For the Fox News Channel—under siege over star anchor Bill O’Reilly’s alleged serial sexual-harassment of female coworkers—the past five days have amounted to a perfect shit storm.
The unsightly O’Reilly factor—splashed Sunday on the front page of The New York Times, which reported that Fox and O’Reilly personally have paid out $13 million in return for the silence of six women who said they were his victims—runs very much counter to the conservative-leaning, family-friendly image that the channel has sought to project during its two-decade existence.
An exodus of at least 32 advertisers from O’Reilly’s top-rated prime-time program—along with two new lawsuits against Fox News executives charging racial discrimination, in one court filing, and sexual harassment and retaliation, in the other—have only added to the cable channel’s corporate pain.
It has persisted since last July, when fired anchor Gretchen Carlson’s sexual-harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes forced the abrupt resignation of the network’s chairman and founder.
“The dam has burst at Fox News, and what used to be a completely containable situation when they had an autocratic ruler is now no longer controllable,” said a media and political crisis-communications veteran who asked not to be named. “It used to be run by Saddam Hussein,” this person continued, making a joking reference to Ailes. “Say what will about Saddam Hussein, at least he kept order.”
It’s highly unlikely, in other words, that Fox News will be able to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear—something the network was able to accomplish two years ago when O’Reilly was unmasked as a serial fabulist and suffered zero consequences.
The best Fox News can hope for is, metaphorically speaking, to turn the sow’s ear into an “ugly purse,” to quote the insult that O’Reilly allegedly hurled at erstwhile O’Reilly Factor guest Wendy Walsh’s handbag after they shared dinner at the Bel Air Hotel and she rebuffed his attempt to lure her to his room.
Howard Bragman, founder of the Los Angeles-based Fifteen Minutes PR firm, said, however, that Fox News had been making the best of a bad situation.
“I think what they’re doing is kind of basic PR practice—you simply give a statement, but you don’t give fuel to the other side, you try and keep it small, and you don’t respond unless you have to.”
So far Fox News has left the heavy lifting to 21st Century Fox, its corporate parent, and issued a single statement Tuesday night affirming its willingness to work with advertisers to place their commercials in non-O’Reilly programming.
Meanwhile, Fox News’s media correspondent, Howard Kurtz, briefly reported the O’Reilly controversy on his Sunday show, MediaBuzz, but since then has not mentioned what is arguably the top story on his beat, instead devoting reports to the political flap surrounding former Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice. Kurtz didn’t respond to an email seeking guidance.
Fox News’s outward passivity is in contrast to the aggressive pushback of O’Reilly’s personal crisis team—former Bill Clinton scandal manager Mark Fabiani and attorney Fredric Newman—who told the Times: “We are now seriously considering legal action to defend Mr. O’Reilly’s reputation.”
“That’s the Bill Cosby method—that never seems to work so well, does it?” Bragman said about Team O’Reilly. “It’s not a good idea to go after accusers.”
On the other hand, O’Reilly might benefit from the fact that “people get weary. They’ve heard it before so it’s not shocking anymore… The truth isn’t the biggest factor in all these situations. We live in a time where people are pretty preposterous in what we believe.”
The 67-year-old O’Reilly has worked at Fox News since its October 1996 launch. He is the top-rated personality on all of cable news. His audience has remained stratospheric in the wake of his latest scandal, drawing 3.65 million viewers for his 8 p.m. program on Monday night—more than a million more than the two shows that followed and preceded him.
According to the Times, O’Reilly’s show has generated $446 million in advertising revenue over the past two years.
But Rupert, Lachlan, and James Murdoch—who run 21st Century Fox, the cable channel’s parent company—must now decide whether O’Reilly’s money-making ability outweighs the damage his continued presence is doing to their corporate brand. Along with the departure of advertisers, demands for O’Reilly’s termination have proliferated on social media, and the National Organization for Women this week called on Fox News to take him off the air.
O’Reilly recently renewed his contract to the tune of a reported $20 million-plus per year. But the mere fact of a contract renewal doesn’t mean job security; television networks occasionally re-up on-air personalities they plan to dismiss, and then pay out the value of those contracts in order to avoid an acrimonious and publicly embarrassing separation.
O’Reilly—who in 2004 was sued by Fox News producer Andrea Mackris, who ultimately received a $9 million settlement after she recorded his sexually charged and graphic phone calls to her—has denied the allegations.
“There is a corrosive effect within an organization when the management clearly demonstrates its values in the way that they’re doing right now,” said the crisis-communications expert. “Now you can say all the right things in a statement—not that they’ve done that—or you can stand by your employee who’s in crisis and under assault. But if the act of doing so makes a large portion of your workforce feel ashamed to tell people where they work, or unhappy to be there, or feeling vulnerable in the workplace, then you can do substantial damage.”
If the pugnacious Ailes were still on the throne, O’Reilly could have counted on a ringing corporate defense, along with under-the-radar attacks in various Fox-friendly media outlets casting doubt on the credibility of his accusers.
Yet the Murdochs have authorized only a carefully parsed and muted response to the Times story, claiming the company “takes matters of workplace behavior very seriously” and noting that “we have… discussed [the allegations] with Mr. O’Reilly. While he denies the merits of these claims, Mr. O’Reilly has resolved those he regarded as his personal responsibility.”
In a phrase likely to offend Fox Newsers who have complained about rampant sexism in the cable outlet’s workplace culture, the statement noted that “no current or former Fox News employee ever took advantage of the 21st Century Fox hotline to raise a concern about Bill O’Reilly, even anonymously”—an assertion that conveniently overlooks the fact that some women feared such complaints were subject to retaliation and that Ailes reportedly routinely surveilled employees.
As things stand, only President Trump—himself the target of sexual-harassment and assault allegations during last year’s campaign—has offered a full-throated defense of O’Reilly.
“I think he’s a person I know well—he is a good person,” Trump said Wednesday in an interview with the Times, on Day 5 of what his White House previously declared National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. “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.”