A New York Times report revealed that $13 million has been paid in settlements to avoid sexual harassment lawsuits against Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, causing advertisers to flee his program. As Media Matters president Angelo Carusone has explained, the issue at hand is one of serious predatory sexual harassment and a corporation that has tolerated and enabled it while expressing no sincere interest in addressing its hostile work environment. Fox will suffer financially from the loss of advertisers in the long term, as the ad rates for O’Reilly’s show will almost certainly never recover, but the problem extends beyond O’Reilly; Fox News as a whole is a liability for advertisers.
On April 1, The New York Times reported that five women had received payments totaling nearly $13 million from either O’Reilly or Fox News parent company 21st Century Fox “in exchange for agreeing to not pursue litigation or speak about their” reports of sexual harassment involving O’Reilly. The women described their experiences of “verbal abuse, lewd comments, unwanted advances and phone calls in which it sounded as if Mr. O’Reilly was masturbating.” Two days after the Times article was published, Mercedes-Benz announced that it would no longer advertise during The O’Reilly Factor, calling the report “disturbing” and stating that, “Given the importance of women in every aspect of our business, we don’t feel this is a good environment in which to advertise our products right now.” Since then, at least 70 of O’Reilly’s advertisers have stated that they are pulling their ads from his show, and those are just the ones who have made public statements.
The advertisers fleeing from O’Reilly are rejecting the hostile and predatory corporate environment Fox has created and allowed to fester for over a decade and are recognizing the liability that associating with such behavior presents for them. The boycott is not a suppression of free speech, and the women who have told their stories are not describing controversial behavior; they are describing predatory and potentially criminal acts, a distinction Media Matters president Angelo Carusone explained in an interview with business magazine Fast Company:
[Carusone] points out that O’Reilly’s issue is not one of free speech but rather of behavior. The charges against him, other Fox colleagues, and Fox itself are serious and mounting. “Sexual harassment is a really big fucking problem in this country,” says Carusone. “I do think it matters if you have corporate leaders standing up and saying, hey, this is an issue that we think is a super-big third rail, and so even if you give a whiff of this, we’re not going to go anywhere near it.”
Carusone and others try to draw a line by saying that the trigger for action is a pattern of prejudice or bullying behavior, not merely disagreeable opinions. “We never want to silence somebody, but we don’t want to make it profitable to be involved in sexual harassment,” says the Sleeping Giants spokesman. Carusone agrees, adding that “it’s playing with fire” to use corporate influence as a tool to punish journalists. “But I also don’t think you should be rewarded for being a total bully.”
And as Carusone told Politico:
“This is not based off of an outrage moment, but rather, it’s responsive to a deep pattern of sexual harassment,” Carusone said. “It doesn’t have a political partisan lens, the way maybe a comment around an individual would have or a statement that some people may find outrageous and others may not. This is about behavior that is universally wrong.”
The mounting number of advertisers who have already removed their ads from O’Reilly’s show is only the initial problem for Fox; previous advertiser boycott campaigns indicate that O’Reilly’s ad rates will suffer permanently, making him less profitable for Fox News in the long term. In 2009, Carusone initiated a campaign against former Fox host Glenn Beck in response to his venomous, vitriolic manner and his bullying behavior. Advertisers abandoned Beck’s show as he spouted insurrectionist rhetoric and previewed how unhinged the right-wing would become under President Barack Obama. His ad rates never recovered.
Carusone explained to Cheddar News, “For over a year, [Fox News] absorbed the losses that Glenn Beck cost them, but when they finally fired him they -- and Fox News said it themselves if you go back and look at the statements there -- if you have a television show and you have advertiser problems, you no longer have a television show that is viable.”
Additionally, Carusone told The New Yorker, “‘When you create critical mass, even if other ads are still running, they just won’t pay the same. … At worst, even if Bill O’Reilly stays on the air until he’s ready to leave, his advertising rates will diminish. And the more advertisers that leave, the more that will be affected. It’s market forces.’”
Carusone’s point was illustrated by a similar campaign against talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who became toxic for advertisers after his days-long sexist meltdown over Sandra Fluke in 2012. Limbaugh’s show has been demoted in major media markets and he was evidently forced to take a sizable pay cut when he renegotiated his contract last year.
Advertisers now need to ask themselves whether abandoning just O’Reilly is enough. On April 4, Carusone released a statement that asked whether the Fox host’s advertisers were comfortable associating their brands with a serial sexual harasser and an organization that has fundamentally mishandled the reports, revealing a culture of silence and complacency around sexual harassment at Fox News:
On the latter, it’s already clear that Fox News has grossly mishandled these allegations as well as the deeper culture of harassment and abuse there. Instead of putting a stop to sexual harassment, they appear to have worked to sweep it under the rug. And there is zero indication that Fox News intends on changing their approach.
On the former, this should be a no-brainer. The mere fact that a company would even hesitate about whether it’s appropriate to associate with serial sexual harassment is a reflection not only of those companies’ values, but just how deep of an issue this is in our society.
Sexual harassment is a problem in society at large, not unique to just O’Reilly or Fox. According to a 2015 survey, one in three women between the ages of 18 and 34 has been sexually harassed at work. Additionally, according to the survey, of those who had “experienced workplace sexual harassment, 29 percent reported the issue while 71 percent did not.”
And the reports about O’Reilly’s behavior are just the latest example of Fox News’ rampant culture of sexual harassment that seems to be a feature, not a bug. A decade of lawsuits, reports of sexual harassment, and settlements shows a clear a pattern of corporate retaliation, victim-blaming, and million dollar payouts for silence that simultaneously protect and defend the network's premier names and executives. Fox’s former chairman and CEO Roger Ailes was forced out last summer after multiple reports of sexual harassment and a lawsuit that was ultimately settled for $20 million. Fox News co-presidents Bill Shine and Jack Abernethy have both been reported for participating in Fox’s culture of silence when it comes to sexual harassment. New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman reported that Shine and other executives were not only aware of Ailes’ reported sexual harassment of Fox News employees, but were also actively involved in helping Ailes “cover up” his actions.