There are good reasons why the dismissal of Bill O’Reilly by Fox News is a win for women, but feminists are still vigilant today even while applauding the decision. The move has settled the ongoing concern—why the network was defending their star in the wake of so many accusations—and moved the spotlight to foundational issues about harassment and power. We can certainly celebrate the decision, but after a moment it will be time to get back to advocating for tough conversations. Chief among them: why did this take so long? Why did otherwise successful women settle their complaints? And why was the price of their silence so low?
It’s important to understand the breadth of the accusations against O’Reilly and the extent to which they were covered up. The New York Times chronicled them, and I’ve included a list below. I encourage you to check it out because news on the debacle has been spread out over time. Seeing all of it—including allegations of domestic abuse—in one place is alarming.
What took so long?
Since the ouster of Fox founder and CEO Roger Ailes last summer I wanted to believe the network was taking a stand against workplace harassment and bullying. They did, after all, launch an internal investigation which uncovered even more complaints against O’Reilly than they’d previously known. But that doesn’t excuse the company’s knowledge of at least some of O’Reilly’s behavior for more than a decade, and it really only took action after more than 80 advertisers pulled their ads from The O’Reilly Factor. To be clear, this is a money move wrapped up in PR package.
Bill O'Reilly tweet 1
Bill O'Reilly tweet 1
What this serves as is a depressing reminder that someone at the top of their game can equate professional success with a hierarchy of personal rights. That happens when too many people kowtow to power. I’ll go as far as saying that anyone who attaches themselves to power, excusing its excesses just to ride its coattails, is complicit when it runs amok.
But this dismissal, and a similar one in 2011 when Glenn Beck's advertisers started to bail out following controversy, show the power good reporting and public sentiment can have on the marketplace. And ultimately that's the only language most businesses understand.
Why didn't they fight it?
Similar to rape cases, sexual harassment draws upon a long history of victim blaming. It’s happened to all these women and it’s in full force on Twitter right now. Even some Fox fans are turning on these women who actually work for the network they love.
Bill O'Reilly tweet 2
Bill O'Reilly tweet 2
You seriously think these ladies aren't into earning their own money? I’m happy to just stiff-arm any argument that these women should have come forward sooner, quit their jobs, etc. But if someone were really jonesing for a debate I’d ask them to look at the behavior of anyone who seeks illicit goods (see: sex from subordinates); they become adept at deflecting suspicion, often back on their accuser. Turn down a male network anchor for a nightcap and suddenly she's misinterpreted the signals. Report it to the boss and suddenly she's the hysterical woman. Gaslighting and intimidation are as real in the office as anywhere else.
And there is solid reason for these women to protect their jobs. A 2014 study (the most recent year’s data) on women in media showed that combined across the three major broadcast networks women only held 32% of the camera time – that includes anchors, reporters, and correspondents. On cable news commentary shows women were just 28% of invited guests. Ironically, O’Reilly and Hannity were higher than the average with 36% and 35% female guests. Fox News Sunday was worse, just 23% of its guests were women.
So should a woman put her career ahead of her safety, or allow a co-worker to get away with harassment? No. But job parity isn’t going to come to an industry with that representation, and I won’t criticize the choices of women who are trying to (still) break barriers. This is why more women are needed in more positions of power, and sometimes why they don't stick around long enough to get there.
Even in an age when anti-harassment policies are supposed to be in effect it took 13 years to hold one profitable anchor accountable - and his accusers were professionals working at a multinational. This isn't limited to women or media. Overall we have to do a better job of protecting whistleblowers.
What's with the small payouts?
Maybe I shouldn’t comment on the amount of the settlements, which is really between the women and their lawyers. But when I heard that 5 women have received a total of just $13 million since 2004, I was stunned. Bear in mind O’Reilly’s worth is estimated at $85 million, which includes $24 million from his book deals. So what's with the small payouts for silence over such ghastly behavior?
Another white, middle-aged man with a sexist past is taking over O'Reilly time slot. Why, Fox?
Since Megyn Kelly left Fox for NBC Tucker Carlson has been in her old time slot. With today’s shakeup it looks like Carlson will move forward one hour into O’Reilly’s spot while The Five roundtable discussion show slots in at 9pm. Carlson’s most viral moment was last year when he argued Teen Vogue editor Lauren Duca about her snarky Tweets on Ivanka Trump. Carlson wrapped it up with this bit of career advice, “You should stick to the thigh-high boots. You’re better at that.”
And now, a timeline of what you need to know: O'Reilly through the years
- 2002 – Accused of bullying and intimidation by a junior producer on his show after berating her in front of the newsroom. He settled her complaint for an undisclosed amount and she left the network bound by a confidentiality agreement.
- 2004 – An associate producer sued O’Reilly for sexual harassment based on recorded phone calls. The anchor told her he’d make any woman who ratted him out “pay so dearly that she’ll wish she’d never been born.” O’Reilly and Fox went on the attack, hired an investigator to find dirt on the woman, sold it to the tabloids and filed a $60 million pre-emptive suit claiming extortion. He settled the case for $9 million two weeks after she filed it.
- 2011 – Fox Business network declined to renew the contract of a female host who took her recorded calls of unsolicited advances to her lawyers and had them report him to the network. She also left under a confidentiality agreement and with an unknown sum.
In 2016 Roger Ailes, founder and CEO of Fox News and Fox TV, resigned his position after sexual harassment accusations from Gretchen Carlson, Megyn Kelly, and six more women. The company launched an internal investigation which unearthed the previously unknown 2011 O’Reilly settlement, and led to two more:
- A Fox News anchor accused both Ailes and O’Reilly of sexual harassment, receiving a settlement of $1 million.
- A guest commentator and news reporter filed harassment complaints against O’Reilly when her career advancement was stymied after turning him down. She received intimidating letters from his lawyer and settled for $1.6 million.
Accusations that did not result in cases or settlements include:
- 2013 – O’Reilly had a habit of making verbal career promises to try and reel women into sexual favors. One former regular guest on his show was told he would use his pull with Ailes to get her a position at Fox News. She met O'Reilly for dinner at the Hotel Bel Air and after she turned down his invitation to his suite he turned hostile and insulting. His on-air demeanor toward her changed and eventually she was dismissed from his show. She did not file suit.
- 2016 – A former Fox News host suing Ailes testified that O’Reilly also made inappropriate comments and asked her to come to his private residence.
Court documents from O'Reilly's custody battle with his ex-wife reveal testimony from his daughter alleging possible domestic abuse including choking his ex and dragging her down the stairs. He also may have called his ex an adulterer to his daughter, and had trouble controlling his temper around his family.