The Post reported on Wednesday on the stunning downfall of controversial gadfly host Bill O’Reilly after a 20-year run at Fox News:
The conservative-leaning host’s downfall was swift and steep, set in motion less than three weeks ago by revelations of a string of harassment complaints against him. The questions about his conduct represented yet another black eye to Fox, which had dealt with a sexual harassment scandal involving its co-founder and then-chairman Roger Ailes, just last summer. …
O’Reilly had previously survived several controversies during his 21 years at Fox, including a lurid sexual harassment case in 2004 that was fodder for New York’s tabloid newspapers. He also beat back a wave of headlines in 2015, when reporters examined his claims about his days as a young reporter and found them to be dubious. All the while, O’Reilly’s audience not only stuck with him, but continued to grow.
But this time, the intense media coverage surrounding O’Reilly led to a stampede of advertisers away from O’Reilly’s program, leaving it almost without sponsorship over the past two weeks. Various organizations, including the National Organization for Women, called for O’Reilly’s firing, and intermittent protests began outside Fox News’s headquarters in New York. Morale among employees at the network reportedly was suffering, too.
What do we learn from all of this?
For starters, Fox News and 21st Century Fox waited far too long, allowing a trail of women to fall victim to O’Reilly’s gross alleged behavior, before firing him. That was reprehensible, and litigants who have come forward recently and will continue to speak out will use that as bargaining leverage in settlement negotiations. The Fox executives, with the exception of Roger Ailes, who were responsible for this travesty remain employed. (“Since the Ailes scandal, the company has continued to employ almost all of the senior managers who were in charge when Ailes was allegedly harassing employees, including Bill Shine, currently Fox’s co-president. Shine was accused of enabling Ailes’s retaliatory efforts against an accuser, Fox contributor Julie Roginsky, in a sexual-harassment lawsuit Roginsky filed earlier this month.”) Absent a complete housecleaning of Fox News’s executive ranks, we should see more boycotts, advertiser protests and the like.
Second, President Trump, who has had his own string of female accusers and a history of misogynistic rhetoric, dubbed the Fox News host a “good person.” Trump declared, “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong,” once again demonstrating how out of touch the president is with the culture, morals and values of the country. The notion that “religious” leaders should continue to support Trump and vouch for him bespeaks of how far the politicization of evangelical ranks has gone and the degree to which they have sacrificed their moral standing. The pro-Trump evangelicals were not among those calling for O’Reilly to leave. So much for family values.
Third, real news from real outlets, in this case reporting from the New York Times, still matters. Without the Times’s discovery of multiple lawsuits, O’Reilly would still be there, preying on the next woman to come along. Ironically, Fox News, which has adopted Trump’s definition of “fake news” — anything harmful to Trump’s worldview — was undone by one of Trump’s favorite targets for insult and abuse. O’Reilly can deny the allegations all he likes — just as Trump continues to ask us to ignore what our own eyes tell us — but at some point, people will refuse to be conned.
Fourth, Fortune 500 businesses of the type that pulled their advertising from O’Reilly’s show, contrary to popular myth, are not bastions of racism, sexism and right-wing thuggery. They want to be seen as environmentally responsible, tolerant and modern. These multinational companies have public images to cultivate, diverse employees they need to attract and retain and fleets of lawyers and image-makers. The Fox News culture was an outlier, a “Mad Men” throwback with which these companies could not afford to be associated. The sensitivity of big business to public image and fear of giving offense, we have suggested, should encourage business-directed campaigns on issues such as child care, labor practices and the environment, especially in the Trump era. (Wall Street is a progressive nirvana compared with the Trump administration.)
Fifth, Fox News made the decision to dump O’Reilly because he was a business risk the network was unwilling to endure. There is no sign that its “leg cam” or dolled-up women will vanish. The glamorization, bordering on exploitation, of female on-air talent that provides the distinctive Fox News “look” will remain. (Aside from the sexism, we should acknowledge the ageism evident in the network’s selection of hosts.) Moreover, the underlying, broader issue for Fox News — does it want to be a refuge from reality for right-wingers, or a legitimate news operation? — remains. So long as the former pays handsomely, they’ll continue to be defined by “Fox & Friends,” Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson.