If Fox News can’t tolerate sexual harassers anymore, the rest of America has no excuse

For more than a decade, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly seemed untouchable.

Even when a former producer accused him of sexual harassment back in 2004, O’Reilly’s alleged sleaziness (remember lurid talk of loofah sponges, vibrators, and threesomes?) didn’t doom the conservative talking head. Instead, he paid about $9 million to privately settle the case and went on his blustery way.

Those days of dodging punishment are apparently over for O’Reilly. Late Tuesday evening, the Wall Street Journal reported that Fox News was preparing to “cut ties” with its star, whose show has brought in billions of dollars in advertising revenue over his 21-year stint at the channel.

But since a New York Times exposé published earlier this month revealed that O’Reilly and Fox’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, paid a total of $13 million to resolve multiple sexual harassment claims, more than 50 advertisers have bailed on his primetime show.

O’Reilly maintains his innocence; his lawyer issued a statement Tuesday saying his client had been subjected to a “brutal campaign of character assassination.” He also promised “irrefutable” evidence that O’Reilly was being targeted by “far-left organizations bent on destroying [him] for political and financial reasons.”

The conspiracy in O’Reilly’s mind is no doubt epic. Another way to look at it is that progressive groups hounded advertisers to stop advertising on his show and circulated petitions demanding his dismissal. They won by making O’Reilly’s behavior too toxic to his company’s bottom line.

If Fox News — the bastion of anti-political correctness that it is — can’t tolerate an alleged serial sexual harasser in its midst anymore, that’s more than just a victory for O’Reilly’s accusers. That’s a triumph for reasonable people everywhere who refuse to accept that sexual harassment at work is normal or defendable.

His departure from the powerhouse network should be a moment for every company and its leadership to think critically about their own sexual harassment policies. After all, if Fox News can no longer survive high-profile sexual harassment allegations unscathed, no other company can either.

Karin Roland, chief campaigns officer at the advocacy organization UltraViolet, says O’Reilly’s firing could send a clear message. That’s what she and UltraViolet have lobbied for, in demanding his departure and pressuring advertisers. Yet she’s not naive about 21st Century Fox’s motivation for parting ways with him.

“Let’s be real: Fox is not rejecting sexual harassment,” she says. “They’re covering their butts. If they were rejecting sexual harassment, they would have fired Bill O’Reilly years ago. They’re doing this because advertisers are fleeing. This is definitely a business decision.”

Indeed, the Murdoch family, which controls the company, hope to soon acquire the British TV provider Sky. UK media regulators, however, could quash the billion-dollar deal if it doesn’t find 21st Century Fox to be a “fit and proper” owner. Turns out employing a man who paid millions to settle sexual harassment allegations is not a good look for a brand that needs regulator approval in 2017.

O’Reilly may leave the network with a handsome payout. When Roger Ailes, the former Fox News CEO accused of sexual harassment last summer, was forced to leave, he received $40 million. Then 20th Century Fox turned around and paid his accuser, the former anchor Gretchen Carlson, $20 million to settle a lawsuit against Ailes.

So, O’Reilly may lose his perch at Fox News but still make millions upon exiting, a scenario that looks less like punishment and more like a temporary yet profitable setback.

The details of what happens next matter a lot, says Maya Raghu, director of workplace equality for the National Women’s Law Center. Other powerful people at Fox News or 21st Century Fox knew about O’Reilly’s behavior because of the settlements. They may have even shielded him from harsher discipline or potentially buried other accusations to protect the company’s star. If those individuals go unpunished, or even get off without intensive HR trainings, that will hint at just how much the company is willing to learn from its mistakes.

That reckoning, however, should take place at companies nationwide if people want O’Reilly’s downfall to amount to more than just a moment of righteous vindication or delicious schadenfreude.

“There’s a danger in thinking that situation was specific to Fox in terms of the dynamics and how it was handled,” says Raghu. “Or if Bill O’Reilly is on his way out, [thinking] that situation is resolved and we can move on. Instances or high-profile cases like these are always a good time for companies to evaluate their internal policies and procedures on this issue.”

That means holding harassers and their protectors accountable; ensuring trainings are comprehensive; guaranteeing that employees know how to identify harassment and intervene when they see it; tracking complaints and how they’re resolved; and seeing that workplace rules and legal codes are enforced.

Now that Fox News has fired its CEO over sexual harassment claims and seems prepared to do the same to O’Reilly, there are literally no more excuses to avoid taking the issue seriously and creating a workplace culture where that behavior is seen not only as unacceptable, but as a liability.

The grassroots activists who helped bring O’Reilly down aren’t going anywhere. They’re furious that the nation elected a man who admitted to grabbing women’s genitals — and who recently defended O’Reilly against these accusations.

Roland sums up their purpose thusly: “People want to see sexual predators like Bill O’Reilly stop getting a free pass and stop being protected at the expense of women who are brave enough to come forward.”

That’s one hell of a rallying cry, and it’ll only get louder if they finally help end O’Reilly’s career at Fox News.

By Rebecca Ruiz

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