Bill O’Reilly made clear what he thinks of sexual harassment more than a decade ago.
"I think that the sexual harassment thing is used as a club, as I said, by many women," he said on a March 2004 episode of his Fox News show, The O’Reilly Factor. "It's something they have against men, a threat to keep men at bay in a very competitive marketplace."
He isn’t the only prominent man who has propagated the idea that sexual harassment is a myth created by women to bring down men. Male panic over the specter of false accusations has led to a lot of hand wringing about how such accusations can ruin a man’s life.
The past decade and a half has proven O’Reilly’s narrative about sexual harassment laughably wrong. Over the weekend, the New York Times detailed five payouts O’Reilly and his network have given to women who have worked with O’Reilly over the years, following allegations of unwanted behavior ranging from verbal abuse to sexual advances. But rather than ruin O’Reilly’s life, these accusations have, until now, barely touched him. He’s been free to continue amassing a fortune as the most-watched man in cable news. And he’s far from alone.
The long string of accusations against O’Reilly haven’t really hurt him yet
In 2004, a former Fox News producer named Andrea Mackris sued O’Reilly for sexual harassment. She said he called her and masturbated while she was on the phone, describing his Caribbean shower fantasies about her in nauseating detail.
O’Reilly, of course, did not take the allegations lying down. He filed a preemptive countersuit, hired a public relations firm, and instructed a private investigator to dig up damaging information about Mackris. Soon, though, O’Reilly agreed to pay Mackris around $9 million. In exchange, he got a joint public statement saying he had done nothing wrong. As a part of the terms of her settlement, Mackris was never again able to talk publicly about the allegations.
More than a decade after his first seven-figure settlement for sexual harassment, O’Reilly might finally be having his Roger Ailes moment. Following the New York Times report this weekend, more than a dozen companies have announced that they were withdrawing ads from The O’Reilly Factor, including Hyundai, Mitsubishi, Mercedes-Benz, and Lexus — a movement that’s likely to pick up steam in the coming days, as more companies that advertise during the show face backlash from women’s groups and advocates.
So far, Fox is showing no signs of abandoning its star, who hosts the No. 1 show on cable news and generates hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenue for them. Instead, the company is relying on the usual kinds of bland corporatese that powerful men can count on as protection when they find themselves in trouble.
Fox wrote that “no current or former Fox News employee ever took advantage of the 21st Century Fox hotline to raise a concern about Bill O’Reilly, even anonymously,” in a statement casting doubt on the accusations while carefully avoiding a full denial. “We have looked into these matters over the last few months and discussed them with Mr. O’Reilly. While he denies the merits of these claims, Mr. O’Reilly has resolved those he regarded as his personal responsibility. Mr. O’Reilly is fully committed to supporting our efforts to improve the environment for all our employees at Fox News.”
From the Academy Awards to Uber to the president of the United States, O’Reilly’s story is familiar
Assuming the current backlash will force Fox to do the right thing would be naive, of course. The network has been aware of the allegations against O’Reilly for years.
The truth is that for a certain category of powerful men — the kind who dominate every institution of American life — accusations of hurting women don’t ruin them at all. That’s why O’Reilly has been able to remain America’s top cable news star for more than a decade. It’s why Academy Award voters were happy to give Casey Affleck a Best Actor award despite sexual harassment accusations against him (and to nominate Mel Gibson for Best Director, despite his proven demonstrations of misogyny and racism). It’s why former Uber engineer Susan Fowler’s sexual harassment complaint against a colleague was dismissed: Upper management told her the employee was “a high performer.”
Time and again, we forgive prominent men — politicians, actors, singers, comedians — for their bad behavior, as though we almost expect it of them, while judging and criticizing famous women disproportionately for much smaller transgressions.
Twenty years after Anita Hill brought awareness of workplace sexual harassment to the center of American consciousness, we have not gotten better as a culture at punishing men who abuse women. We are still too quick to humanize the powerful men accused of assault and to demonize their accusers. There is perhaps no better example of our willingness to forgive men accused of sexual assault than our election of a man caught on tape bragging about assaulting women. But the truth is Democrats have long been willing to overlook troubling allegations against their own political leaders too.
One reason progress on these issues has been so slow is that women can’t solve this problem alone. As any woman who has ever loved an artist or supported a politician who turned out to be accused of bad behavior knows, trying to maintain perfect purity in one’s choices of whom to support can feel like an impossible task in a world where men still dominate every aspect of public life and are willing to protect and forgive and elevate one another in the face of almost any accusation.
Making America a place where men face consequences for sexual assault will depend on people in positions of power being willing to punish them. It is not a coincidence that these same power structures that put protecting their own above justice for women are the same that consistently underpay women and profess to be so confused as to why more of them haven’t ascended their ranks.
On Wednesday, President Trump offered a perfect case study in how these powerful networks function. “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong,” he told the New York Times. “He is a good person.”
Of course, it’s not surprising that Trump, who has himself been accused of assault by several women, and who has benefited from O’Reilly’s promotion of his candidacy on his television show, would stand by O’Reilly now. And in receiving the support of the president, Fox now has one more very powerful reason not to abandon its man.
Even if Fox fires O’Reilly this time, he’ll likely still be just fine
Even if O’Reilly does end up in trouble, he need not fear too much. Money has a way of softening the blow against men accused of bad behavior. Already, with the help of a crisis communications firm, O’Reilly has begun making himself out to be the victim.
“Just like other prominent and controversial people, I’m vulnerable to lawsuits from individuals who want me to pay them to avoid negative publicity. In my more than 20 years at Fox News Channel, no one has ever filed a complaint about me with the Human Resources Department, even on the anonymous hotline,” he said in a statement released Saturday.
“But most importantly, I’m a father who cares deeply for my children and who would do anything to avoid hurting them in any way. And so I have put to rest any controversies to spare my children.”
It might not work. O’Reilly’s former boss at Fox News, Roger Ailes, couldn’t survive the deluge of accusations against him. But he still managed to get $40 million in his negotiations to step down from the company — twice what the network gave Gretchen Carlson, the woman who first stepped forward with accusations against Ailes. For a certain kind of man, even going down in a massive sexual harassment scandal can still be a win.
Marin Cogan is a writer based in Washington, DC. She has written for the New York Times, New York magazine, GQ, Esquire, and more.