At CNN this week, an internal debate arose over whether to get truly aggressive in its effort to investigate Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly, currently on vacation amid a probe into sexual harassment claims made by several women.
Multiple sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that CNN, a heated rival to Fox News, was extremely close to filing a motion to unseal the anchor's matrimonial records - potentially exposing O'Reilly's very private information and adding a new dimension to the firestorm. CNN, however, is now said to be leaning against doing so, even after some executives expressed enthusiasm for the effort. Contacting Fox News advertisers to see whether they'd be sticking with the embattled O'Reilly is fair game, but in the cable TV war, wading into O'Reilly's sticky divorce might be a bridge that CNN has had second thoughts about crossing.
CNN declined to comment.
For a few years, O'Reilly has been involved in a court battle with his ex-wife, Maureen McPhilmy. The judge overseeing the case has ordered that records remain confidential, but some information has nevertheless become public.
O'Reilly, 67, and his ex entered into a separation agreement in 2010 before a custody battle proceeded. Some elements of the case, officially captioned as Anonymous v. Anonymous, are salacious and could support the claims that O'Reilly mistreats women. For example, Gawker reported in 2015 that trial transcripts showed his teenage daughter telling a forensic examiner that she witnessed O'Reilly "choking her mom" as he "dragged her down some stairs" by the neck, and that he struggles to control his rage.
Until now, few news outlets were as interested as Gawker in unsealing court documents, but CNN has contemplated joining the quest by Gizmodo - Gawker's rebranding after the bankruptcy and sale to Univision - to get more information.
If it did, the Time Warner-owned news outlet would have an uphill road ahead, as an appellate court in February affirmed a judge's decision to keep O'Reilly divorce records secret. In January, moreover, one media lawyer was kicked out of the courtroom for an attempt to pry information loose.
Notwithstanding, before O'Reilly became the subject of even greater scrutiny thanks to reports of $13 million in sexual harassment settlements, one New York judge was already set to examine the issue of making all sorts of information public concerning O'Reilly.
That's because last year, O'Reilly brought a new action against McPhilmy, alleging that he was defrauded into a separation agreement and that money went to "finance an existing extra-marital relationship" on her part.
In December, O'Reilly then brought a $10 million lawsuit against McPhilmy's attorney Michael Klar, alleging that he "aided and abetted Ms. McPhilmy's scheme to defraud [O'Reilly] into agreeing to the Separation Agreement for the sole purpose of ousting [him] from the paternal role he had negotiated for and been promised and to obtain substantial money to support Ms. McPhilmy."
That complaint is public, but what's not is Klar's subsequent motion to dismiss. Klar wished to submit evidence in support of his dismissal bid. According to subsequent court papers, the documents included tax returns, correspondence about the divorce, information about the medications prescribed to O'Reilly's children, and "pedagogical concerns" of O'Reilly and the children's teachers.
O'Reilly's lawyers at the Hoguet Newman firm oppose this.
"Mr. O'Reilly is a public figure and matters concerning his personal life, marriage, and children attract media attention," they wrote in a brief submitted in January. "Past media attention has caused his children extreme emotional distress. Thus, in the Separation Agreement, negotiated by Mr. Klar, Mr. O'Reilly and Ms. McPhilmy agreed to strict confidentiality of the terms and circumstances of the Separation Agreement to shield the children from the pressures of unwanted and intrusive publicity surrounding the separation."
They further wrote that letting this information go public would eviscerate the purpose of the confidentiality agreement and undermine the privacy interests that led to the sealing of the matrimonial records. McPhilmy's new lawyer also doesn't want the information public.
The judge will now have to rule. A hearing was scheduled for next week, but it was adjourned to next month. The case isn't a matrimonial one, though, giving Klar hope that it's not subject to the same kind of secrecy. Gizmodo has already filed papers supporting an unsealing, leading O'Reilly's attorneys to tell the judge about what happened in the Hulk Hogan sex tape dispute. Having CNN on board would aid the cause, although what might matter even more is Klar's arguments.
"Mr. Klar was publicly accused of more than six years ago committing a fraud," his attorney, Charles Singer, tells THR. "Having put those allegations in the public domain, our position is that we are entitled to have his case in public."
Singer adds that Klar's modification of the separation agreement - the subject of the dispute - was based on O'Reilly's own behavior.
O'Reilly's lawyer wasn't available to comment.