Yesterday, Fox News finally, finally forced its star anchor, Bill O’Reilly, off the network, just 13 years after he settled his first sexual harassment suit, with The O’Reilly Factor producer Andrea Mackris. The decision follows an April 1 New York Times investigation revealing that Fox News and 21st Century Fox, its parent company, had backed its most popular anchor time and time again despite repeated allegations of harassment from several women who worked at Fox. Since 2002, the company has paid out $13 million in settlements over the claims.
As promising as the shake-up is, it’s hard not to feel an instinctive pull to pessimism surrounding the future of O’Reilly’s career. First, there was this less-than-encouraging letter that Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of 21st Century Fox, sent out to Fox staffers, which does little to assuage the concerns of women still working at the company. The letter — which makes no reference to O’Reilly’s victims but glowingly describes the anchor as “one of the most accomplished TV personalities in the history of cable news” — sends a clear message: We only did this because we had to.
Then there’s this entirely unsurprising CNN report stating that O’Reilly — who enjoyed an annual salary of $18 million — is set to receive tens of millions of dollars on his way out the door. (When Roger Ailes, Fox’s founder and former chairman, was ousted due to similar sexual assault allegations last summer, he walked away with $40 million as part of his settlement agreement.)
Even more infuriating than the bags of money these serial harassers get to take with them when they go is the knowledge that the scandals won’t mean the end of these men’s careers. I can’t stop thinking about this line from The Handmaid’s Tale, which seems to apply to so many men these days:
Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.
Public figures who are accused of sexual abuse are often able to step away from the limelight and slink back a couple years later when the hubbub has died down — like Jian Ghomeshi, the former host of the Canadian radio show q who was fired in 2014 after evidence surfaced of the broadcaster violently harassing a female colleague. Although several women came forward with similar accusations of physical and sexual abuse, an Ontario court found Ghomeshi not guilty of all charges.
Earlier this month, Ghomeshi quietly popped back on the scene, tweeting out a link to a new podcast he’d apparently been working on. The podcast was greeted with a combination of anger and indifference, and it goes without saying that Ghomeshi doesn’t have a fraction of O’Reilly’s clout. The fact that his attempt to sneak back onto the media stage as if nothing had ever happened was a bridge too far for most listeners is a heartening development.
I don’t hold out the same hope for O’Reilly, whose primetime show, The O’Reilly Factor, far outpaced the rest of Fox’s lineup with an average of four million viewers a night. He’s also the author of a series of best-selling books, and his publisher, Henry Holt, told the New York Times it has no plans to sever ties with O’Reilly.
But, at least for the moment, I’m allowing myself to give into some optimism. Yes, O’Reilly’s ousting was driven not by the heinousness of his actions but by an exodus of advertisers following the Times investigation. But it was also the result of a strategic campaign from the racial justice organization Color of Change, which led the drive to pressure advertisers to pull their dollars from O’Reilly’s slot. (The group was also behind a campaign that led to Fox’s decision to yank Glenn Beck’s show from the network in 2009.) And New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, who recently wrote a best-selling book on Roger Ailes, The Loudest Voice in the Room, reported that the Murdochs had grown increasingly uncomfortable with protests organized outside Fox’s Manhattan headquarters. That’s an encouraging indication that grassroots-level activism can have a real impact.
And, as the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan pointed out yesterday, the lawsuit former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson filed against Roger Ailes last summer, which led to his departure, “started an avalanche.” Less than a year later, two of the most powerful, seemingly untouchable men in media “have been knocked off lofty perches.” In Canada, in the year following Ghomeshi’s acquittal, a series of high-profile cases involving the litigation of sexual violence have actually gone in favor of the victims for a change.
So yes — there’s good reason to be wary of the suggestion that we’ve seen the last of O’Reilly, or that the pervasive problem of sexual harassment in the workplace will suddenly disappear. And yes, as many have pointed out, O’Reilly and Ailes may no longer work at Fox, but self-professed pussy grabber Donald Trump is still the president of the United States.
But there’s also good reason to be hopeful that the tide is shifting in favor of women who accuse their male co-workers of sexual harassment. The more high-profile cases of powerful men removed from their posts due to an un-ignorable pileup of accusations, however tricky to litigate, the more women feel empowered to come forward with their own stories of abuse on the job. The Murdochs may have been thinking about revenue instead of their female employees when they decided to boot O’Reilly, but, like the cases of Ailes, Ghomeshi, and Bill Cosby, a critical mass of women emboldened by the presence and support of each other was essential to his downfall. Fox’s executives may be infamous for spreading a “culture of fear,” but if O’Reilly’s exit is any indication, they’re the ones who should be afraid.