clock menu more-arrow no yes

Men like Bill O’Reilly get to make a comeback. Women who speak up about harassment lose their jobs.

News of O’Reilly’s potential new job with Newsmax lays bare a core inequality around sexual harassment allegations.

Advertisements for Bill O’Reilly and Fox News in April 2017
Advertisements for Bill O’Reilly and Fox News in April 2017.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Bill O’Reilly cost Fox News millions, and now he’s getting a second chance in cable news. Victims of the kind of behavior he’s accused of don’t get the same deal.

The former Fox News host, ousted last year after multiple sexual harassment allegations against him became public, is now in talks to join Newsmax TV, according to Page Six. This high-profile new job would come despite the fact that O’Reilly ended up costing his former network millions in settlements.

In April 2017, Emily Steel and Michael Schmidt of the New York Times reported that five women had been paid a total of $13 million not to speak publicly about their allegations against O’Reilly. Some of that money came from O’Reilly’s own pocket, but some came from Fox News — and presumably that’s not counting legal fees and all the other costs associated with making sure the allegations were kept quiet.

After the Times story broke, advertisers began to flee O’Reilly’s show, sapping what had once been a huge source of revenue for Fox.

Talk of a comeback for O’Reilly lays bare one of the crucial inequalities that has yet to be fully addressed as part of the #MeToo movement: A powerful man can cost his company millions as a result of harassment allegations and still land himself a new, highly visible job. But women, too often, are silenced, booted from their industry, and blackballed.

Harassment settlements connected to O’Reilly cost Fox News millions of dollars

According to Steel and Schmidt at the Times, women at Fox were getting payouts related to O’Reilly’s behavior as early as 2002, when employees say he screamed at producer Rachel Witlieb Bernstein. She left the network with a confidentiality agreement and a settlement, the amount of which is unclear. This case did not involve sexual harassment, Steel and Schmidt note.

In 2016, the network paid more than $1 million to Laurie Dhue, a former Fox News anchor who had reported harassment by O’Reilly and former Fox CEO Roger Ailes, sources told Steel and Schmidt. The same year, Fox paid $1.6 million to Juliet Huddy, who said O’Reilly made inappropriate phone calls and pursued a sexual relationship with her while she was a regular guest on his show.

Fox News has also been sued by former host Andrea Tantaros, who says O’Reilly harassed her, though he is not a defendant in the suit. The network had offered her a settlement of $1 million, Steel and Schmidt report, but she turned it down.

Even in cases where O’Reilly paid settlements to accusers himself, Fox News likely spent money and time defending its star. When they learned of sexual harassment allegations by former O’Reilly Factor producer Andrea Mackris, Fox News and O’Reilly together filed a preemptive suit accusing her of extortion, Steel and Schmidt report. Fox also used private investigators to find information about Mackris, Steel reported at the Times this year.

The network is, in effect, still paying for O’Reilly, since it’s now facing a defamation suit filed by Mackris, Bernstein, and another accuser in a federal court in New York.

For a time, all this may have seemed worth it to Fox given the money O’Reilly brought in; his show attracted more than $446 million in ad revenue between 2014 and 2016, according to Steel and Schmidt. But after their story came out, more than 50 advertisers pulled away from The O’Reilly Factor. It was this exodus, Jeff Guo argued at Vox, that ultimately led Fox to get rid of its star.

While men like O’Reilly come back, women who speak up about harassment stay out

O’Reilly unquestionably made Fox News lots of money over the years. But he also cost it lots of money in legal settlements and, most likely, in lawyers’ and investigators’ fees as well. And the allegations against him ended up putting his profitability in jeopardy — he became toxic enough to advertisers and to Fox’s reputation that the network had to let him go.

But Newsmax is apparently willing to give O’Reilly another shot, a little more than a year later.

Contrast that with what too often happens to women who speak up about sexual harassment. After she sued O’Reilly, Mackris never worked in TV news again. “In the years after the dispute, she suffered from post-traumatic stress and spent years seeing a therapist, struggling to figure out how to create a new life, according to interviews with people close to her at the time,” Steel and Schmidt write.

Another woman, Wendy Walsh, told the Times that O’Reilly offered to make her a network contributor at Fox. Then he invited her to come to his hotel suite. After she said no, she told the paper, he became cold to her on camera, and she was eventually told she would no longer appear on the show. “I knew my hopes of a career at Fox News were in jeopardy after that evening,” she said.

Walsh is now a psychology professor and radio host. She did not complain to Fox, she told the Times, because she didn’t want to hurt her career.

Too often, women who speak up about harassment — or who simply refuse unwanted advances — face lasting repercussions. They’re fired, reassigned, or otherwise retaliated against by employers. They get a reputation as complainers and have a hard time finding other work. Lacking the backing of powerful men, they fail to advance in their industries. Or they end up disillusioned, unsure if anyone will ever take their talents seriously. As one woman who reported an unwanted advance by former NPR editorial director Michael Oreskes put it, “he utterly destroyed my ambition.”

The news of Bill O’Reilly’s possible comeback reminded Washington Post reporter Eugene Scott of the words of Michelle Obama: “I wish girls could fail as bad as men do and be okay, because let me tell you, watching men fail up, it is frustrating to see a lot of men blow it and win.”

The trajectory for too many women who experience sexual harassment is out: out of a job, out of a career, out of the field.

And as we’re seeing in more and more cases, the trajectory for men accused of harassment is up, or at least back: back into their old industries, into their expensive homes, into the circles that briefly ousted them but seem willing to welcome them with open arms once a little time has passed.

Women speak up about sexual misconduct and get treated like liabilities. Men become actual financial liabilities as a result of allegations of sexual misconduct — and move on to the next gig. The revelations of the #MeToo movement in the past few months have helped expose this inequality. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be going away.