In the summer of 2016, as sexual harassment allegations against Fox News CEO Roger Ailes were piling up, a former Fox News host filed a lawsuit claiming that she had been subjected to harassment not just from Ailes, but from Bill O’Reilly, the network’s number one host.
And that wasn’t all. According to the former host, Andrea Tantaros, Fox News executives not only knew about the misconduct, they acted aggressively to stifle her complaints.
Six months later and Tantaros’ accusations, which Fox News, Ailes and O’Reilly deny, have foreshadowed the contours of The O’Reilly Factor host’s downfall. 21st Century Fox has severed ties with its primetime star, its hand forced not only by the disclosure that three other women recently accused O’Reilly of sexual misconduct, but by the news that he and Fox News’ parent company had repeatedly settled complaints of harassment, to the tune of $13m.
Two of those settlements occurred after the ousting of Ailes following a tidal wave of harassment claims against him by former colleagues going back decades – which seemed to give the lie to Fox News’ promises to clean up the corporate culture that apparently shielded Ailes for a large part of his career.
O’Reilly’s downfall has in fact closely resembled that of his former boss, who left Fox News with a multi-million dollar exit package last summer. Both men had been publicly accused of sexually harassing women at Fox News long before they were shown the door. And both men withstood those scandals until their accusers grew in number and volume and the accusations began to ensnare other Fox News executives.
O’Reilly’s demise began on 1 April, when the New York Times revealed the existence of several secret settlements with women who accused O’Reilly of verbal or sexual harassment. In the weeks following, 21st Century Fox faced growing pressure to remove O’Reilly from fleeing advertisers and liberal groups that organized protests at the Fox News headquarters.
O’Reilly has denied the accusations against him and said that he agreed to settle claims of wrongdoing to avoid a protracted controversy and “to spare my children”.
On Wednesday, wishing “only the best” for his former employer, O’Reilly said in a statement, “It is tremendously disheartening that we part ways due to completely unfounded claims. But that is the unfortunate reality many of us in the public eye must live with today.”
Marc E Kasowitz, a lawyer for the former Fox News star, said in a statement on Monday that his client “has been subjected to a brutal campaign of character assassination that is unprecedented in post-McCarthyist America”. Kasowitz claims he has evidence that organizers of the campaign to remove O’Reilly are financially motivated, and has threatened to release it.
The Times’ report caused dozens of advertisers to flee O’Reilly’s show. Social media and liberal organizations have brought pressure to bear on the companies that continued to air ads during his program, and Fox News headquarters in Midtown Manhattan has been beset by on-site protests.
But the article was not the first to make complaints about O’Reilly’s behavior public. In the years that he anchored Fox News’ top-rated primetime show, O’Reilly had been publicly accused multiple times of sexual harassment, and family court records disclosed by Gawker uncovered testimony that he had violently abused his ex-wife, claims O’Reilly called “100% false”.
The most well-known accusation came in 2004, when Andrea Mackris, a former Fox News producer, filed a lawsuit claiming that O’Reilly had made lewd and unwanted sexual advances toward her while she worked on his show. The lawsuit included a transcript, allegedly from a recording Mackris made of a phone call with O’Reilly, of the Fox Host’s sexually explicit come-ons. The two settled out-of-court within a few weeks.
On 1 April, the Times uncovered four more legal disputes that ended with 21st Century Fox or O’Reilly reaching settlements, some in the multi-million dollar range. The women’s accusations formed a pattern, the Times reported, in which O’Reilly would assume a mentorship role in the women’s careers and then make sexual advances, causing them to fear professional consequences if they refused him.
One woman accused O’Reilly not of sexual harassment but of screaming at her in front of her colleagues in the Fox newsroom. The network gave her an unspecified payout when she left Fox News, in 2002.
Before those revelations, Fox News executives appeared untroubled by the accusations against O’Reilly. The network re-signed him to a lucrative contract in March.
Meanwhile, just this month, another former Fox News contributor has accused Fox co-president Bill Shine of facilitating Ailes’ retaliation after she spurned Ailes’ advances.
Those actions came after the Murdoch family made a public vow to correct the corporate culture that Ailes’ accusers say facilitated his abuse and retaliation. In a public statement, James and Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s sons and senior executives, said at the time: “We continue our commitment to maintaining a work environment based on trust and respect.”
Those words echoed on Wednesday in an internal memo that James, Lachlan, and Rupert Murdoch sent to the staff of Fox News, which read, in part: “Most importantly, we want to underscore our consistent commitment to fostering a work environment built on the values of trust and respect.” The Murdoch family owns Fox News and its parent company, 21st Century Fox.
Alongside the ethical, cultural and financial issues O’Reilly’s departure leaves Fox News with a serious business problem. The O’Reilly Factor was recently attracting four million viewers a night, a record for cable news, and anchoring its prime time lineup. Its other brightest star, Megyn Kelly, quit amid the Ailes fiasco, having also accused the then-Fox News chief of harassment.
O’Reilly has helped Fox News reach record viewers and profits. But the scandal comes at a sensitive time for the company, and hung over the Murdochs’ plans to take full control of Sky TV, the UK’s satellite broadcaster, plans that were previously derailed by the hacking scandal that rocked Murdoch’s News International UK newspaper division.
James and Lachlan Murdoch were reportedly the first to turn against O’Reilly, with their father backing the 67-year-old anchor he has known for most of their lives. But with advertisers turning against him and another major deal under threat, the accusations against O’Reilly proved too much – and another founding father of Fox News has been shown the door.