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‘The mission was to bring down Bill O’Reilly’: The final days of a Fox News superstar

Bill O'Reilly let go from Fox News Channel (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

The accuser was wavering. She wanted to go public, to tell the world about her claims that the Fox News megastar Bill O’Reilly ogled her at their workplace and suggestively called her “hot chocolate.”

But Perquita Burgess was afraid, her attorney Lisa Bloom said. Afraid of Twitter trolls and other haters. Afraid that a powerful man would ruin her life for daring to cross him. So, Bloom invoked civil rights history to say the words that finally persuaded Burgess, a former Fox temp worker who is African American.

"Do you think Rosa Parks decided she was not going to do what she needed to do because people were going to say nasty things to her?" Bloom said, citing the heroine of the Montgomery bus boycott. "This is your time."

She also explained to her client in stark terms what she hoped to accomplish: “The mission was to bring down Bill O’Reilly.”

The accusations by Burgess — who first disclosed her claims anonymously through her attorney on Tuesday and has now publicly identified herself — added one more discordant note to a crescendo of scandal that has shaken America’s most watched cable news network over the past year. At a moment when the conservative juggernaut might have been strutting with Republicans in the White House and firmly in control of Congress, the network is instead operating in an almost continuous cycle of bad publicity and damage control.

The departure Wednesday of O'Reilly, Fox's biggest star, caps a bruising 10-month slog during which the network's all-powerful guiding light and chief executive officer, Roger Ailes, was forced to resign over multiple sexual-misconduct allegations, and some of its biggest names, including anchors Greta Van Susteren and Megyn Kelly, left to join competitors. The melodrama coincides with a generational shift in leadership as Rupert Murdoch's sons, Lachlan and James, assert more control over a lucrative channel that has played an outsize role in shaping the U.S. political landscape over the past two decades.

There could be more troubles ahead. In an interview Thursday, Nancy Erika Smith — the attorney who represented former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson in the legal claim that triggered Ailes’s downfall — said she would file additional lawsuits next month.

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O'Reilly has called the claims against him unfounded and Fox has remained a ratings force. Even as the O'Reilly accusations were prompting an advertiser boycott, his show remained atop the list of most-watched cable news programs. Still, the cavalcade of developments dampened morale among rank-and-file staffers, according to current and former Fox employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution or because of non-disclosure agreements.

Smith says it is hard for her to imagine a major culture shift at Fox; many key executives she described as “enablers” of Ailes and others remain in top executive positions. A former staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, agreed: “Ailes and O’Reilly might be gone, but the rest of the power structure is unchanged.”

Fox executives are eager to counter the notion that nothing will change. Fox has brought on a new human resources director, and all employees have now undergone “sensitivity training,” company officials said. And the New York-based news operation has assigned a human resources employee to work out of its large Washington bureau.

Such moves could address workplace and financial concerns: Companies that spend large sums settling sexual-harassment complaints can draw the ire of shareholders. Ailes, who has denied wrongdoing, got a $40 million payout when he resigned, while O'Reilly walked away with $25 million. Carlson settled her lawsuit for $20 million, and according to a New York Times investigation, O'Reilly and 21st Century Fox have paid $13 million to settle complaints lodged by five women dating to 2002.

What became clear over the past 10 months is that the best way to attack a news company is by making news. Smith said she wrangled with attorneys for Ailes, who wanted to deal with Carlson’s sexual-harassment allegations through a secret, non-public arbitration process. When her client refused and went public with her complaint that Ailes thwarted her career because she would not have sex with him, “that opened the floodgates” for other accusers, Smith said. Within days, numerous women came forward with similar harassment claims. Smith says her firm alone was eventually contacted by nearly 30 women.

“By bringing Fox into the light of day, we’ve been able to show how secrecy hurts all of us,” Smith said.

The scandal took a toll inside the news organization.

“There were a lot of mid-level staffers, especially women and minorities, who were — are — seriously considering leaving Fox,” a Fox News staffer said on Thursday as the newsroom was still absorbing O’Reilly’s departure.

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In her pursuit of O’Reilly, Bloom took a similar tack to the one used by Smith in her case against Ailes, pushing the story into the public realm as much as possible. Bloom — the daughter of famed publicity-savvy attorney Gloria Allred — gained enormous leverage when the Times published its blockbuster April 1 story about the O’Reilly settlements. But she feared that interest would fade.

She needed to keep the buzz going. So she persuaded Wendy Walsh, a Los Angeles radio personality who had been a guest on O’Reilly’s show, to hold a news conference on April 3. There were two goals, Bloom said: Keep the story alive, but also draw out more accusers.

A mediagenic psychologist with her own radio show, Walsh had no intention of suing but did offer a compelling tale. She had made occasional appearances on Fox but said O’Reilly dangled the idea of making her a regular contributor, which would have substantially raised her national profile. After a dinner in Los Angeles, she said, O’Reilly tried to lure her to his hotel room. She rebuffed him, she said, and not long thereafter, her opportunity to become a regular contributor evaporated. (An O’Reilly representative would later call Walsh’s story false.)

After Walsh’s news conference, Bloom started hearing from other women — just as she had expected.

At this point, something unusual happened. The usually aggressive Fox public-relations squad fell atypically mute on the O’Reilly matter, issuing no statements in his defense. It was clear: O’Reilly was on his own. He brought on his own spin team, including an old Clinton White House hand, Mark Fabiani.

But, in Bloom’s estimation, he had made a big mistake.

On the day the Times story hit, Bloom says, O’Reilly had handed her “a beautiful, gift-wrapped present” in his public statement rebuffing the allegations. The statement said: “Just like other prominent and controversial people, I’m vulnerable to lawsuits from individuals who want me to pay them to avoid negative publicity.” But his statement rested part of his defense on a claim that no one had ever complained about him to the human resources department or called in to an “anonymous hotline.”

It was an “aha” moment for Bloom. After consulting a company handbook she had acquired during a previous case, she determined that Walsh was eligible to call the hotline, even though she was not a full-time employee. Bloom was so excited about the idea that the catchy disco-era song “Hotline” kept running through her head: “Hotline, hotline, callin’ on the hotline.”

Bloom’s staff videotaped Walsh’s call to the hotline, and sent the lengthy recording — which included spates of time when she was left on hold — to Walsh’s tech-savvy nephew. He edited it into a shorter version to share with the media, including the moment when the hotline operator asks Walsh to spell O’Reilly’s name. On April 5, Bloom posted the tape to her Facebook page.

So now an official complaint was on the record, in just the form O’Reilly had deemed legitimate. On April 9, Fox’s parent company announced it was bringing in Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison — the same firm that looked into allegations against Ailes — to examine claims about O’Reilly.

By April 11, as more and more sponsors pulled their ads from the “O’Reilly Factor,” the combative commentator announced his departure for what he called a long-planned vacation in Italy.

According to Bloom, the attorneys brought in by Fox’s parent company seemed to be in a hurry to close the books.

“They were very eager for everything to happen ASAP,” she said. “They were the ones pressing us to go, go, go. By the end, I thought they were looking for a reason to fire him.”

Still, she felt she needed more.

Enter Burgess, the reluctant witness. Bloom could tell she would require delicate handling. Walsh was used to being in the public eye. Burgess was not. In mid-April, Bloom flew to North Carolina for dinner with the former Fox News clerical worker who said she had been subjected to O’Reilly’s coarse comments.

She left the meal thinking Burgess was on board. But the next morning, Bloom says, Burgess called to say she had changed her mind. At that point, the lawyer brought up her Rosa Parks example. She put the question to Burgess like this: “You mean to tell me that because of Twitter trolls, you’re not going to stand up for what’s right? Is that what you’re telling me?”

Burgess came around. For the time, she would remain anonymous — and, like Walsh, she had no intention of suing for damages. But, knowing that the attorneys conducting an internal inquiry would be alerted, she agreed to call the hotline to outline her complaint, which dates back to her short tenure at Fox in 2008. And, just as crucially, she okayed allowing Bloom to put out the news.

On Tuesday, Bloom sent out a headline-grabbing tweet: “I represent a new woman who just phoned in a complaint of sexual and racial harassment against Bill O’Reilly to the Fox News hotline.”

Bloom booked a flight to New York in hopes of getting big play on the cable news shows. She got it, and O’Reilly’s camp seemed to notice.

That same day, the anchor’s attorney, Marc Kasowitz, issued a statement about the still-cloaked Burgess allegation: “It is outrageous that an allegation from an anonymous person about something that purportedly happened almost a decade ago is being treated as fact, especially where there is obviously an orchestrated campaign by activists and lawyers to destroy Mr. O’Reilly and enrich themselves through publicity-driven donations.”

Kasowitz said his client was being “subjected to a brutal campaign of character assassination that is unprecedented in post-McCarthyist America.” Without revealing specifics, Kasowitz said his firm had “uncovered evidence that the smear campaign is being orchestrated by far-left organizations bent on destroying O’Reilly for political and financial reasons.”

When Ailes came under scrutiny, several of the network’s stars publicly came to his defense. It was a testament to his power but also to a reservoir of good will he had accumulated among some of Fox’s stars. O’Reilly, whose television persona was often caustic and snide, mounted as vigorous a defense as possible from his Italian vacation, deploying a professional spin doctor to attack Walsh’s claims. But, within Fox, he was much less popular than Ailes and the network’s big names mostly kept silent.

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By Wednesday, 21st Century Fox was ready to make its move. O’Reilly was out.

“This was a major step, I feel, in the right direction,” a staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity said. “There is still a lot of systemic work that the network needs to do to ameliorate the situation.”

Within hours, women were appearing on CNN to share their own stories about him. Former Fox personality Margaret Hoover said that while O’Reilly “never sexually harassed her,” she still had “some experiences where I’m uncomfortable enough for me to know never to put myself in a position where I was alone with Bill.”

Later, Kirsten Powers, a USA Today columnist and former Fox commentator who is now a CNN analyst, talked on air about the time O’Reilly thanked her on air for her “blondness.” Feeling disrespected, Powers went directly to the top, complaining to Ailes.

“What am I going to do? I don’t like him, but he makes so much money,” Ailes told Powers, according to her account of the conversation. “You know Bill, he likes to put up dirty pictures and ask pretty girls to talk about them.”

“I told the story I told because it says a lot about the culture,” Powers said in an interview Thursday. “That even if you did everything right — meaning you complained all the way up the ladder — it didn’t really make any difference.”