Fox News star Bill O’Reilly’s 21-year career at the news network ended on Wednesday amid allegations of sexual harassment and an advertising boycott.
“After a thorough and careful review of the allegations, the company and Bill O’Reilly have agreed that Bill O’Reilly will not be returning to the Fox News Channel,” a spokesman for 21st Century Fox, Fox News’s parent company, said in a statement.
In a statement, O’Reilly called the allegations “completely unfounded”.
“Over the past 20 years at Fox News, I have been extremely proud to launch and lead one of the most successful news programs in history, which has consistently informed and entertained millions of Americans and significantly contributed to building Fox into the dominant news network in television,” he said.
“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.”
Critics charged the company had been forced to act amid “industrial-scale harassment” at the company and that the problems extended beyond O’Reilly.
O’Reilly, host of Fox News’s biggest show, The O’Reilly Factor, is currently on vacation and had said he would return to work on Monday. But the future of the man dubbed “the king of cable news” became increasingly insecure after an internal investigation following a New York Times story that revealed Fox and O’Reilly had paid $13m in settlements to five women who accused the host of sexual harassment.
The Times’ story and subsequent allegations of impropriety sparked protests and a boycott from 50 advertisers, including car manufacturers Hyundai, BMW, Mitsubishi, insurer Allstate and drugmakers Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline.
An average of four million viewers watched O’Reilly’s show each night during the first three months of the year, a record for cable news. His attacks on liberals and “political correctness” set the tone for the network and his huge audience drew top advertisers. But as the allegations mounted against him in recent weeks, pressure has grown for Fox to act.
On Tuesday, another former Fox News employee called a 21st Century Fox hotline to report allegations of sexual and racial harassment against O’Reilly, according to her lawyer.
The board of Fox News’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, was scheduled to meet on Thursday to discuss the matter further. The Fox News chairman, Rupert Murdoch, had reportedly backed O’Reilly while Murdoch’s sons James and Lachlan were said to favor O’Reilly’s removal. Donald Trump had also come to O’Reilly’s defense saying: “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.”
On Tuesday a lawyer for O’Reilly, Marc E Kasowitz of Kasowitz Benson Torres, said his client was the subject of a harassment campaign coordinated by liberal pressure groups. “Bill O’Reilly has been subjected to a brutal campaign of character assassination that is unprecedented in post-McCarthyist America,” he said in a statement. “This law firm has uncovered evidence that the smear campaign is being orchestrated by far-left organizations bent on destroying O’Reilly for political and financial reasons. That evidence will be put forth shortly, and it is irrefutable.”
O’Reilly’s departure is the second sex scandal to rock the network in less than a year. Last July, Fox News’s then chairman, Roger Ailes, was forced out amid allegations that he sexually harassed numerous women. Those allegations led to the departure of another of Fox’s primetime stars, Megyn Kelly, who also accused Ailes of inappropriate behavior.
Both O’Reilly and Ailes have vehemently denied the allegations against them. O’Reilly said he paid the settlements in order to “put to rest any controversies to spare my children”.
Losing O’Reilly will be a major blow for Fox News. His pugnacious show dominates the primetime cable news landscape, and his show’s ratings have spiked in the wake of the scandal as loyal viewers have tuned in to give their support. O’Reilly, 67, has been an anchor at the network since he started in 1996. He earns an estimated $18m a year, and Fox extended his contract just after the New York Times broke its story on the initial allegations.
The woman making the latest allegations, who has said she wants to remain anonymous and is not seeking payment, reported that in 2008, O’Reilly would stop by her desk and grunt like a “wild boar”. The woman, who is African American, said O’Reilly called her “hot chocolate”, according to her lawyer, Lisa Bloom.
Angelo Carusone, the president of media watchdog Media Matters who also ran the @StopOReilly Twitter account, said Fox News had been forced to act. “They had years to address serial sexual harassment at Fox News. They didn’t; they actually enabled it. So, individuals and groups took action to educate advertisers,” he said.
“Advertisers fled because they immediately recognized what Fox News has ignored for over a decade: that serial sexual harassment is not only wrong, but bad for business,” he said. “Fox News deserves no accolades, only scorn for the industrial-scale harassment they have forced their employees to endure.”
Carusone said: “The open question is what Fox News will do about the epidemic of sexual harassment at Fox News that extends well beyond O’Reilly.”
O’Reilly, on vacation in Italy, met briefly with Pope Francis on Friday in St Peter’s Square. The meeting was part of the pope’s weekly general audience. The Vatican has said that no private meeting with O’Reilly was planned.