Fox News stood by Bill O'Reilly when he settled a high-profile sexual harassment lawsuit in 2004 and when a 2015 Mother Jones article chronicled the host's misleading claims about having covered a “war zone” during the Falklands War. More important, advertisers stood by O'Reilly.
Now, however, dozens of sponsors are pulling their spots from “The O'Reilly Factor” in response to a New York Times investigation which found that a total of five women have collectively received $13 million in settlements after accusing the host of sexual harassment or inappropriate conduct.
Companies now unwilling to buy air time on O'Reilly's program include Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, BMW of North America, Mitsubishi Motors, Lexus, Constant Contact, Bayer, Ainsworth Pet Nutrition, Orkin, Untuckit, Allstate, Esurance, T. Rowe Price, GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi, Credit Karma, Wayfair, the Wonderful Company, TrueCar, the Society for Human Resource Management and Coldwell Banker.
O'Reilly's problems just got real.
“We value our partners and are working with them to address their current concerns about 'The O'Reilly Factor,' ” Paul Rittenberg, Fox News's executive vice president of advertising sales, said in a statement Tuesday. “At this time, the ad buys of those clients have been re-expressed into other [Fox News] programs.”
O'Reilly does have the support of President Trump, who told the New York Times Wednesday that the host is a “good person.”
“I don’t think Bill did anything wrong,” the president added.
But losing advertisers, let's remember, contributed to Glenn Beck's downfall at Fox News in 2011. Walmart, Geico, CVS and Procter and Gamble were among the major companies that pulled ads off Beck's show, which had quickly become one of the most popular in cable news after its 2009 debut.
Despite his large following, Beck's polarizing commentary frightened off mainstream brands. Most memorably, Beck declared on the air that President Barack Obama was “a racist” who “has a deep-seated hatred for white people.”
Sponsors didn't desert Beck all at once, but eventually hundreds of companies refused to buy airtime during his show.
O'Reilly is a long, long way from becoming a business liability on par with Beck. But when advertisers start walking, TV executives start paying attention. The bottom-line reality is that lost revenue registers in a way that liberal outrage over something like, say, a “James Brown wig” does not.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), whose hair O'Reilly likened to a “James Brown wig” last week, suggested on MSNBC Wednesday evening that the King of Cable News belongs behind bars, along with others at Fox News, which she accused of operating a “sexual harassment enterprise.”
“It shouldn't be in America that you can sexually harass women and then buy your way out of it because you're rich,” she said. “If they continue to do this in the way that they have done they need to go to jail.”
Yet O'Reilly has proven that even questions about journalistic integrity can be shrugged off or spun to his advantage. The Falklands episode two years ago centered on previous claims O'Reilly had made about his career as a reporter, such as this one in his 2001 book: “I've reported on the ground in active war zones from El Salvador to the Falklands.”
In fact, O'Reilly — like almost all journalists who covered the Falklands War in 1982 — never set foot on the Falkland Islands. After Mother Jones published its report, O'Reilly said he never meant to suggest he was on the islands and was referring to his on-the-ground coverage of postwar protests on the Argentine mainland, in Buenos Aires. He said that distinguishing between combat on the islands and faraway demonstrations in which soldiers used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters amounted to “splitting hairs.”
Slate's Justin Peters explained at the time why reporting by Mother Jones and subsequent coverage by the likes of Media Matters would not dent O'Reilly:
Being accused of fabulism by liberal news outlets like Mother Jones and Media Matters doesn’t harm O’Reilly’s credibility because O’Reilly’s credibility is dependent on exploiting a sense of victimization among his audience. Much of the Fox News demographic is composed of people who feel that they’re under attack by unscrupulous liberals. So when it appears that a host comes under attack by unscrupulous liberals, that serves to reinforce their existing worldview. The first thought isn’t Bill O’Reilly is a liar. It’s The world is out to get Bill O’Reilly.
O'Reilly's viewers might be similarly galvanized now. The King of Cable News enjoyed a ratings boost at the height of the Falklands scrutiny, which only made his nightly show a more appealing forum on which to air commercials. The Times, citing data from Kantar Media, reported on Tuesday's frong page that O'Reilly's program hauled in $446 million in ad revenue from 2014 to 2016.
The continued success of “The Factor” depends on advertisers' willingness to keep paying for access to O'Reilly's viewers, and a bunch are no longer willing.
This post has been updated.