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Why Fox News finally dropped Bill O’Reilly

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg Visits FOX's 'The O'Reilly Factor'
Bill O’Reilly on the set of his show in 2011.
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

After weeks of public criticism — and an advertising boycott involving more than 80 companies — Fox News has dropped Bill O’Reilly, the longtime TV host who has repeatedly faced claims of sexual harassment, according to a press release Wednesday afternoon from parent company 21st Century Fox.

O’Reilly, whose juggernaut show The O’Reilly Factor propelled Fox News to the top of the cable news rankings, is currently on an Italian vacation until April 24. Earlier this week, several outlets reported that Fox executives were on the cusp of deciding O’Reilly’s fate, which has been in limbo ever since details about his history of alleged sexual misconduct came to the fore this month. In his 8 pm time slot, O’Reilly will be replaced by Tucker Carlson.

His departure will be another big blow to Fox News, which lost its other major star, Megyn Kelly, in January and its founding CEO Roger Ailes last summer, following a sexual harassment lawsuit from former host Gretchen Carlson, as well as several other allegations. All of these events have a common thread: the alleged culture of misogyny at Fox News.

Many factors led to O’Reilly’s demise at Fox News: Public opinion shifted against him recently, and executives at the family-run company have been increasingly concerned about its reputation as a toxic workplace for women. On top of that, O’Reilly was also the target of a successful advertising boycott, a form of activism that has proven particularly effective in recent years. Americans might be increasingly divided, but corporations have to sell across the aisle — so even if O’Reilly’s core viewership was mostly indifferent to the scandal, outrage from the rest of America was powerful enough to take him off the air.

How the final days of Bill O’Reilly unfolded

O’Reilly apparently has a long paper trail of workplace harassment complaints, but this was not widely known until a New York Times story two weeks ago, which revealed that Fox News has paid out more than $13 million in settlements to five women between 2002 and 2016. (Kelly has said that O’Reilly’s behavior toward women was one reason she left Fox News for NBC.)

Details from one of those settlements were already public. O’Reilly allegedly told producer Andrea Mackris to buy a vibrator, and described a fantasy involving her, a shower, and a loofah. Mackris also claimed that O’Reilly threatened her: “If any woman ever breathed a word I'll make her pay so dearly that she'll wish she'd never been born. I'll rake her through the mud, bring up things in her life and make her so miserable that she'll be destroyed.”

The Mackris lawsuit was settled in 2004 for $9 million, which is about half of O’Reilly’s current salary. But the latest revelations from the New York Times show that O’Reilly was involved in multiple settlements involving workplace harassment, and that his misconduct may have continued up until the present.

Eleven days after the Times story broke, O’Reilly went on vacation. But even during his absence, his show remains Fox News’s biggest hit — a sign of its status as the gravitational center of conservative television. On Monday night, with guest host Dana Perino, The O’Reilly Factor still received more viewers than CNN’s Anderson Cooper and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, his top two competitors, combined, according to TVNewser.

So until this week, there was still speculation that, owing to his stature, O’Reilly could ride out this wave of bad publicity.

The four factors that pushed O’Reilly out

What made it impossible for O’Reilly to keep his job? A few things.

First, his star is dimming. Though his ratings still put him on top, they have fallen — and public opinion has also begun to turn. A Morning Consult poll shows that even among people who watch the show, O’Reilly’s favorability ratings have fallen 7 percentage points between the first and second weeks of April. And overall, only about 38 percent of Republican-leaning Americans want Fox News to keep O’Reilly’s show, while 31 percent want it canceled, and 32 percent had no opinion. That’s not a lot of enthusiasm among the people who are supposed to make up his core viewership.

Second, new allegations keep coming in. The Times investigation brought forth Wendy Walsh, a radio host and O’Reilly Factor guest who accused O’Reilly of reneging on his offer to make her a regular contributor after she refused to go up to his hotel room. On Tuesday, another complaint went public involving an African-American woman who claims O’Reilly would “grunt at her like a wild boar” and call her “hot chocolate,” in the words of attorney Lisa Bloom.

A third intersecting storyline involves the Murdoch clan, who control 21st Century Fox, the parent company of Fox News. Rupert Murdoch, who founded the company, is 86, and is in the middle of transferring power to his sons, Lachlan and James. The elder Murdoch is said to be a defender of O’Reilly, but his sons pushed for O’Reilly’s removal.

This is the second time in a year that Fox News has been the center of a sexual harassment controversy. Last summer, Fox News founder Roger Ailes was pushed out over similar claims about his mistreatment of women at the company. Then, as now, Murdoch’s more image-conscious sons were reported to be a driving force behind the firing. In an internal letter to Fox News staff Wednesday, the three Murdochs wrote, “[W]e want to underscore our consistent commitment to fostering a work environment built on the values of trust and respect.”

The nail in the coffin for The O’Reilly Factor, though, seems to be the recent mass exodus of advertisers.

#Brands have become the common denominator in the culture wars

As this whole saga unfolded in the media, O’Reilly was hemorrhaging advertisers.

Between April 1 and 10, the number of paid national ads dropped by half, data from the market-research firm Kantar Media shows. By now, more than 80 brands have pulled their advertising from the show, according to the watchdog group Media Matters, including Mercedes-Benz, Jenny Craig, and Geico. All these companies have been replaced by what Kantar calls “opportunistic purchasers of remnant inventory” — small brands advertising less glamorous stuff like arthritis cream and home health aides.

It’s hard to say how much of a blow this boycott has been — or how many brands would have returned had O’Reilly issued some kind of apology. But this has become a successful strategy in the new culture wars, where activists increasingly make their appeals to corporate America. A similar advertiser boycott took Fox News host Glenn Beck off the air in 2011, and in 2015 many companies threatened to stop doing business in states that enacted anti-gay religious freedom laws.

Most recently, the successful effort to repeal North Carolina’s HB2 (the so-called “bathroom bill” that targeted transgender people and removed discrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans) was pushed forward by the NCAA, which had pledged not to hold any championship college sports events in North Carolina until the law was lifted.

These tactics, to the extent that they are successful, reveal a truth about what really brings Americans together. As much as it feels that we’ve become a divided nation, fractured into different tribes and different cultural identities, we’re still bound up in the larger economy.

Democrats and Republicans might not live in the same places anymore or watch the same shows — but largely, they still buy the same kinds of cars, sign up for the same insurance plans, and participate in the same diet programs. Few big brands cater exclusively to conservatives. So in recent years, corporate America has been put in the uncomfortable position of a go-between, bridging two worlds that feel increasingly isolated from each other.

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