At the start of April, The New York Times reported that Fox News had paid $13 million over roughly 15 years to settle various sexual harassment claims against The O’Reilly Factor host. At the time, I wrote that the scandal didn’t yet threaten O’Reilly’s kingship over cable news — but that could change if the exodus of advertisers grew large enough. So it has come to pass.
In the week following the Times revelation, half the show’s advertisers jumped ship, and the evacuation only grew as time went on. The National Organization for Women, Color of Change, the organizers behind the Women’s March, and other activist groups added to the momentum, urging advertisers to throw O’Reilly overboard. One Fox News source told New York’s Gabriel Sherman that the ad revenue loss was "worse than Glenn Beck," harking back to another instance when fleeing advertisers scuttled a Fox News personality.
This reportedly set off a minor civil war in the highest reaches of 21st Century Fox, which owns the network. Rupert Murdoch, already in the process of stepping down as head of the parent company, has long stood by O’Reilly. But his sons Lachlan and James are taking on more power, and were apparently pushing to cut the host loose. And the corporation’s trials didn’t stop there: There were protests outside Fox News, and a federal investigation of 21st Century Fox for failing to deal properly with harassment claims. Reports suggested low morale and simmering anger among female employees was rampant at Fox News itself. And O’Reilly had been on extended vacation since April 11.
On Wednesday, it all apparently became too much. Sources told Sherman the Murdochs had decided to make O’Reilly’s vacation permanent. By the afternoon, 21st Century Fox itself confirmed it.
Now all Fox News has to decide is whether O’Reilly will be permitted to give his viewers a farewell address (looks like a "no"), who will replace him (apparently Tucker Carlson), and whether he will be paid the remainder of his contract.
But there’s one other question to grapple with: What took so long?
"They’ve known who [O’Reilly] was for 20 years and helped cover up his transgressions," The New Republic’s senior editor Jeet Heer acidly observed.
O’Reilly’s long invulnerability at Fox, despite his poisonous behavior towards women, is indicative of a broader problem in the American economy. Studies suggest 40 percent of women still deal with sexual harassment on the job. But Claire Cain Miller pointed out that no more than a third of people harassed at work report it to a supervisor or their union. Only 13 percent ever level formal complaints.
Throughout the economy, women worry they won’t be believed, or they’ll be ignored, or they’ll be blamed should they report mistreatment. Company policies for dealing with harassment often focus on heading off litigation rather than solving the problem. Female employees at Fox News told reporters they never complained about O’Reilly’s behavior out of fear of retaliation. And they have good reason: "In one study of public-sector employees, two-thirds of workers who had complained about mistreatment described some form of retaliation in a follow-up survey," Miller reported. (One particularly sad and telling detail from Sherman’s reporting is that it wasn’t the reports of sexual harassment or employee anger that convinced Lachlan Murdoch to side against O’Reilly. It was pressure from his wife.)
Bryce Covert also observed that many of O’Reilly’s accusers settled out of court rather than sue, and this dynamic protected him for years. Lawsuits are an expensive and arduous undertaking even in the best circumstances, but employees at least have a better chance of winning them than private arbitration disputes. But arbitration clauses are increasingly common in contracts throughout the economy — covering about 27 percent of non-unionized workers, Covert notes — and employers can use them to force employees with grievances to forego lawsuits entirely.
That brings us to the final brute reality: O’Reilly is insanely rich and powerful. The O’Reilly Factor is Fox News’ biggest profit source, which in turn is 21st Century Fox’s biggest moneymaker. O’Reilly is paid $18 million a year, and had dominated the cable news ratings for 15 years straight. He has the money, lawyers, and other resources to protect himself should anyone take exception to his bad behavior. And Fox News, as a business, had plenty of economic incentives to pile on in his defense. It wasn’t until the enormous weight of those incentives finally turned that the network decided to give O’Reilly the axe.
In other words, the thing that brought O’Reilly down — the gargantuan flow of money from his advertisers and media empire — is the very same thing that allowed him to operate with impunity for so long.
There may be grim satisfaction to be found in the fact that those who live by the sword, die by the sword. But it would be better if no one was given two decades to sexually harass people in the first place.