Just last week, Bill O’Reilly’s biggest problem was his stupid joke about Rep. Maxine Waters’ hair resembling “a James Brown wig,” for which he later apologized. Now he’d probably be grateful for such a mild controversy. The New York Times ran a weekend story headlined “Bill O’Reilly Thrives as Harassment Settlements Add Up.” In it, seven women claim to have been sexually harassed to varying degrees by the host of The O’Reilly Factor. A big number is prominent — $13 million. That’s what Fox News and O’Reilly have reportedly expended in payouts to quell some of those complainants.
In the Times piece, reported by Emily Steel and Michael S. Schmidt, the charges leveled against O’Reilly include a pattern of behavior in which he flirts with women who work for Fox News or who have appeared on his show, invites them for a meal, suggests furthering a relationship, and gets very angry and vindictive if rebuffed. While the story is dead serious, it does contain one amusing detail. After one of the women, Wendy Walsh, declined a O’Reilly romance offer, the Times says, “He became hostile, telling her that she could forget any career advice he had given her and that she was on her own. He also told her that her black leather purse was ugly.” It’s Bill O’Reilly, Fashion Cop!
As I write this, the O’Reilly story remains among the top five most-read stories on the Times website, with over 1,000 comments. And Fox News’s cable rivals were quick to pounce on the piece: On Sunday, CNN’s Reliable Sources devoted two full segments to the O’Reilly accusations — three if you count host Brian Stelter asking Tina Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair, who was booked to talk about a different subject, for her reaction.
Does this mean there’s blood in the water, that the sharks are circling O’Reilly, that he’s a dead man walking, that “Watters’ World” is poised to replace the mighty Bill?
Naw. Bill will be chuckling with Dennis Miller and plugging his Killing books for the foreseeable future. O’Reilly recently signed a new contract with Fox News, during a time when the company was also fielding the complaints of women who include former on-air Fox personalities such as Juliet Huddy and Andrea Tantaros. (O’Reilly has denied all wrongdoing.) Right now, O’Reilly is the most popular TV personality on Fox News, and has been for a number of years. The Times piece notes that “his value to the company is enormous,” that The O’Reilly Factor has attracted “more than $446 million in advertising revenue” in the past two years alone.
It could be argued that O’Reilly is more powerful than the man who built Fox News, Roger Ailes. It was a sexual-harassment scandal that brought Ailes down last year and was the cause of his resignation. O’Reilly is the linchpin to Fox’s primetime schedule. Without his lead-in, Tucker Carlson and his nightly college-debate show would probably get thumped routinely by time-period competitor Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. More importantly, O’Reilly sets the tone for the network’s opinion programming. His super-aggressive, hyperbolic attacks on the mainstream media — with Bill, it’s never just the New York Times; it’s “the über-left New York Times” — and his pet anger-hobbyhorses, such as his detestation of sanctuary cities, drive much of the rest of Fox News’s coverage. And never forget that President Trump is a regular Factor viewer and occasional guest on the show, so you could reasonably say that O’Reilly exerts influence on governmental policy.
The CNN Reliable Sources coverage included chyrons that read, “Why Does Bill O’Reilly Still Have a Job?” and “Will Bill O’Reilly Face an Ad Boycott?” Of the latter, I wonder: Has TV news learned nothing from the last presidential campaign? If Trump got elected after the Access Hollywood tape surfaced, there’s no way advertisers are going to grow a conscience and yank ads from O’Reilly’s ratings juggernaut.
No, there’s no way on earth that Fox News is going to give Bill-O the heave-ho. Not that this story is going to go away. Wendy Walsh and her lawyer are scheduled to give a press conference about the scandal on Monday morning, with the lawyer suggesting that more women are on the verge of coming forward with O’Reilly complaints. Expect late-night hosts — in particular Stephen Colbert, who built his old Colbert Report character around the mighty man he called “Papa Bear” — to have some gleeful fun at O’Reilly’s expense. And there’s always the possibility that O’Reilly himself will address the charges on his own show tonight: It would dovetail nicely with his current recurring theme that the media is out to “destroy” Donald Trump, a short list to which he might now add himself.
I’m not suggesting that O’Reilly ought, automatically and posthaste, to be booted based solely on this Times piece. In general, when it comes to matters of employment versus unemployment, unless I’m the boss having to make a decision in such a matter with all evidence at hand, I’m of the “he that is without sin, let him cast the first stone” school, and am more interested in how a big media company deals with these issues. There’s no doubt, for example, that there is a double standard at Fox, what with Ailes out and O’Reilly firmly in.
As Tina Brown suggested on Reliable Sources, in some ways this mess is bigger than Bill himself and extends to the entire corporate culture of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp/20th Century Fox empire: “It’s all the way through the company,” she said, “and at this point, they have to clean that entire shop. That culture is not fixed, and it won’t be until Bill O’Reilly hits the door.”
Yeah, I wouldn’t spend too much time waiting for that to happen.
The O’Reilly Factor airs weeknights at 8 p.m. on Fox News. Reliable Sources airs Sundays at 11 a.m. on CNN.
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