James Murdoch is the chief executive of 21st Century Fox, the parent company of Fox News. He’s the fellow who has long been depicted in news accounts as a sane and moderating influence on the leading cable-news channel — a counterweight to former Fox News chief Roger Ailes, who died in May after a long career of distorting the nation’s politics. Murdoch scolded President Trump in a much-discussed internal company email. “James regarded many of the people at Fox News as thuggish Neanderthals and said he was embarrassed to be in the same company with them,” wrote Michael Wolff, a biographer of Rupert Murdoch.

That same James Murdoch was asked Wednesday morning about the weekend’s news, courtesy of the New York Times, that Bill O’Reilly had reached a $32 million settlement over sexual harassment allegations with former Fox News legal analyst Lis Wiehl. Here’s what one of the world’s top media moguls had to say:

  • “It was news to me when we saw that number the other day.”
  • “It’s easy to look from the outside and say, ‘Didn’t you know that?’ I think the issue becomes, how do you react to those things” after they’re revealed, he said, according to Variety.

As reported by the New York Times, O’Reilly personally settled the case with Wiehl, who alleged a “nonconsensual sexual relationship” plus the transmission of lewd messages and gay pornography. And O’Reilly & Co. did not inform 21st Century Fox of the amount of the settlement. The company laid out the circumstances in a prepared statement from last weekend:

When the company renewed Bill O’Reilly’s contract in February, it knew that a sexual harassment lawsuit had been threatened against him by Lis Wiehl, but was informed by Mr. O’Reilly that he had settled the matter personally, on financial terms that he and Ms. Wiehl had agreed were confidential and not disclosed to the company. His new contract, which was made at a time typical for renewals of multi-year talent contracts, added protections for the company specifically aimed at harassment, including that Mr. O’Reilly could be dismissed if the company was made aware of other allegations or if additional relevant information was obtained in a company investigation. The company subsequently acted based on the terms of this contract.

In other words, yes: It is plausible that Murdoch didn’t know the sum of O’Reilly’s settlement with Wiehl. And yes, there is no excuse for such plain and self-serving ignorance.

The takeaway from the 21st Century Fox statement is that O’Reilly’s bosses wanted to keep the hundreds of millions of advertising dollars yielded by “The O’Reilly Factor.” They didn’t want to have to make further changes to the prime-time Fox News lineup, which had been a stable force of ratings wonder for years under Ailes. And they really didn’t want to know all the details about O’Reilly, or at least how much money was required to clean up his workplace messes. Blinders served them better.

All that notwithstanding, Murdoch told Julia Boorstin of CNBC at Wednesday’s event at New York City’s Paley Center: “You investigate things thoroughly, you make what you think is the best decision.” And he also said that the subsequent firing of O’Reilly — and the dismissal of Ailes in the summer of 2016 for his own sexual-harassment scandal — “sends a strong signal to employees and [the industry] that there are behaviors that are not tolerable.”

The facts actually send a different signal — namely, that when the Murdochs are in charge, the behaviors are tolerable until they become a public embarrassment. After all, Ailes didn’t get sacked until he was sued by former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson in July 2016, forcing 21st Century Fox to investigate his past. And O’Reilly had already tallied five settlements with female colleagues over sexual harassment or straight-up mistreatment. The Wiehl settlement was his sixth, and Fox News gave him a raise in spite of it. So that’s how the company “reacts to those things.”

Debra Katz, an employment attorney with Katz, Marshall & Banks LLP, tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “This cannot be true unless they are determined not to know.” That O’Reilly paid out the sum of $32 million is an indication, says Katz, that Wiehl had “powerful evidence” behind her claims. “They didn’t have any curiosity, like, ‘Hey, what did you settle for?’ That seems to me to be part of due diligence.” Awful corporate behavior, though not terribly groundbreaking. “Concealing and covering up for recidivist harassers who are revenue generators is as common as mud in corporate America,” says Katz.
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