Fox News Channel is poised to end the 21-year tenure of Bill O’Reilly on the news cabler amid a cascade of sexual harassment allegations.
O’Reilly’s exit from the network he has been with almost since its inception is expected to be official later this week. The Murdoch clan that controls Fox News had originally backed the top-rated host of “The O’Reilly Factor,” but the drumbeat of allegations of harassment from multiple women during the past three weeks has proven untenable for parent company 21st Century Fox.
Like the ouster last summer of Fox News chairman-CEO Roger Ailes, O’Reilly’s apparent downfall is a milestone for the industry and a signal of the second-generation Murdoch leadership now steering Fox. It’s a dizzying turn of events for a TV veteran who has long banked on a loyal following and his stature as an influential voice in national politics.
O’Reilly’s attorney, Marc Kasowitz, asserted that the host has been the target of a “brutal campaign of character assassination that is unprecedented in post-McCarthyist America,” fueled by “far-left organizations bent on destroying O’Reilly for political and financial reasons.”
Fox News declined to comment on a report by the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday evening that it was preparing to cut its ties to O’Reilly. A source close to O’Reilly on Tuesday afternoon said there were no exit negotiations underway, but the tide appeared to shift just a few hours later.
The groundswell of pressure on O’Reilly and the leaders of 21st Century Fox started April 1 when the New York Times published a detailed report of $13 million in settlements that O’Reilly and Fox News had paid out to five women. The report sparked advertiser defections and public pressure campaigns by organizations such as UltraViolet and Color of Change.
O’Reilly has been on vacation from his show since April 12. He had been scheduled to return on April 24, but multiple sources indicated that it was unlikely he would return to his regular slot as host of the nightly 8 p.m. hour. It was not entirely clear of O’Reilly would be afforded the opportunity for a farewell broadcast on Fox News’ air.
21st Century Fox patriarch Rupert Murdoch, now chairman of Fox News, was said to have favored backing O’Reilly, whose popularity was the key driver in taking Fox News to the top of the cable news rankings in the early 2000s. But son James Murdoch, now CEO of 21st Century Fox, was said to have pushed for the opposite amid the mushrooming scandal that led to more than 60 advertisers defecting from “O’Reilly Factor” just days after the Times report.
On Tuesday, an anonymous African-American woman claimed through attorney Lisa Bloom to have endured sexual and racially charged comments from O’Reilly while working for Fox in 2008.
Industry observers said the dynamic around O’Reilly was becoming too much of a liability for a company of 21st Century Fox’s size and scope. Not only would the company be vulnerable to more lawsuits from women claiming harassment, but the taint of the scandal could impact Fox’s businesses in other areas. A chief concern is Fox’s pending $14 billion buyout of the remaining interest in European satellite giant Sky, which is now being reviewed by U.K. regulators.
O’Reilly’s expected departure promises to leave Fox News with a big hole in its long-dominant primetime lineup. “The O’Reilly Factor” in recent months has averaged nearly 4 million viewers a night, riding the surge of interest in politics sparked by the historic 2016 presidential campaign. Fox News also runs the risk of a backlash from O’Reilly’s loyal viewers, who may shun the network entirely, particularly if O’Reilly lands at a rival TV or digital platform.