Fox News journalists: Don’t stay silent amid Bill O’Reilly controversy

April 4, 2017
Bill O'Reilly speaks on May 21, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Brent N. Clarke/FilmMagic, via Getty Images)

What does it tell us when advertisers get ahead of reporters in matters of newsroom ethics? It tells us something is seriously wrong at Fox News, and it’s time for the real journalists at the network (and beyond) to make themselves heard.

On Tuesday, more companies moved to distance themselves from the network and its host, Bill O’Reilly, in response to a April 1 piece in The New York Times detailing sexual harassment allegations against Fox’s top-rated host and cash cow. The alleged behavior ranges the gamut of smut, from unwanted advances to phone calls in which O’Reilly—he of an $18 million-a-year salary from Rupert Murdoch et al—sounds as if he is masturbating.

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BMW of North America, Untuckit, Constant Contact, and Mercedes-Benz are among the 11 brands to announce in recent days that they are pulling ad support from O’Reilly’s show, The O’Reilly Factor. The moves are a response to the weekend piece in the Times, which reported that five women had received payouts totalling about $13 million from either O’Reilly or Fox News, basically hush money to convince the women not to file lawsuits or talk about their accusations against O’Reilly.

As Madison Avenue ratchets up its outrage against the host—an outrage, it must be said, that took a story in the Times to find a voice—the real journalists at Fox News, of which there are many, remain silent. They produce respected work, build impressive careers, all while providing cover for a network that uses them to feign a wall of legitimacy around their colleague. The National Organization for Women, in a statement Tuesday calling for O’Reilly to be fired, alluded to a culture at the company that “condones the harassment and objectification of women … Men like Mr. O’Reilly and Mr. (former Fox News President Roger) Ailes will never be stopped as long as their behavior is allowed to continue, even supported, by their employer.”

Indeed, Fox’s fetid culture didn’t start with O’Reilly and, at this rate, is unlikely to end with him. The recent drama at the network, for instance, comes months after Ailes, O’Reilly’s boss, was dismissed in the wake of his own sexual harassment scandal. And this week, Monica Douglas, a black Fox News employee, joined a lawsuit filed by two other women alleging racial harassment. While the executive named in that lawsuit has been dismissed, O’Reilly remains entrenched. In fact, Fox News recently extended his contract (which had been set to expire), a show of support if ever there was one for an anchor whose program has brought in nearly half a billion dollars in revenue over the last few years.

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So what’s a Fox News journalist to do? What’s the appropriate response when your employer’s standard bearer is being rewarded with a new contract while shelling out millions of dollars to women willing to come forward, by name, and talk about his abuse?

Well, you could leave.

Or speak out.

Or refuse to be used as cover.

If not you, then journalism itself, the rest of us, need to do so on your behalf. Surely a profession that finds itself up in arms when the president says he doesn’t like us, deeply offended when the press secretary doesn’t invite us into his office, wounded when administration officials don’t want to come to our annual dinner—surely we can muster some of that outrage on behalf of our colleagues complaining of unwanted sexual conduct emanating from the most-watched show on Fox.

Surely, we can do that.

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Kyle Pope was the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. He is now executive director of strategic initiatives at Covering Climate Now.