News Analysis: A New Era After Bill O’Reilly? Women Aren’t Convinced

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Research shows that most women who experience sexual harassment don’t report it, primarily because they fear retaliation, and with good reason. Sexual harassment is interwoven with power imbalances, and those who experience it are usually subordinate in rank, status and importance to a company’s bottom line. The impunity of powerful men has long been a deterrent to women taking action.

Women at Fox News and beyond have watched as the company has lurched toward pushing out — for the same reasons — two men integral to its success: Roger Ailes, its former chairman, and Mr. O’Reilly, whose viewership continued to soar in the face of public disclosure of the sexual harassment settlements.

As Alisyn Camerota, a CNN anchor who for years co-hosted a show at Fox News, said on Thursday: “It was Roger Ailes’ fiefdom. He was the king. There was no higher authority that you could ever go to and there was harassment. And I tried, in my own way, to raise the flag and to talk to people about it. I went to my superiors to talk to them about it and there was certainly a feeling of ‘this is Roger, what are you going to do? Who are you going to go to?’ ”

Mr. Ailes and Mr. O’Reilly have denied the accusations against them. In both cases, the sons of Fox’s founder, Rupert Murdoch, had to coax their father to act even after internal investigations turned up more evidence of a toxic culture for women at the company. Female employees reported being pressed to trade sexual favors for advancement and endure explicit sex talk, groping, and more. Two settlements with Mr. O’Reilly took place after the company had publicly pledged it would no longer tolerate such behavior.


Wendy Walsh, right, a former guest on Bill O’Reilly’s show, who made allegations against him. Credit Kevork Djansezian/Reuters

It’s also notable that women are scarce at the senior levels of Fox News, on or off the air. Rupert Murdoch took over leadership of Fox News after Mr. Ailes was forced out. Megyn Kelly, its most visible female anchor, left the network partly because of Mr. O’Reilly’s public condemnations of women who had complained about sexual harassment, and because she grew skeptical that Fox’s culture would change. The replacement for Mr. O’Reilly’s show is hosted by a man, Tucker Carlson, and most of the other shows in the prime time lineup feature men, with the exception of Kimberly Guilfoyle and Dana Perino, still outnumbered by men on “The Five.”

Judging from more than 950 comments posted on Facebook after The New York Times asked women for their assessment of Mr. O’Reilly’s departure, many doubted that this heralded a new era for Fox or would encourage more women to report sexual harassment.

“I’m glad pressure was put on the network but no… this does not show men in power will be held accountable. It shows that Fox was losing money,” Elizabeth Gibbons Woodhouse wrote. “This was a financial decision. Accountability would have been thoroughly investigating the multiple complaints, not just allowing O’Reilly to throw money at them to keep them quiet.”

And Mairead O’Grady commented: “The issue of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace will not be resolved until we have a diverse work force — at all levels of the corporate world. There is little hope that claims of mistreatment will be handled fairly with the astonishing imbalance of power between men and women at work. When you know that reporting an issue puts your career at risk, exposes you to possible retaliatory actions, and potentially could sideline you at that organization you think twice about whether it’s worth it.”

Some women defended Mr. O’Reilly, sensing a liberal conspiracy and saying the accusations were unproven. Others said they remained discouraged that a man who boasted of forcing himself on women had been elected president. “This isn’t really a win for women,” said Lynn Thompson. “This was done to satisfy advertisers, not because it was the right thing to do. Men in powerful positions will continue to taken advantage of women and women will be seen as liars if they report it. We elected a man who admitted to assaulting women and much of the public doesn’t care. Kind of speaks for itself.”

Many women recounted their own experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace.

“I’m in the ad industry, and things haven’t changed all that much,” Michelle Barlow Dickens wrote. “It’s still Mad Men, only a little more covert.” Patty Ryan told of witnessing a judge press women against a wall and stick his tongue in their mouths.

Fox was forced to act in the end because its treatment of women was exacting a cost it could not bear. The more than 50 advertisers who pulled ads did so, they said, because they could not afford to alienate women and their considerable purchasing power. It was bad for their brands to be associated with Mr. O’Reilly. 21st Century Fox’s stock price fell 6 percent during the O’Reilly scandal. It’s not that Fox’s revenue suffered — Mr. O’Reilly’s viewers remained loyal and many advertisers redirected their ads to other Fox shows — but investors feared longer term reputational damage.

21st Century Fox wants to buy a majority stake in Sky News and feared that the O’Reilly case might draw renewed scrutiny from British regulators. The company was forced to drop its bid during a previous phone hacking scandal by one of its British newspapers.

Some women were heartened that they could redress the power imbalance. “When we as consumers and voters exercise our power we can force change,” Geneta Miles wrote. “If corporations and politicians understand that women today will no longer accept these deplorable behaviors, they will change or be defeated.”

Accusations of sexual harassment are hardly limited to Fox, as recent cases at Uber and several other companies show. The same research suggests that meaningful changes to a corporate culture do not take place unless its most senior executives fully embrace and embody a commitment to rooting out sexual harassment. At Fox, as at many other companies, that remains very much an open question.

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