The nine lives of Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who has survived a series of embarrassing scandals over more than a decade while beating the competition in both ratings and revenue, appeared to have run out on Tuesday night.
According to multiple reports—notably by Fox News’s corporate sibling, The Wall Street Journal—O’Reilly seems to be on his way out of the right-leaning cable network that he helped make a commercial success.
“Fox News is preparing to cut ties with star anchor Bill O’Reilly, according to people close to the situation, after revelations that he and Fox parent 21st Century Fox settled multiple sexual-harassment complaints led to an exodus of advertisers from his show and mounting pressure on the network,” the Journal reported about O’Reilly, who was one of the cable network’s original anchors when it launched in 1996.
The Journal added that the fate of O’Reilly, who made a surprise announcement on his top-rated prime-time program The O’Reilly Factor last Tuesday that he was taking a vacation, will be decided on Thursday at a board meeting of 21st Century Fox, Fox News’s parent company.
The vacationing O’Reilly was spotted last week visiting the Vatican in Rome. Despite speculation even then that the star would not actually be returning to the airwaves on the previously announced date of April 24, O’Reilly’s crisis-communications consultant, former Clinton White House scandal manager Mark Fabiani, insisted that the television personality was simply on a long-scheduled spring-break holiday with his two teenage children.
“The vacation was planned last October. It’s planned with a group of people,” Fabiani told The Daily Beast last week. “He generally takes time off during his children’s spring break around Easter. And anything to the contrary is just complete fabrication.”
A voicemail message left for Fabiani Tuesday night was not returned.
In a development that once might have been unthinkable, O’Reilly is widely expected to join his friend and former boss, Fox News founder Roger Ailes, in a forced resignation. Ailes left the cable channel after a sensational sexual-harassment and retaliation lawsuit filed by fired anchor Gretchen Carlson, along with multiple allegations of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen female coworkers and underlings.
O’Reilly had publicly defended the disgraced Ailes and freely criticized his accusers, Fox News rival Megyn Kelly, and Carlson, who filed the lawsuit last July that resulted in Ailes’s abrupt and ignominious departure a mere two weeks later (albeit with a $40 million golden parachute).
Like Ailes, O’Reilly—who was recently given a new contract despite the accumulating allegations—is not expected to leave empty-handed. Industry insiders predicted that 21st Century Fox will pay out the tens of millions of dollars remaining on O’Reilly’s contract in order to avoid an ugly lawsuit and uglier headlines, while achieving the semblance of an amicable separation.
Last November, after Kelly published a memoir that included details of Ailes’s unwelcome attempts to hug and kiss her, O’Reilly declared on his program: “If somebody is paying you a wage, you owe that person or company allegiance. You don’t like what’s happening in the workplace, go to human resources or leave… But don’t run down the concern that supports you by trying to undermine it.”
O’Reilly had previously praised Ailes, on NBC’s Late Night With Seth Meyers, as the “best boss I’ve ever had.”
But with Ailes gone, O’Reilly lacks a protector who in the past has helped him navigate mushrooming scandals involving not only allegations of workplace misconduct but also multiple instances of journalistic fabrication.
“My reaction is that he’s got to go,” Los Angeles sexual-harassment attorney Lisa Bloom told The Daily Beast on Tuesday night. “We are not giving up. My phone is ringing off the hook with women who are considering coming forward.”
Bloom represents Los Angeles radio personality and former O’Reilly Factor regular Wendy Walsh, who claims the anchor retaliated against her by blocking her from obtaining a promised contributor contract when she rebuffed his sexual advance in 2013; Bloom also is the lawyer for an anonymous Fox News employee, a black woman who filed suit against O’Reilly earlier Tuesday, claiming he repeatedly leered and grunted at her in the office and called her “Hot Chocolate.”
“That’s really offensive,” Bloom said about the racially and sexually charged harassment with which O’Reilly allegedly targeted the woman. “When he’s the big dog who has all the power and she is a lowly clerical worker just trying to get through the day, she’s not only terrified, but you think, how dare he say things like that?”
Sources at Fox News said Rupert Murdoch and his sons Lachlan and James—who run 21st Century Fox—are reaching the conclusion that their top cable star has become too much of a liability, scaring away dozens of advertisers and inflicting serious damage on the corporate brand in the past 2 1/2 weeks since the Times published a sensational expose of O’Reilly’s alleged misconduct dating back at least to 2004, while lawsuits against O’Reilly, Ailes, and Fox News continue to snowball.
The Times reported that O’Reilly and Fox News had paid out about $13 million to half a dozen female coworkers who complained about his behavior, even as O’Reilly denied the allegations. The most graphic lawsuit was filed in 2004 by one of O’Reilly’s producers, Andrea Mackris, who taped sexually explicit phone calls her boss made to her cellphone—forever enshrining the words “loofah” and “falafel” in the popular culture; Mackris ended up receiving, according to the Times, around $9 million to settle the case.
Also weighing on the Murdochs’ decision is 21st Century Fox’s long-pending quest to acquire all of Sky PLC, the highly profitable European television and online platform that Fox has been trying to purchase whole since 2011. That year, the acquisition was thwarted by revelations that reporters for Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid had illegally hacked the voicemail messages of a murdered girl’s cellphone—resulting in criminal prosecutions, the shutdown of the newspaper, and widespread public disgust that made the acquisition politically untenable.
It was an expensive and painful defeat for the Murdochs.
Last week, however, Britain’s OfCom, the communications industry regulators, met for an hour with opponents of Fox’s application to increase its share of Sky from 39 to 100 percent in a $14.1 billion transaction. Prominent in the arguments against the sale were the allegations of O’Reilly’s misconduct—a factor that clearly would hurt the star with the Murdochs, if approval of the sale is denied.
“We were arguing that 21st Century Fox, Fox News, and the companies in general have shown a pattern of defiant non-compliance, and therefore should not not be given the green light,” said Alex Wilks, who is directing the campaign against the acquisition on behalf of Avaaz, a global citizens advocacy organization. “The meeting went well. The officials were very much in listening mode. They were scribbling notes and taking it very seriously.”
Wilks told The Daily Beast he urged the regulators to investigate the allegations before making their recommendation, expected on May 16, to Tory MP Karen Bradley, Britain’s secretary of state for culture, media, and sport, who will make the final call.
Since the Times blockbuster was posted April 1, nearly 80 advertisers have joined an exodus from O’Reilly’s show, which has been unable to monetize a spike in ratings since the latest scandal broke. Meanwhile, as they did last week, sign-waving protesters gathered in front of Fox News’s Manhattan headquarters Tuesday afternoon and loudly called for O’Reilly’s sacking.
O’Reilly’s bleak future was predicted early Tuesday when the Drudge Report’s Matt Drudge, who is extremely well-connected in the Murdoch media empire, tweeted what amounted to O’Reilly’s professional obituary.
“O'Reilly has had tremendous run,” Drudge wrote. “Very few in the business get to decide when and how things end. Media is most brutal of all industries...”