reilly could be dismissed if the company was made aware of other allegations or if additional relevant information was obtained in a company investigation. The company subsequently acted based on the terms of this contract.
“21st Century Fox has taken concerted action to transform Fox News, including installing new leaders, overhauling management and on-air talent, expanding training, and increasing the channels through which employees can report harassment or discrimination. These changes come from the top, with Lachlan and James Murdoch personally leading the effort to promote civility and respect on the job, while maintaining the company’s long-held commitment to a diverse, inclusive and creative workplace.”
More to come
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