Fox News and its star host Bill O’Reilly appear to have developed a strategy in response to allegations of serial sexual harassment and the mass defections of advertisers from O’Reilly’s program: Say as little as possible.
The voluble TV personality has said nothing on the air about the controversy since it broke over the weekend. Fox News has all but ignored any reporting about it in its broadcasts and on its website; its one acknowledgment was a 25-second summary on its “Media Buzz” program on Sunday. It has not mentioned the advertiser reaction.
Fox’s parent company, meanwhile, has confined its comments to a brief statement issued Saturday saying, in part, that it “takes matters of workplace behavior very seriously.”
Dozens of advertisers have suspended their sponsorship of O’Reilly’s top-rated program, “The O’Reilly Factor,” since the story broke that O’Reilly and Fox have settled five claims that he harassed women at Fox, paying out $13 million since 2002. A sixth woman, who has not sought payment, said she, too, was pressured for sex by O’Reilly and was punished at Fox when she refused.
Fox News’s only statement on the matter was one issued Tuesday from its top ad executive, Paul Rittenberg, who said ads withdrawn from “The O’Reilly Factor” would be moved to other Fox programs.
The network declined again Thursday to respond to questions. Fox’s parent, 21st Century Fox, did not respond at all when asked for comment.
The takeaway from Fox’s non-response isn’t clear. On one hand, the lack of supportive statements for O’Reilly could reflect official disapproval, while Fox has shown no outward signs that it has disciplined O’Reilly or that it intends to punish its biggest star.
Conversely, the blanket of silence could represent the best of a series of bad options. By not responding publicly, O’Reilly, Fox and 21st Century may be hoping that the attention surrounding the issue will eventually subside.
So far, O’Reilly’s audience has not only stuck with him — it has grown. “The O’Reilly Factor” attracted 3.8 million viewers Tuesday night, according to Nielsen, a 20 percent increase over the program’s ratings a week before and 19 percent more than on the same date last year.
O’Reilly’s silence in this instance stands in stark contrast to the last time he was the story. After Mother Jones magazine published a piece in 2015 questioning O’Reilly’s claims about reporting on the Falkland Islands war in the early 1980s, O’Reilly mounted an aggressive campaign to rebut the article’s premise.
In various interviews with reporters, he called the story “slander” and labeled its principal author, David Corn, “a liar” and “a guttersnipe” who should be put in “the kill zone.” O’Reilly also warned a New York Times reporter, Emily Steel, that if the Times’ coverage of the topic was inaccurate or inappropriate, he would be “coming after you with everything I have. You can take it as a threat.” (Steel was an author of the Times story, published Saturday, about O’Reilly’s harassment settlements.)
O’Reilly’s attack on Corn and other journalists in 2015 did not quell the controversy, however. News organizations soon dug up other instances in which O’Reilly had exaggerated his exploits as a reporter.
For Fox, the current controversy is complicated by its connection to a larger scandal about the network — the sexual-harassment allegations that led to the ouster of its chairman, Roger Ailes, last year.
Given that context, O’Reilly and Fox may have no choice but to keep mum now lest they remind people of the earlier scandal, Corn said.
“O’Reilly lives to fight,” he said. “But in this instance, who’s he going to attack? The women? Anything he can say would only elongate the newsiness of this scandal. His only play is to hope this passes. It must make him very, very sad that there’s no one for him to insult here.”
(O’Reilly addressed the issue Saturday in a brief statement portraying himself as a target of opportunistic people.)
Crisis management experts, however, say silence is rarely a good idea in the midst of controversy.
Michael Fineman, who heads a crisis-counseling company, advises clients in such situations to put out all the facts at once, take responsibility for the controversy, express concern for those affected and make assurances of reform.
In this case, that may mean Fox should remove O’Reilly from the air, temporarily or permanently, said Steven Fink, the author of “Crisis Communications: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message.” Fink said NBC News sent a strong and reassuring signal to viewers and nervous advertisers in 2015 by suspending anchor Brian Williams for six months after finding that he exaggerated various stories.
“As long as O’Reilly’s on the air, I don’t think this story will die,” Fink said. “In an era of social media, there are enough people who will not let this go by quietly.”
But Eric Dezenhall, a Washington-based communications counselor, said Fox and O’Reilly have very few choices. “Crisis management is the art of navigating abominable options,” said Dezenhall, who has appeared on O’Reilly’s show. “The question is not whether silence is the best option. It is a question of it being the least awful option given a variety of variables we just don’t know about as outsiders.”