The Sexual Harassment Crisis Is Bigger Than Just Bill O'Reilly

Fox News host Bill O’Reilly is facing backlash following a New York Times report revealing that he and Fox News’ parent company, 21st Century Fox, have paid a total of nearly $13 million to avoid lawsuits pertaining to reports of sexual harassment and other misconduct by O’Reilly. Following the Times' article, advertisers began to pull their ads from The O’Reilly Factor’s time slot. Abandoning O’Reilly’s show is a good first step, but it’s not nearly enough to actually address the widespread culture of sexual harassment that is rampant both at Fox News and in society at large.

On April 1, The New York Times reported that five women had received payments totaling nearly $13 million from either O’Reilly or 21st Century Fox “in exchange for agreeing to not pursue litigation or speak about their” reports about of sexual harassment involving O’Reilly. The incidents include claims of “verbal abuse, lewd comments, unwanted advances and phone calls in which it sounded as if Mr. O’Reilly was masturbating.”

Following the report, over 45 companies pulled their ads from airing during The O’Reilly Factor. Many issued statements explaining their decision, noting that they “condemn all forms of harassment,” that they have a “strong commitment to inclusion, respect and tolerance in the workplace,” and that “the allegations are disturbing and, 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.”

While at least one organization, the Society for Human Resource Management, decided to pull its ads from the network at large, the majority have simply redistributed their ads to other Fox News shows, as noted by Fox’s executive vice president of advertising sales, who issued a statement saying

“We value our partners and are working with them to address their current concerns about the O'Reilly Factor,” Rittenberg said. “At this time, the ad buys of those clients have been re-expressed into other FNC programs.”

 Although pulling advertisements from O’Reilly’s program is a good first step, the problem of sexual harassment at Fox News is not singular to O’Reilly. If advertisers are serious about confronting sexual harassment, they must stop financially supporting a company that has shown little desire to resolve its toxic culture of harassment.

For more than a decade, Fox News has been embroiled in sexual harassment and sexual misconduct settlements and reports. A timeline depicting the totality of sexual harassment reports against Fox News and powerful Fox figures over the years shows a clear pattern of corporate retaliation, victim-blaming, and million dollar payouts for silence that simultaneously protect and defend the accused. Given the sheer number of social, political, and economic risks survivors face when reporting sexual assault and harassment, it is entirely possible the number of incidents is even higher than the current paper trail suggests. 

O’Reilly isn’t the only problematic figure when it comes to sexual harassment at Fox News. Fox’s former chairman and CEO Roger Ailes was forced out after multiple reports of sexual harassment. Fox News co-presidents Bill Shine and Jack Abernethy have both been accused of 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’ alleged sexual harassment of Fox News employees, but were also actively involved in helping Ailes “cover up” his actions. Despite claiming to investigate and take seriously this culture of rampant sexual harassment, the network chose to renew O’Reilly’s contract last week. Just this week, Fox News contributor Julie Roginsky said in a lawsuit that Ailes and the network “discriminated against Roginsky on the basis of her gender” and “retaliated” against her “when she refused to have a sexual relationship with Ailes.” Roginsky’s suit also says that “Fox News never investigated Roginsky’s complaints.”

The systematic harassment and silencing of female employees at Fox News is well-documented and abundantly clear. If advertisers are truly serious about condemning “all forms of harassment” and advertising only in environments that highlight “the importance of women,” it should be unthinkable to continue to advertise on Fox News -- a network that has shown time and time again that it doesn’t take sexual harassment seriously.

The problem of workplace sexual harassment certainly isn’t unique to O’Reilly or Fox News. 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.”

The economic consequences of workplace harassment can be devastating. A 2014 report from Equal Rights Advocates found that sexual harassment has a variety of underrecognized economic impacts on women, who can be “denied or deterred from promotions, fired, or forced to leave their jobs, regardless of whether they file.” The consequences for low-wage workers can be even more severe, as they “often have little bargaining power” and “are least able to absorb the financial blow of a reduction in hours, or of sudden changes in their work schedules that make it difficult for them to arrange child care or transportation to work.”

Advertisers are right to pull their ads from The O’Reilly Factor, but if they’re serious about addressing sexual assault and harassment, that’s not nearly enough. By continuing to advertise on Fox News, companies aren’t living up to their commitment to fight “any and all forms of sexual harassment.” O’Reilly is just one (albeit very public) example of what happens when organizations condone and enable systemic sexual harassment. Although it’s important that advertisers hold O’Reilly and Fox News accountable, they should not treat this situation as an isolated “scandal” and satisfy themselves with reallocating ads elsewhere on the network. Sexual assault and harassment are larger societal problems, and while the outrage currently aimed at O’Reilly is valid and necessary, advertisers should be sure they don’t lose sight of the the bigger picture.