Bill O'Reilly and the Sexual Harassment Tipping Point

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Fox News and its parent company 21st Century Fox spent millions of dollars and more than a decade protecting Bill O’Reilly from allegations that he abused and harassed women, but all at once this week it became enough.


“After a thorough and careful review of the allegations, the company and Bill O’Reilly have agreed that Bill O’Reilly will not be returning to the Fox News Channel,” 21st Century Fox said in a statement on Wednesday after O’Reilly was pushed out of the show that shared his name for 20 years.

“Enough” is a moving target. It is also cynical math. For O’Reilly, it was five women and an understanding that more could come forward. Or it was the slow accumulation, over 15 years, of other names and allegations from low-level employees and family members. It was $13 million in settlements that were supposed to buy silence. It was three weeks of public pressure and 50 advertisers. It was Megyn Kelly, Greta Van Susteren, Gretchen Carlson, and the perception of a network hemorrhaging women with names and faces we knew. It was Maxine Waters. It was the shadow of Roger Ailes. It was Donald Trump and “grab ‘em by the pussy.” It was women’s anger, unrelenting and always building.

This is what you would call a tipping point. It is also a kind of alchemy. Wealth and power can shield a person from the consequences of their actions, and that was for years the story of Bill O’Reilly—the patron saint of white resentment on a network built and ritually fortified by it.

This is why it was not enough in 2004 when a producer on The O’Reilly Factor filed a lawsuit alleging years of sexual harassment, including the detail that O’Reilly had taken to calling her while masturbating and said he fantasized about putting a “falafel” on her genitals. (“But you’d have to do it really light, just kind of a tease business,” he said, according to court documents that read like a transcript.)

It was also not enough in 2015 when published court transcripts revealed that O’Reilly’s daughter said she had seen her father physically assault her mother, an incident in which he choked her “or had his hands around her neck and dragged her down some stairs.”

And it was still not enough less than a year ago when former Fox News chairman and alleged serial harasser Roger Ailes exited with a reported $60 million payout. This, from The New York Times, is what it looks like to reach for more kindling when your house is on fire:

After the dismissal of Mr. Ailes, the company struck two settlements involving sexual harassment complaints against Mr. O’Reilly and extended his contract.


The math of “not enough” is somehow simpler. The network has seen record ratings since the presidential election, according to Nielsen data, and O’Reilly’s show averaged 3.9 million viewers a night.

When Donald Trump pledged yet another boycott of Fox News, this time in September of 2015, he broke the fast five days later on O’Reilly’s show. “Let me ask you a couple of questions—and if they’re unfair, you tell me if they’re unfair,” O’Reilly said to Trump that night, tough-voiced but acquiescent all the same.


But among the most blunt articulations of how the network viewed its top-rated host came in February—a month in which Fox News’ ratings exceeded CNN and MSNBC’s combined—when O’Reilly sat down with the president of the United States for an interview that aired before the Super Bowl. (O’Reilly also interviewed President Obama during the same time slot in 2014.)

All of this amounted to a network valued at $2.3 billion and an alleged serial harasser making a salary of $18 million. From 2014 to 2016, the show pulled in more than $446 million in advertising revenues. A series of payouts amounting to $13 million, a hostile and potentially threatening work environment for largely nameless women, and occasional bouts of bad press to be swatted at like flies or turned into fuel for the machinery of its viewer’s resentment seemed like it could never be enough in the face of so much money.


And so for more than a decade, as new allegations against O’Reilly emerged, executives at the network asked themselves the same simple question: “How much could this hurt?” The answer, every time until this week: Not enough.

Women have a similar calculus when they decide to come forward about harassment and abuse: “How much could this hurt?” The answer, all too often: Too much.

Senior editor, Jezebel