With Bill O’Reilly once again under scrutiny for sexual harassment, Fox News is faced with a foundational and significant question: Does the conservative media brand stand for anything besides dollar signs?
Tuesday night, on “The O’Reilly Factor,” the first glimmers of a corporate ethos emerged. In what may signal the end of his tenure with Fox News, O’Reilly announced on his show that he would be taking a reportedly pre-planned vacation for some “R&R,” effective immediately. The odd suddenness indicates a bit of desperation — starting the Easter holiday on a Wednesday is some interesting mathematics — but it’s not a sign that Fox News has abandoned its star anchor. O’Reilly still works at the network, and Fox News is essentially getting a bit of breathing room out of this planned or otherwise vacation.
Still, it is dim sign that the pressure of advertiser pullout and public outcry is having some effect on the conservative news network. When Roger Ailes resigned from Fox News in July, the network put in place measures that were intended to reverse or address a culture of sexual harassment. What has become clear in the intervening months is that while Ailes may have set the tone when he first got to Fox News, he was not alone in sustaining a toxic work environment for female employees at the conservative news channel. Now O’Reilly — the face of the brand — is once again under scrutiny. The anchor was accused of sexual harassment in a much-covered lawsuit in 2004; he and his accuser, Andrea Mackris, settled out of court for a reported $9 million. Now the New York Times has reported that O’Reilly or Fox News has settled suits from four other women O’Reilly over the course of a decade amounted to another $4 million.
To be sure, these are all unproven allegations, and a settlement is not an admission of guilt. But this examination of the last decade of Fox News is an embarrassment; rather than address its work culture, Fox News determined that burying complaints to the tune of millions of dollars was an acceptable cost of doing business. Perhaps it is unsurprising: Fox News has built its brand on a desperate yearning for a return to the era of white male impunity — especially if those white men happen to be very rich.
News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch is standing by O’Reilly — a decision that quite nakedly puts profit ahead of decency. “The O’Reilly Factor” reportedly draws $100 million a year in revenue, and is the highest-rated cable news show on TV.
Of course we expect companies to try to make money; but we also should expect them to conduct themselves by principles, especially if some of those principles are the court-ordered law of the land.
As a media organization, Fox News has a moral responsibility — one obviously felt by some of its finest commentators, who might have differing political views from my own, but hold themselves to high standards of journalism. Fox News claims, in its coverage, that it’s speaking for the average American who is impoverished by Obamacare, victimized by the Clintons, depleted by foreign wars, unemployed due to immigration. And yet as soon as the network has to make a decision between protecting the weak and siding with the rich, powerful, and possibly guilty, Fox News folds like a bad poker hand.
Fox News owes the women it employs protection from a regime of sexual predators. But in its shortsighted pursuit of money, it has thrown every woman who works for it under the bus. CNN reported April 4 that there are multiple other women at the network who wish to speak out but continue to fear for their jobs, given the network’s embrace of O’Reilly. Systemic and systematic harassment appears to have led to many of Fox’s female employees either to stagnate at their current position or to jump ship.
I cannot quantify the financial benefit of a moral responsibility. But there is one. Consumers prefer to do business with brands they trust to be honest and transparent. The best and brightest women graduates, given the option, will go for the organization that isn’t harboring harassers. This isn’t everyday heroism — this is just common sense. O’Reilly and Murdoch can cling to their illusions for as long as they want to, but Fox News’ median audience age is 68, and Trump won’t be president forever.
Can Fox News survive this scandal without taking action? Probably. It’s certainly going to try. Even as advertisers pull out, the network is inclined to cleave to the demagoguery that draws in viewers; this vacation, a backdoor play for time, is above all a commitment to hoping the O’Reilly scandal blows over. But as CNN’s Don Lemon indicated on Twitter, it is increasingly difficult to take Fox News’ self-satisfied moral righteousness too seriously. This is a company that doesn’t care enough about its own employees to protect them, let alone anyone in this country who truly needs the media’s compassion.
Thanks, Bill. You’ve made it perfectly obvious: Fox News never had principles. It just wants money.
Updated, 7:45 p.m. PT: O’Reilly announced on Tuesday’s “O’Reilly Factor” that he is going on vacation for some “R&R.” The host said his trip was pre-planned. He is expected to return April 24. The headline and introduction of this piece have been updated to reflect this.