Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ
Over the past two years, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly has drawn attention to President Barack Obama's clothing at a Muslim wedding and claimed Rep. Maxine Waters’ (D-CA) was wearing a “James Brown wig,” called “many” African-Americans “ill-educated” with “tattoos on their foreheads,” and praised the workplace conditions of the slaves who built the White House. A co-worker accused him of reducing her on-air time on his show after she turned down his repeated sexual advances. His yarns about heroically covering conflicts in the Falkland Islands, El Salvador, and Northern Ireland were exposed as fiction. His latest biography was rejected as "a disservice to history” written by "an opportunistic interloper" who "debases the historian's craft." This fall marks the 10th anniversary of O’Reilly’s shocked declaration that African-American patrons at a famous Harlem restaurant weren’t screaming expletives at the waitstaff.
Given this track record, what would it take for Fox News to fire Bill?
The reason O’Reilly has been untouchable is simple: He makes Fox News a lot of money. His show anchors Fox’s prime-time programming, bringing in the most viewers in cable news for 17 years, according to the network.
There is no heir apparent. It’s difficult to imagine an Eric Bolling or Greg Gutfeld filling O’Reilly’s seat. If the network loses him, it’s screwed. And so Fox excuses offenses that would get talent at other networks -- or lesser lights at Fox -- kicked to the curb.
Fox Does Damage Control For Fox’s Bigoted Commentary
Don Imus, Juan Williams, Lou Dobbs, Rush Limbaugh, Curt Schilling, Pat Buchanan, and Laura Schlessinger were pushed out of CBS and MSNBC, NPR, CNN, ESPN, MSNBC, and her radio show, respectively, for making the sort of racially charged remarks that are a regular staple of O'Reilly's programming.
Fox executives have a much higher tolerance for on-air bigotry (they hired Dobbs, Imus, and Williams after their scandals on other networks) but even they dropped E.D. Hill and Emily Austen after they made racially charged remarks.
The latest controversy over O’Reilly’s casually racist attack on Waters is instructive. Seeking to stem the onslaught of criticism, a statement was released under O’Reilly’s name that minimized his comments but included the phrase “I apologize.” The statement circulated widely and was described by some journalists as O’Reilly “express[ing] regret.” Hours later, speaking to his own audience, the Fox host laughed his way through a similar statement before attacking Waters’ patriotism and dog-whistling some comments about her support for the “entitlement system.”
Fox doesn’t appear to care about what O’Reilly says. It just does damage control.
When O’Reilly’s Fabrications Were Exposed, Fox Attacked His Critics
Journalists depend on the willingness of their audiences to believe them. That makes fabricating a story the profession’s greatest sin.
When questions were raised about tales Brian Williams had told about his reporting exploits, NBC News convened an internal investigation of Williams’ claims that eventually led to his removal as anchor of Nightly News. Over the years, The New York Times’ Jayson Blair, The Washington Post’s Janet Cooke, and The New Republic’s Stephen Glass have all lost their jobs when stories they reported were exposed as inventions.
O’Reilly spent much of 2015 trying to salvage his journalistic credibility after Mother Jones, Media Matters, and others dismantled a host of tall tales he had told about his journalism career. His incredible claims about reporting from the battlefield during the Falklands War, being present for the suicide of a key figure in the John F. Kennedy assassination, seeing “nuns get shot in the back of the head” during the civil war in El Salvador and “Irish terrorists kill and maim their fellow citizens in Belfast,” and getting “attacked by protesters” during the Los Angeles riots were all false.
Rather than investigate the allegations, as a credible news network would, Fox sent O’Reilly out to deny the claims in interviews and on his program. As the fabrications mounted, the network released a statement attacking O’Reilly’s critics and saying they would no longer respond to the “accusation du jour.”
For Fox, evidence that its top host had concocted stories about his past work was an attack to be deflected, not a serious allegation to be reviewed.
Fox Paid Off A Former Employee Who Accused O’Reilly Of Sexual Harassment
Fox spent much of last summer embroiled in a massive scandal over dozens of allegations of sexual harassment by its employees against its founder and CEO, Roger Ailes. After an internal review, Ailes resigned.
But just weeks after Ailes’ termination, Fox’s parent company paid off former contributor Juliet Huddy to keep her from filing a lawsuit accusing O’Reilly of sexually harassing her for years and using his position to punish her when she rebuffed him (O’Reilly and the company denied the allegations).
This was at least the second time O’Reilly had been accused of workplace sexual harassment; he settled a 2004 lawsuit by one of his show’s producers for millions of dollars. It’s unclear if the network has taken any steps to protect its employees from its star’s advances.
What Would It Take?
By Fox News’ own standards and the standards of the rest of journalism, O’Reilly should have been fired long ago.
But O’Reilly seems to be worth more to Fox than its reputation with African-Americans offended by his comments, or its duty to other employees who might be subjected to his sexual entreaties, or its stature as an outlet that cares about journalism. Until the network’s executives start caring about something more than the bottom line, or O’Reilly’s ratings fall, or he finally does something so terrible that it offends the right stakeholders, his position at the network will remain secure.
When Fox fired an executive just this week over racist remarks she allegedly made to African-American co-workers, the network put out a statement claiming, “There is no place for abhorrent behavior like this at Fox News.
Apparently there is a place for that behavior: hosting the network’s highest-rated broadcast.