(Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)
Media columnist

Whatever happens to Bill O’Reilly’s career, one aspect of this unrelenting story line at Fox News deserves to be put to rest forever.

Let’s call it the “hotline defense.”

That’s the ludicrous idea that a woman who is being sexually harassed, within a company known to be rife with misogyny, would choose to call an internal hotline to make her complaint.

Here’s O’Reilly on that point, as he responded to a New York Times article that revealed he and the company had paid $13 million to settle complaints from women who said he had sexually harassed them:

“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.”

(Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

And Fox’s parent corporation, 21st Century Fox, also insisted that not a single woman has ever called the hotline to raise a concern about O’Reilly, “even anonymously.”

Nancy Erika Smith, who represented longtime Fox host Gretchen Carlson last year in her sexual-harassment suit against Fox boss Roger Ailes, scoffed: “Going to human resources in a company like that is like going to the KGB to complain about Putin.” (Carlson received $20 million from Ailes in an out-of-court settlement.)

Smith added that “none of my clients, or the women I talked to, were even aware of a hotline” until last year when the law firm Paul Weiss was brought in by the company to independently investigate claims of a hostile workplace. The fact that an honest broker was necessary speaks volumes about the credibility of Fox’s HR.

And, as Smith notes, the claims against O’Reilly go back much further than that — over 15 years.

Gabriel Sherman, who has spent many years reporting on Fox — as the author of a definitive Ailes biography, “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” and now as a reporter for New York magazine — criticized the hotline idea, too.

“It’s a bogus defense,” he said. “In the broader context of Fox News, everyone understood that Ailes ruled with an iron fist and that he had his spies everywhere in the company,” including in the human resources department.

“The culture of fear and surveillance created a chilling effect,” he said. “Employees could not trust that there were safeguards that would protect them from retaliation.”

Sherman added: “For all women knew, the hotline could have gone directly to Ailes — there was that intensity of being monitored by Ailes and his minions.”

Nathaniel Brown, a 21st Century Fox spokesman, responded to my questions about the hotline — how long it had existed, how employees were told about it and what the process was for investigating complaints — by avoiding specifics and instead sending me the company’s “Standards of Business Practice” document. He pointed out germane passages, all of which make it sound as if these matters are taken very seriously.

Employees get this in hard copy, he said, and must certify they’ve read it. It’s also on the company’s website.

Brown did not respond to my question of how it would be possible for O’Reilly to speak knowledgeably about complaints to the hotline if indeed it is anonymous and confidential.

A Fox News spokeswoman, Irena Briganti, sent me an internal correspondence from Kevin Lord, the new head of human resources at Fox News, providing various ways employees can make complaints, including directly to the Paul Weiss firm.

Smith, Carlson’s attorney, is convinced that this problem goes far beyond Fox.

She sees “an epidemic of misogyny in our culture — it’s Silicon Valley, it’s statehouses, it’s everywhere, including now a president who bragged about grabbing p---y.”

Indeed, President Trump defended O’Reilly on Wednesday: “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.”

No doubt, there are many hotlines and many human resources departments where complaints of workplace harassment are taken seriously and handled responsibly.

That might even be true now at 21st Century Fox, although the continued presence there of the old guard — Ailes’s enablers — strongly suggests otherwise.

But recall the management truism that organizational culture eats strategy for breakfast.

You can have all the corporate handbooks, hotlines and internal memos in the world, but they won’t do much if the real-life work environment sends the opposite message.

Has Fox’s longtime culture of misogyny truly changed?

If so, it will be easy to tell: Bill O’Reilly won’t be working there.

For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan.