On July 21, 2016 after nearly two decades at the helm of the broadcast company, Roger E. Ailes turned in his resignation as Chairman and CEO of Fox News.
The announcement came fifteen days after Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox News anchor, filed a lawsuit alleging she was fired from the network in retaliation for refusing sexual advances made by Ailes. Two days later, CNN Money reported that Carlson’s law firm, Smith Mullin, had been contacted by “at least ten” additional women who said they were willing to speak out against Ailes’ sexual harassment.
Only months later, a new sexual harassment scandal is unfolding at Fox News, this time involving heavyweight anchor, Bill O’Reilly. On April 1, 2017 The Times reported that five women had been paid a total of $13.1 million by O’Reilly or Fox News to settle sexual harassment lawsuits between 2002 and 2016. The women named in the report were Rachel Witkieb Bernstien and Andrea Mackris, two former producers on O’Reilly’s show, as well as Rebecca Gomez Diamond, Laurie Dhue and Juliet Huddy, who were on-air personalities at either Fox News or Fox Business.
As the lawsuits stack up, O’Reilly and Ailes have denied all allegations. In a statement posted to his website, O’Reilly implied that all five women who have spoken out against him are liars. “Those of us in the arena are constantly at risk, as are our families and children. My primary efforts will continue to be to put forth an honest TV program and to protect those close to me.”
In his statement, O’Reilly claimed to have settled the five lawsuits to protect his children. “But most importantly, I’m a father who cares deeply for my children and who would do anything to avoid hurting them in any way. And so I have put to rest any controversies to spare my children,” said O’Reilly.
Fox News has stood by O’Reilly’s statements, claiming, “No current or former Fox News employee ever took advantage of the 21st Century Fox hotline to raise a concern about Bill O’Reilly, even anonymously, we have looked into these matters over the last few months and discussed them with O’Reilly.” But according to a meta-data analysis by Lilia Cortina of the University of Michigan and Jennifer Berdahl of the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business only two to three percent of people experiencing workplace harassment ever file a formal complaint.
The following day, radio host Dr. Wendy Walsh—who was not one of the five women mentioned by The Times—announced that she would be filing a formal report with the 21st Century Fox hotline. Walsh’s lawyer, Lisa Bloom, posted a video recording to YouTube of Walsh filing the complaint and tweeted the following: “Fox News and O’Reilly have said no one has complained about him on their complaint line. That is no longer true. We have proof.”
Since the show’s inception in 1996, The O’Reilly Factor has been Fox News’ linchpin. It may be for this reason that the company has stood by O’Reilly through previous sexual harassment allegations. In fact, one of the lawsuits included in The Times article had been previously reported. In 2004, The Smoking Gun posted a 22-page affidavit filed with the New York Supreme Court naming O’Reilly as a defendant. The affidavit included transcripts of an unsolicited phone sex conversation in which O’Reilly launched into a lewd fantasy about touching producer Andrea Mackris in the shower with a loofah, which he later mistakenly called a “falafel.”
More ominously, after climaxing, O’Reilly boasted to Mackris that none of the women he’d engaged in sexual relations with would ever come forward publicly. “Nobody’d believe ‘em… they wouldn’t [tell] anyways,” O’Reilly continued, saying, “ I can’t imagine any of them ever doing that ‘cuz I always made friends with women before I bedded them down.” O’Reilly was married with two young children at the time.
In 2003, while working for CNN, Tucker Carlson wrote in a book that O’Reilly’s popularity was fragile because it depended on his ability to play the character of a regular guy from Long Island. Carlson, who replaced Megyn Kelly following The O’Reilly Factor wrote, “If he [O’Reilly] ever gets caught out of character, it’s over. If someday he punches out a flight attendant on the Concorde for bringing him a glass of warm champagne, the whole franchise will come tumbling down.”
O’Reilly’s unmasking began when he lost custody of his children in 2016. In court transcripts acquired by Gawker, O’Reilly’s daughter Madeline “said her dad was choking her mom or had his hands around her neck and dragged her down some stairs.” In the Appellate Division’s final decision, the panel wrote: “Particularly relevant in this case are the clearly stated preferences of the children, especially considering their age and maturity, and the quality of the home environment provided by the mother.”
Three years earlier, O’Reilly had addressed the shooting of Trayvon Martin on The O’Reilly Factor saying “the reason there is so much violence and chaos in the black precincts is the disintegration of the African-American family… the lack of involved fathers leads young boys to grow up resentful and unsupervised.”
But until this week, Mr. Carlson’s prediction didn’t seem as if it would come true. As the contrast between The O’Reilly Factor’s rhetoric, emphasizing family values, and O’Reilly’s fraught personal life became more apparent his ratings continued to soar. On Tuesday, following The Times’ report, O’Reilly’s viewership had risen 20 percent from the previous week to 3.76 million. The following day, President Donald Trump even defended O’Reilly in an interview with The Times, saying, “personally I think he shouldn’t have settled. Because you should have taken it all the way. I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.”
Four days earlier, President Trump had issued a statement honoring National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month in which he wrote, “My Administration, including the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services, will do everything in its power to protect women, children, and men from sexual violence.”
Everything changed when dozens of companies began pulling their advertisements from The O’Reilly Factor with BMW, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz leading the way. Donna Boland, a spokeswoman for Mercedes-Benz, told CNN Money, “Given the importance of women in every aspect of our business, we don’t feel this is a good environment in which to advertise our products right now.”
Twitter campaigns, including #StopOReilly, have helped pressure at least 56 companies into pulling their advertisements from The O’Reilly Factor. One of the organizers of the #StopOReilly campaign is Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America. Mr. Carusone previously launched a #StopBeck campaign in 2009 after Glen Beck called President Obama a racist on his show. According to Carusone, over 300 sponsors ultimately chose to boycott Mr. Beck’s show; he left Fox News in 2011. Mr. Carusone hopes to convince advertisers that they are accountable for the content of the shows that they advertise on and so far, it seems to be working.
On April 11, 2017, The Times reported that The O’Reilly Factor had lost more than half of its advertising by time—according to the analysis by the ad-tracking firm iSpot.tv. Later that night, O’Reilly announced that he would be taking a vacation from The O’Reilly Factor, slated to return in two weeks. But sources for New York, including an anonymous “senior Fox News staffer” have suggested that O’Reilly may not be back to stay. “The assumption is that he’ll exit in a non-embarrassing way,” said the senior staffer.
Nine days later, on April 20, 2017, O’Reilly resigned from his position as the top-rated host in cable news.