Killing “The O’Reilly Factor” (4/20)

by: Kevin W.

Two and a half weeks after The New York Times reported numerous allegations of sexual harassment against Bill O’Reilly, Fox News Channel has announced they will be severing their relationship with O’Reilly. The move ends his 21 year career at the network, during which he became the channel’s most popular (and profitable) figure.

So what caused the split? After the Times story broke, dozens of companies pulled their ads from “The O’Reilly Factor,” putting financial pressure on the network. In addition, accusations from Wendy Walsh, who made use of Fox’s complaint hotline, brought extra scrutiny to the situation after the initial Times story published.

Fox News made the right decision. Allowing O’Reilly to stay would have been a message to female staffers that the company valued profits driven by his show more than their employees’ well being.

That said, I’d love to believe this move represents a fundamental shift in the culture at Fox News, but we’re not there yet. O’Reilly was fired less than a year after former Fox News President Roger Ailes was forced to resign amidst his own sexual harassment scandal. Afterwards, Fox promised to make changes to discourage such behavior, but by the time Ailes stepped down, Fox was already aware of numerous allegations against O’Reilly. If Fox News was serious about a crack down on sexual harassment, it would have come immediately after the Ailes debacle. Instead they continued to pay out settlements to the tune of over $13 million to protect their star and only dropped him when it was no longer a prudent financial decision to keep him.

Making O’Reilly’s firing a financial decision rather than a moral one does not say anything positive about Fox’s efforts to curb harassment in the workplace. It does, however, show that accountability can be enforced by the advertisers whose products are associated with the network. So if Fox is not ready to make the changes themselves, it helps that their advertisers are willing to push Fox along. The advertisers may be doing it to save their own brands’ images, but the end result is the same. It’s not the ideal method, but it’s a start.

The Blame Game

I’ve heard arguments that Fox News is to blame for fostering a workplace environment where O’Reilly’s behavior was tolerated, and yes, Fox is partially at fault. Fox’s justification for inaction, claiming none of the accusers ever contacted human resources about O’Reilly ignores the fact that many feared retribution if they did so. It is Fox’s job as an employer to make sure their employees are comfortable voicing their concerns and they have continued to fail. On that charge they are guilty.

But to place the responsibility all on Fox would deny O’Reilly accountability. Bill O’Reilly is an intelligent man who had to, on some level, understand that what he was doing was wrong. As a man who made a career out of promoting “traditional” family values, he should know better. We shouldn’t be shedding any tears over Bill’s departure.

There’s no doubt in my mind that O’Reilly will land on his feet despite this controversy. He’ll more than likely receive a payout from his existing contract at Fox News totaling millions of dollars. His publisher, Henry Holt, a Macmillan-owned imprint, has stated their plans to continue publishing O’Reilly’s books “have not changed.” And people will buy those books, undeterred by what’s happening now.  Look no further than his ratings spike after the Times article ran; O’Reilly still has millions of fans despite the allegations, and many will defend him no matter what.

Wherever he ends up next, let’s hope he’s learned his lesson. “Don’t sexually harass coworkers” should be common sense. It’s an incredibly low bar to set for workplace behavior and it’s shameful when that standard is not met. But clearly there’s still a long way to go for O’Reilly and Fox.

 

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