Bill O’Reilly became the second high-profile Fox figure to be pushed out in less than a year when the company announced on Wednesday it was ending his employment. His departure comes just months after former Fox Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes was ousted last summer.
Both men’s high-profile terminations came about after allegations of sexual harassment stirred up public outrage. But in both cases, such accusations had long already dogged them. They weren’t ousted until multiple women came forward with stories of abuse over the course of decades, public pressure mounted to show the two men the door, and it became financially impractical for the network to keep them on. And in both cases, their firings are a small victory that comes far too late.
In O’Reilly’s case, pressure increased after the New York Times published a report on five settlements totaling $13 million that O’Reilly or the TV network itself had paid to women over the years, four of which were regarding sexual harassment cases. The news was the match that lit a conflagration of negative attention, leading to a mass exodus of advertisers from The O’Reilly Factor. Other women also came forward with their own allegations after the Times report.
But the public outrage was about a decade late. O’Reilly’s purported sexual harassment first became public in 2004, when his then-producer Andrea Mackris filed a lawsuit against him. Mackris described incidents when O’Reilly called her while apparently masturbating, told her to buy a vibrator, and described sex fantasies involving her and loofahs. She even claimed to have recorded some of these calls.
Even last August, other allegations about O’Reilly were made public. Former Fox News host Andrea Tantaros filed a lawsuit saying she was harassed by both O’Reilly and Ailes, claiming O’Reilly tried to lure her to his house on Long Island and said he wanted to see her “wild side.”
Stories of Ailes’s abusive behavior date back even further. When Ailes was still at CNBC in the early 1990s, he went on Don Imus’s radio show and joked that two female hosts, Mary Matalin and Jane Wallace, were like “girls who if you went into a bar around seven, you wouldn’t pay a lot of attention, but [they] get to be tens around closing time.” The network played it off as a joke, but the women felt differently: “He was our boss. It was completely sexist. It was disgusting. It was outrageous,” Wallance later told reporter Gabriel Sherman.
In his 2014 biography of Ailes, The Loudest Voice in the Room, Sherman detailed a number of stories women shared of being harassed by Ailes. When Ailes was a Broadway producer in the 1970s, Stephanie Gordon recounted being summoned to his office alone on a Sunday afternoon and made to take her clothes off to be photographed in nothing but a towel. Producer Randi Harrison told Sherman that in the 1980s Ailes hinted that she should sleep with him to get ahead and then demanded as much when she rejected a lowball salary offer. Reporter and producer Shelley Ross recounted Ailes posing “romantically suggestive questions” and interjecting “flirtatious comments about her appearance” in their conversations.
After Gretchen Carlson sued Ailes for sexual harassment last year, even more stories about Ailes’ behavior became public. Some were incredibly disturbing: Laurie Luhn says she was harassed by Ailes and “psychologically tortured” for two decades. She said Fox executives knew about it and only worked to cover it up, not to address the abuse.
Fox tolerated both of these men for decades despite what seems to have been common knowledge that they were predators in the newsroom. “Mr. Murdoch prizes loyalty and profits, both of which Mr. O’Reilly brought him in droves,” Michael Grynbaum reports at the Times, referring to 21st Century Fox owner Rupert Murdoch, and that allowed him to shrug off all of the allegations against his star host over the years. The same was true of Ailes, who had made Murdoch $1 billion a year through Fox News.
It wasn’t until advertisers began to flee the network en masse and mass protests erupted outside Fox headquarters that executives finally relented on O’Reilly. The decision may also have been influenced by the fact that O’Reilly’s behavior was becoming a potential threat to 21st Century Fox’s takeover of broadcaster Sky. European regulators are considering whether Fox will be a “fit and proper” owner for the broadcaster, and the outrage over O’Reilly could have undermined that process.
In Ailes’s case, the harassment lawsuit against him served mostly as cover for Rupert Murdoch’s two sons, James and Lachlan, to push him out of the company. As they began to take a larger role with the network, they were already looking for ways to sideline Ailes, and this controversy appeared to be an opportunity to do just that. That desire, coupled with the allegations, finally superseded Murdoch’s loyalty and Ailes’s worth.
The numerous women who were victimized by these men — and the other women who worked at Fox under the fear that they, too, could be targeted with no recourse — may finally be able to feel some relief that neither is employed at Fox. But it shouldn’t have to take decades of allegations to secure such an outcome. And the fact that it was finances, rather than the experiences of female employees, that influenced the choice to finally get rid of these men does not encourage confidence in how Fox views harassment.
Unfortunately, what happened at Fox isn’t terribly unique. This is how sexual harassment usually unfurls for women. It’s still an incredibly common problem in the workplace: 40 percent of women say they’ve received unwanted sexual attention or coercion at work, while 60 percent say they’ve experience sexist or offensive behavior. It makes up a huge share of all workplace discrimination cases.
Yet most people who are sexually harassed don’t come forward about it, mainly fearing they’ll be disbelieved or, worse, retaliated against. And that’s how it usually plays out. Rather than taking charges seriously and acting to remedy an abusive situation, one study found that three-quarters of employees were retaliated against by their employer for speaking up.
Coworkers sexually harassing women, and employers permitting it to happen under their watch, has been recognized as illegal for 30 years. But just as at Fox, too many companies’ reaction is to try to sweep this problem under the rug, particularly when the accused is a financially valuable employee. Workplace culture won’t change, and harassment won’t dissipate, until allegations are taken seriously and justice is more swiftly served.