April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This focus is as urgent as ever, given that our sitting Republican president himself has faced accusations of serial sexual assault and harassment. On April 1, the New York Times published a disturbing and important story about alleged sexual misconduct at one of America’s most influential cable networks, Fox News Channel. The story is an illustration of how sexual assault is enabled by a culture of impunity.
After more than 60 interviews and reviewing 100 pages of documents, Times reporters Emily Steel and Michael S. Schmidt found that a total of five women had received $13 million in payouts from Fox or TV host Bill O’Reilly in exchange for agreeing to not pursue litigation or speak about their sexual misconduct accusations against O’Reilly.
The Times report indicated that two of the settlements contradicted a Fox statement in 2016 that claimed it did not tolerate behavior that “disrespects women or contributes to an uncomfortable work environment.” That statement was made after the Fox’s chairman, Roger Ailes, was fired in the wake of another major sexual harassment scandal at Fox—the company had reached a $20 million with former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson. Instead, the Times reported, even as the two other O’Reilly cases came up “the company has repeatedly stood by Mr. O’Reilly.”
O’Reilly’s pattern of alleged misconduct, according to the Times:
The women who made allegations against Mr. O’Reilly either worked for him or appeared on his show. They have complained about a wide range of behavior, including verbal abuse, lewd comments, unwanted advances and phone calls in which it sounded as if Mr. O’Reilly was masturbating, according to documents and interviews.
The reporting suggests a pattern: As an influential figure in the newsroom, Mr. O’Reilly would create a bond with some women by offering advice and promising to help them professionally. He then would pursue sexual relationships with them, causing some to fear that if they rebuffed him, their careers would stall.
The Times story indicates that money and power trump the treatment of women at Fox.
O’Reilly’s show The O’Reilly Factor is the No. 1 show in cable news and generates more than $446 million in annual advertising revenues. O’Reilly earns an annual salary of $18 million. That doesn’t include his massive royalties from books that became best-sellers in part because of his prominence as a nightly TV host on Fox, such as Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy, Killing Reagan, and Killing Jesus. Describing O’Reilly’s appeal to Fox’s conservative viewers, the Times said he “presents a pugnacious, anti-political-correctness viewpoint and a fervent strain of patriotism.”
In an April 5 interview with the Times on various topics, President Trump was quick to defend O’Reilly: “Personally, I think he shouldn’t have settled. Because you should have taken it all the way. I don’t think Bill did anything wrong. I think he’s a person I know well. He is a good person.”
Trump, who was strongly supported by evangelical religious leaders and voters in his 2016 residential campaign, has also been accused of sexual misconduct by numerous women. An audio tape made on the set of a TV soap opera in 2005 and unearthed by the Washington Post during the 2016 campaign revealed Donald Trump bragging about forcing himself on women including married women:
“You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Like Trump, O’Reilly denies the merits of sexual assault accusations by women against him. In a statement to the Times, he cast himself as the victim:
“Just like other prominent and controversial people, I’m vulnerable to lawsuits from individuals who want me to pay them to avoid negative publicity. In my more than 20 years at Fox News Channel, no one has ever filed a complaint about me with the Human Resources Department, even on the anonymous hotline.
“But most importantly, I’m a father who cares deeply for my children and who would do anything to avoid hurting them in any way. And so I have put to rest any controversies to spare my children.
“The worst part of my job is being a target for those who would harm me and my employer, the Fox News Channel. Those of us in the arena are constantly at risk, as are our families and children. My primary efforts will continue to be to put forth an honest TV program and to protect those close to me.”
Fox issued this statement to the Times:
“…we have looked into these matters over the last few months and discussed them with Mr. O’Reilly. While he denies the merits of these claims, Mr. O’Reilly has resolved those he regarded as his personal responsibility. Mr. O’Reilly is fully committed to supporting our efforts to improve the environment for all our employees at Fox News.”
Even before the Times story broke on April 1, the Justice Department was reportedly looking into the way Fox handled payments related to sexual harassment cases to determine whether the company misled investors.
There may be more to the story to come.
UPDATE 4/19/17: “Fox News drops Bill O’Reilly in wake of harassment allegations“—Fox News