Fans of Bill O’Reilly are predictably upset that Fox News pulled the plug on his popular show, “The O’Reilly Factor.” But take heart, folks, O’Reilly isn’t really gone. You can hear his spirit in the Oval Office.
“Personally, I think he shouldn’t have settled,” President Donald Trump said of O’Reilly after new allegations of sexual harassment were reported and before the Fox News personality was let go. “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.”
Nothing wrong? O’Reilly would follow his friend, founding Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, out the exits under similar harassment charges — which both men have denied. Each was accused of repeatedly using his position to sexually harass and abuse women at Fox News.
Fox News and its parent company, 21st Century Fox, faithfully stood by O’Reilly since sexual harassment allegations first surfaced against him in 2004. But it took the recent disclosure by The New York Times of a series of sexual harassment allegations against him — plus an internal investigation that turned up even more — to get the ball rolling that rolled O’Reilly right out the door.
Which naturally has raised questions among those of us who wonder what these scandals mean for other gender-related inequities and dysfunctions in the workplace. Allegations of sexual harassment toppled two of the most powerful men in the cable TV news industry, yet could not stop the election of Donald Trump to the Oval Office.
Trump’s sexist rhetoric haunted his campaign, although he seemed to revel in it more than be daunted by it. He dismissed moderator Megyn Kelly, then with Fox, suggesting she had “blood coming out of her wherever.” He called for women who have abortions to be punished, then backtracked. He had bragged in a 2005 “Access Hollywood” video about grabbing women by their privates. Allegations of sexual assault haunted his presidential campaign.
Yet exit polls found that 45 percent of college-educated white women and 65 percent of non-college-educated white women voted for Trump.
As one reader wrote to The New York Times after O’Reilly’s departure, “Have the standards for the office of the president, fallen lower than those for a television host?”
One wonders. Women who voted for Trump either shrugged off his foul language as guy talk — or “locker room talk,” as he rationalized it — or they decided that his promises to create jobs and “secure the borders” were more urgent.
Those are the kind of viewers to which O’Reilly, among others at Fox News, had a special appeal. When Ailes, a former Republican campaign adviser who also advised Trump, launched the news channel in 1996, he envisioned its target audience as conservative middle Americans who felt sidelined, overlooked and forgotten by the “liberal mainstream media.”
O’Reilly became a cable news superstar by blending his news-gathering skills from his earlier career in traditional broadcast journalism with an almost evangelical populism where he became the “culture warrior” who is “looking out for you.” His program became the No. 1 ratings magnet in all of cable TV news, averaging 4 million viewers and becoming a programming “tent pole,” boosting the ratings of Fox’s entire evening lineup.
But in the end it was not lost viewers who brought O’Reilly down. Quite the opposite, the recent sexual harassment controversy actually boosted ratings — in the spirit of the showbiz adage that all publicity is good publicity.
No, what brought him down was advertisers on his show who feared viewer backlash. After the allegations became public, O’Reilly’s show lost at least 50 brands — half its sponsors — in a week, according to ad trackers. Although some moved to other Fox programs, the controversy led to an investigation and a decision by owner Rupert Murdoch and other family members to drop O’Reilly with a reported severance package of up to $25 million.
And President Trump is still in the White House.
Could bitter feelings left over from his campaign actually have spurred more of a backlash against O’Reilly’s sponsors? Either way, O’Reilly’s fall signals an overdue advance in the long-running battle to have sexual harassment charges taken seriously.
Clarence Page, a member of the Tribune Editorial Board, blogs at www.chicagotribune.com/pagespage.