The Murdoch family’s firing of Bill O’Reilly follows sexual harassment allegations that — depending on how you count — lasted either three weeks or 13 years. By either reckoning, the top executives at 21st Century Fox and Fox News took far too long to act.
It’s a testament to how much attitudes have changed over the past decade that the far more graphic allegations from accuser Andrea Mackris in 2004 — which included difficult-to-refute taped conversations — didn’t stick at first. It wasn’t until The New York Times uncovered evidence of a long-running pattern of settlements for harassment claims that O’Reilly began to feel the heat.
Can Fox News’ culture really change? The family at the top of 21st Century Fox wants it to — enough so that they’ve done the fraught and expensive work of firing O’Reilly and former Fox News boss Roger Ailes. But their intentions were mitigated by the announcement that Tucker Carlson — who in 2006 posited that Democrats had “made up the concept of sexual harassment” — would take O’Reilly’s former 8 p.m. slot.
O’Reilly and Ailes might have been the only Fox News personnel to engage in sexual harassment — though that’s no certainty — but Carlson and other Fox News talking heads routinely disavow the existence of misogyny. Carlson has called Hillary Clinton “castrating” and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hi.) “the prettiest member of Congress.” Fox News commentators, including Carlson, dispute the existence of sexual harassment, the glass ceiling and the gender wage gap. The network has blamed feminism — or any empowerment or expansion of women’s role in the world — as a blight on masculinity, motherhood, the family, national security (?!) and, of course, women themselves. Carlson, a man who complained about a plus-size model on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, has argued that women don’t go into politics because they are too “sensible” and have “real things to do.”
How, exactly, is he going to change the culture?
It must be sobering for Fox News to realize that the ideas they have denigrated, lampooned and complained about are the ones they now need to embrace. The suits and their attendant investigations are still ongoing. As the past year has indicated, Fox News cannot any longer go forward pretending that sexual harassment doesn’t exist, or that institutional and structural obstacles for the advancement of women don’t exist. Those very forces have led to the network’s current staffing crisis — a drain of its top talent due to either firing for misconduct or flight from misconduct.
There is a way forward for Fox News — a way that doesn’t risk hypocrisy or self-destruction. It requires accepting that it’s not just white, rich men who deserve to be in power. It requires hiring broadly and pursuing applicants with diverse backgrounds. It requires taking institutional supports for nontraditional employees seriously. It requires caring about diverse constituencies. It requires not dismissing misogyny as a liberal smear campaign or racism as a finely tuned progressive hoax. It requires viewing and reporting facts with reason and compassion.
I hope Fox News can find this place. It would be fascinating to see if the network could become a conservative media brand that didn’t rely on grousing about “victimhood” or “identity politics” in order to make its points; we need that voice in our media landscape. Advertisers, employees, viewers and the Murdochs themselves are saying they want Fox News to be better. Let’s see if the network can follow through.