It would be less accurate to say that Bill O’Reilly’s career ended amid allegations of sexual harassment than to say it ended amid an advertising boycott. The network has been aware of his behavior since at least 2004. That he’s only leaving now is not a testament to the Fox News Network’s newly found conscience. It happened because millions of Americans decided it wasn’t okay.
Even after the New York Times reported O’Reilly had paid $13m in settlements to five different women, the network re-upped his $18m annual contract anyway. But corporate America had its eyes on Twitter and its hand on its wallet. By the time O’Reilly resigned, no fewer than 80 companies had pulled ads from the network under pressure from consumers, according to the watchdog group Media Matters.
The network had just been through an uncannily similar scenario with former chairman Roger Ailes, who was forced out only after the accusations that had haunted him for years reached a fever pitch. Fox ousted him on the grounds it could not tolerate behavior that “disrespects women.” But its actions spoke louder: it sent Ailes out the door with a $40m exit package, then issued two more settlements for harassment charges against O’Reilly.
Like O’Reilly, Ailes has denied the claims to the last; but an internal investigation by the network suggested they were credible. Ailes wasn’t canned for the findings (in years prior it reportedly had previously settled with at least six of Ailes’ accusers). Then as now, it took not just what one critic referred to in O’Reilly’s case as “industrial scale harassment,” for the network to act — it took public outcry.
That critic was Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters and, as the owner of the @StopOReilly Twitter account, an outspoken voice in the effort to get O’Reilly off the air. “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,” Carusone said.
Public opinion polling suggests as much. So does the dramatic spike in interest in O’Reilly in Google trends, and the activation of online communities. So do the petitions garnering many tens of thousands of signatures, according to organizers, calling for his ousting. So do the protesters who gathered outside the network’s headquarters in New York City. So does, well, history.
On Tuesday, O’Reilly’s lawyer said his client was the subject of a harassment campaign coordinated by liberal pressure groups: a “smear campaign is being orchestrated by far-left organizations bent on destroying O’Reilly for political and financial reasons,” he said. The statement offered no evidence for its claim but promised such evidence would be “put forth shortly.” His lawyer is more right than he knows.
Sure, this is a conspiracy — in as much as conspiring means to unite with purpose in fighting a pervasive culture of misogyny that allows allegations against serial sexual harassers to go unchecked for years.
And yes, it’s a political campaign too, in as much as mobilizing against the alleged serial sexual harassment by a public figure – said to have been carried with impunity – is an inherently political act. And absolutely it is a financial campaign, because it was impossible to reach Fox with a moral argument.
Carusone has said the question now is “what Fox News will do about the epidemic of sexual harassment” at their network, but the movement he helped invigorate has already answered it: nothing unless we insist otherwise.
Democracy in America feels more undemocratic than ever, but companies can still be moved to act in the interest of their bottom line. It took corporate influence to help defeat North Carolina’s discriminatory bathroom bill, after all, and it was an advertiser boycott that helped push Glenn Beck of the air.
That business has become more responsive to public outcry than elected officials isn’t anything to celebrate, but it is an opportunity for activists.
The one thing Pepsi got right in its famously terrible commercial is that companies do have an important role to play in the resistance. But it isn’t about giving away soft drinks to the police. It’s about things like not giving money to entities that systematically enable a culture of sexism and abuse. And the movement won’t be led by Kendall Jenner, it will be led by the crowd.
On Tuesday we were reminded that even with the pussy-grabber-in-chief in the White House, even at a time when darkness feels ascendant, there’s something we can do. We know, because we did it: with O’Reilly gone, we got ours.