Looking for a biography of fired Fox News host Bill O’Reilly? Try this one, with the title: “The Man Who Would Not Shut Up.”
Prophetic. The fallen cable news star was sued Monday in a New York federal court for, essentially, failing to shut up. Some background: As the New York Times reported in a career-killing April 1 article, O’Reilly, along with his employer, had settled several cases with female colleagues alleging mistreatment and sexual harassment over a 20-year career at Fox News. One of them was Rachel Witlieb Bernstein, a producer who, in 2002, ended up on the wrong end of an O’Reilly tantrum. Sexual harassment was not alleged, though Bernstein reached a settlement and left Fox News.
When the New York Times presented the Bernstein case alongside four other accusers, O’Reilly lashed out at his predicament. “Just like other prominent and controversial people, I’m vulnerable to lawsuits from individuals who want me to pay them to avoid negative publicity. In my more than 20 years at Fox News Channel, no one has ever filed a complaint about me with the Human Resources Department, even on the anonymous hotline.” And 21st Century Fox, the cable news network’s parent company, struck a similar tone:
Notwithstanding the fact that 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 Mr. O’Reilly. While he denies the merits of these claims, Mr. O’Reilly has resolved those he regarded as his personal responsibility. Mr. O’Reilly is fully committed to supporting our efforts to improve the environment for all our employees at Fox News.
To pile on, O’Reilly has stated in various interviews that he settles cases in order to shield his family members from unwelcome attention.
The complaint filed Monday comes from Witlieb Bernstein, who alleges breach of contract — she and O’Reilly signed non-disparage and confidentiality agreements as part of the 2002 settlement — and defamation. Written by Neil Mullin and Nancy Erika Smith of Smith Mullin, P.C., it spits at O’Reilly’s attempts to save face. The statements published in the media, notes the complaint, try to paint O’Reilly as a “target” of extortionate claims. “This is false,” reads the complaint. “In fact, he is a serial abuser and Ms. Bernstein’s complaints against him were far from extortionate.” Another element of the complaint addresses O’Reilly’s oft-repeated insistence that he was never the subject of a complaint to human resources departments over his career. “I never mistreated anyone,” he said in one interview. He also alleged that the charges against him were “politically and financially motivated.”
“In fact, Mr. O’Reilly is the liar,” says the complaint, which also lists Fox News as a defendant. “He mistreated Ms. Bernstein. She was forced out of her job at Fox News and paid a settlement because of his mistreatment.” Contrary to O’Reilly’s claims, Witlieb Bernstein did indeed go to human resources and “other company executives” to raise her complaints about O’Reilly, argues the suit. That she apparently got nowhere isn’t a surprise: The HR department at the time was a captive hive of Fox News chief Roger Ailes, who was ousted in summer 2016 over sexual-harassment claims and died in May. In response to the Ailes and O’Reilly scandals, Fox News has strengthened its HR functions; the HR chief now reports to 21st Century Fox, and not to Fox News.
To cement its case against O’Reilly, the complaint cites language from the settlement. “Witlieb and Fox each agree not to disparage, trade libel, or otherwise defame each other and in the case of Fox, Witlieb agrees not to disparage, trade libel, or otherwise defame its officers or employees, including without limitation, Bill O’Reilly.” A reciprocal requirement bound O’Reilly and Fox News to observe the same limitations regarding Bernstein. The lawsuit says that Witlieb Bernstein was not the source of information for the April New York Times story.
An inquiry to a rep for O’Reilly netted no response on the suit.
In a statement on the complaint, Mullin said, “Knowing Ms. Bernstein and O’Reilly’s and other victims are afraid to speak out because he and Fox forced them to sign non-disclosure agreements, O’Reilly and Fox have made false and disparaging claims. They should release all victims from their NDAs and let the truth out. It is cowardly to publicly attack these women knowing they have been subjected to contractual provisions requiring absolute silence.”
For someone who abhors litigation, O’Reilly is generating a fair bit of it. Earlier this fall, he commenced legal action against some guy who wrote a Facebook post about his alleged activities. If you can’t rule the airwaves any longer, why not dominate the dockets?