By Paul Farhi,
Fox News ended its association with Bill O’Reilly, the combative TV host and commentator who has ruled cable-news ratings for nearly two decades and who was the signature figure in the network’s rise as a powerful political player.
The conservative-leaning host’s downfall was swift and steep, set in motion less than three weeks ago by revelations of a string of harrassment complaints against him. His departure, and the questions swirling around him, represented yet another black eye to Fox, which had sought to put a sexual harrassment scandal involving its co-founder and then-chairman, Roger Ailes, behind it last summer.
“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, the news channel’s parent company, said in a statement.
Fox and 21st Century Fox — both controlled by Rupert Murdoch and his family — had vowed then to clean up an apparent culture of harrassment at the news network. Instead, the allegations kept coming — against Ailes, O’Reilly and some of the senior executives that Ailes had hired and Fox kept in place after Ailes’ exit.
Fox had re-signed O’Reilly to a multimillion dollar, three-year contract only last month, fully aware of the long history of complaints against him. In less than a month, however, Rupert Murdoch and his sons, James and Lachlan, were forced to decide whether the economic and reputational fallout from the O’Reilly scandal were irreversible.
In addition to Ailes, Fox has lost popular hosts Greta Van Susteren and Megyn Kelly since the turmoil began last summer. The network has nevertheless continued to roll to record ratings, driven in part by viewer interest in Donald Trump, a longtime friend of Ailes, Murdoch and O’Reilly and a frequent interview guest for years.
The loss of O’Reilly, however, is of a different magnitude to Fox: His program, “The O’Reilly Factor,” has been the network’s flagship show for nearly 20 years, and in many ways has embodied its pugnacious, conservative-oriented spirit.
O’Reilly, 67, seemed to be at the peak of his popularity and prestige only a three weeks ago. His 8 p.m. program, which mixes discussion segments with O’Reilly’s pugnacious commentary, drew an average of 4 million viewers each night during the first three months of the year, the most ever for a cable-news program. His popularity, in turn, helped drive Fox News to record ratings and profits. O’Reilly was also the co-author of two books that were at the top of the bestseller lists in April.
But the fuse was lit for his career detonation when the New York Times disclosed that O’Reilly and Fox had settled a series of harrassment complaints lodged against him by women he’d worked with at Fox over the years.
The newspaper found that O’Reilly and Fox had settled five such allegations since 2002, paying out some $13 million in exchange for the women’s silence. Two of the settlements, including one for $9 million in 2004, were widely reported. But the others had been kept secret by O’Reilly, Fox and the women involved.
In addition, a sixth woman, a former “O’Reilly Factor” guest named Wendy Walsh, alleged that O’Reilly had harrassed her in 2013. Although Walsh never sued or sought compensation, she spoke against him in public, drawing more negative attention to Fox and O’Reilly over the past few weeks. A seventh, still anonymous woman filed a complaint with the company on Tuesday, alleging that he had made disparaging racial and sexual remarks to her while she was employed at Fox in 2008.
The intense media coverage surrounding O’Reilly led to a stampede of advertisers away from O’Reilly’s program, leaving it almost without sponsorship over the past two weeks. Various organizations, including the National Organization for Women, called for O’Reilly’s firing, and intermittent protests began outside Fox News’ headquarters in New York. Morale among employees at the network reportedly was suffering, too.
The external and internal pressure left the Murdochs with a dilemma: Keep the networks’ most valuable asset and hope to ride out the storm around him, or cut him loose and end the drama.
In the end, even an endorsement from President Trump couldn’t save O’Reilly. In an interview with Times reporters on April 5, Trump called O’Reilly “a good person” and said he shouldn’t have settled the complaints made against him. “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong,” Trump said.
The Murdochs, however, had more than just O’Reilly’s TV career to consider.
In addition to the potential longterm financial damage to Fox News, the O’Reilly controversy was casting a shadow over 21st Century’s $14 billion bid to win the British government’s approval to buy Sky TV, the British satellite service.
The Murdochs abandoned a 2011 offer for Sky amid another scandal, the phone-hacking conspiracy perpetrated by employees of the Murdoch-owned News of the World tabloid in London. A parliamentary panel later declared Rupert and James Murdoch to be “unfit” to run a public company–a description they hoped would not be revived by regulators with the O’Reilly matter hanging over them.
O’Reilly survived several controversies during his 21 years at Fox, including a lurid sexual harrassment case in 2004 that was fodder for New York’s tabloid newspapers. He also beat back a wave of headlines in 2015, when reporters examined his claims about his days as a young reporter and found them to be dubious.
All the while, O’Reilly’s audience not only stuck with him, but continued to grow.
Leaving O’Reilly in place now, however, would likely have been a public relations nightmare for James and Lachlan Murdoch, the sons who head 21st Century Fox, Fox News’ parent.
In the wake of the Ailes scandal last summer, the brothers vowed to clean up a workplace environment that women at Fox had described as hostile under Ailes. In one of their few public statements on the matter, they said at the time, “We continue our commitment to maintaining a work environment based on trust and respect.”
But those efforts have seemed unavailing, and at times have even seemed hypocritical. Since the Ailes scandal, the company has continued to employ almost all of the senior managers who were in charge when Ailes’ was allegedly harrassing employees, including Bill Shine, currently Fox’s co-president. Shine was accused of enabling Ailes’ retalitory efforts against an accuser, Fox contributer Julie Roginsky, in a sexual-harrassment lawsuit Roginsky filed earlier this month.
O’Reilly has never acknowledged that he harrassed anyone. In his only public statement about the matter in early April, he said his fame made him a target of lawsuits and that he settled the harrassment claims against him to spare his children negative publicity.