O’Reilly's appearance with Hannity reveals what Fox News really cares about

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Months after firing former host Bill O’Reilly in the wake of multiple reports of sexual harassment, Fox News happily allowed him to use its airwaves to promote his new book. Fox’s decision to bring back O’Reilly and heavily promote his appearance shows that the network was never serious about fixing its toxic culture -- in fact, Fox seems committed to making increasingly stupid and morally bankrupt decisions in order to actively avoid such a thing.

O’Reilly returned to Fox News’ evening programming in an interview on Hannity tonight. He did not discuss in detail his firing from Fox in April, which came after The New York Times reported that he and Fox’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, had settled with at least five women who reported O’Reilly for sexual harassment. He did, however, join Hannity in railing against "totalitarians" at Media Matters. O'Reilly also had a lot of other ridiculous comments to offer -- like race-baiting remarks about NFL players and promotion of his new amateur history book about the American Revolution. 

Host and professional liability Sean Hannity has been one of the biggest cheerleaders for O’Reilly’s attempt at a book promotion/image rehabilitation media tour in what appears to be a budding collaboration between the two. Before his visit to Hannity’s TV show, the Fox host interviewed the reported serial sexual harasser on his radio program twice. On the September 18 edition, Hannity gave O’Reilly a platform to attack the credibility of a woman who came forward with reports against him. Earlier today, O’Reilly doubled down on his attacks during his second Hannity radio appearance.

O’Reilly’s inexcusable victim-blaming didn’t seem to give Fox News any pause in giving him airtime once again -- even though its parent company worked with O’Reilly to pay at least $13 million to settle out of court with multiple women who reported O’Reilly’s sexual harassment and another $25 million in a severance package for O’Reilly after that. In fact, Fox seemed to be proud of this interview, promoting the “must-see” appearance all day on its website and social media and in pop-ups and teasers on air.

Whoever is making the evening programming calls at Fox -- a rogue Hannity? a short-sighted executive? a long-time Roger Ailes confidant? -- has now decided that a potential brief boost in ratings for Hannity is more important than the confidence of advertisers or the well-being of the network’s female employees. As one former Fox executive told The Daily Beast, Fox is “thinking that selling what’s left of their souls is worth it to try to generate ratings to beat [MSNBC host Rachel] Maddow.” But neither the myriad financial concerns brought on by O’Reilly’s predatory sexual misconduct nor the moral imperative Fox ought to feel for creating a safe workplace have actually disappeared.

When Fox finally decided O’Reilly was too toxic for its brand -- an incredibly high bar -- its move to fire him was transparently financial: The network’s advertisers were pulling out of the O’Reilly time slot en masse, and 21st Century Fox was eager to convince British regulators it was a “fit and proper” employer so it could secure a bid to take over Sky News in the U.K.

Fox’s advertising relationships are still very much in peril. A huge swath of high-profile brands decided to pull spots from O’Reilly’s program back in April because he was bad for business; now many of those same companies have been unwillingly forced to associate with O’Reilly again due to their continued advertising relationship with Hannity. What’s more, several advertisers have already dropped Hannity’s show due to the host’s growing love for conspiracy theories and straight-up propaganda that separate him from both Fox News and reality. 21st Century Fox’s bid to acquire Sky is also still under consideration -- and it would seem that doubling back on publicity-driven efforts to fix a toxic workplace culture of harassment and silence might not sit well with regulators working to determine if Fox is a fit and proper employer.

Even absent the ongoing financial risks Fox takes in welcoming O’Reilly back on its airwaves, the network’s moral obligations to women everywhere (if we ever believed those were a motivation at Fox) haven’t changed one bit. O’Reilly has yet to show a modicum of remorse for his reported misconduct, instead taking every opportunity to hint at his unhappiness over Fox’s decision to fire him, rail against one of the women who reported him, and generally claim his demise was the result of a coordinated smear campaign against him rather than his own despicable actions.

The culture of harassment at Fox didn’t disappear with O’Reilly (or Roger Ailes, for that matter) either; it’s something Fox executives are still actively confronted with quite often.

Just as O’Reilly was fired, another Fox News host sexually harassed his co-worker on air. Right before his firing, former Fox News contributor Tamara Holder reached a legal settlement with 21st Century Fox after she reported sexual assault by Fox News Latino executive Francisco Cortes at company headquarters in 2015. The company subsequently fired Cortes. In July, Fox Sports fired Jamie Horowitz, its head of sports programming, amid an investigation into sexual harassment reports. Fox News host Eric Bolling was fired earlier this month following reports that he sent unsolicited explicit pictures of himself to multiple female colleagues. Fox Business’ Charles Payne was recently reinstated after an internal investigation into commentator Nellie Scott Hughes’ reports of sexual misconduct, and now Fox is facing a lawsuit from Hughes, who says Payne raped her and threatened her future in political news.  

On-air misogyny at Fox News hasn’t lessened, either. For instance, O’Reilly replacement Tucker Carlson, a favorite of neo-Nazis and Internet pepe fans, has a long history of making demeaning comments about women. When women appear on his show, they are often subject to harassment from his misogynist, far-right fan base afterward. Following her December 23 appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight, Teen Vogue writer Lauren Duca “received thousands of angry responses, including being threatened with rape on Christmas Day,” as CBS described it.

O’Reilly’s guest spot on Hannity sends a clear message to Fox’s audience: The harassment you may experience in your own life is meant to be forgotten or excused. It also sends a message to the women employees at Fox: You don’t matter as much as ratings. Fox employees expressed their anger and betrayal over the O’Reilly appearance ahead of tonight’s interview. One staffer told The Daily Beast they felt the interview “sends the wrong message” that Fox didn’t take O’Reilly’s reported misconduct, or its larger culture of harassment, seriously. A staff member told CNN’s Oliver Darcy, “I question how serious Fox News considers the offenses for which [O’Reilly] was fired if they are now giving him a platform to sell his book,” and another, “What's the point [of firing him] if we're going to basically be welcoming him back with open arms?”

Wendy Walsh, one of the women who came forward to report O’Reilly sexually harassed her, simply responded, “That's how it works at the boy's club.”

Silence is the default treatment for predatory behavior against women as long as Fox can afford to stay quiet. And if Fox is forced to fire a harasser, it will offer him $25 million on the way out, welcome him back whenever it can, and openly celebrate the reunion.  

In previous reflections on Fox’s ongoing struggle to provide even basic, decent working conditions for its female employees, we argued that the network was willing to protect its workers only when the public was watching. Either Fox has decided the heat is off now (it is not), or we gave the network too much credit. In the months since O’Reilly was fired, Fox’s efforts to publicly address reports of sexual harassment by its employees could have been mistaken for progress toward fixing its workplace culture. Glad Fox has cleared up the confusion and made its priorities perfectly obvious.