Bill O'Reilly Lost to the Feminists He Despises
No one is too big to fail in a properly functioning market
Donald Trump got accused of sexual assault and he got elected president of the United States. Bill O' Reilly got accused of the same thing and got the boot.
O'Reilly's departure was triggered by a New York Times (yes, I know!) expose some week ago that revealed that Fox News' had renewed the king of cable's $18 million contract ahead of its expiration after paying $13 million to five women—two as recently as last year—to drop their sexual harassment charges against him. The outrage this generated caused dozens of big-name advertisers to pull out of his show in disgust.
All of this shows that markets, with their multiple pressure points, are much better at enforcing norms of civilized behavior than the political world. And, in a sense, this kind of market squeeze is good. But it's not all good, at least not the way it was applied in this case.
The Times story painted a textbook case of sexual harassment: O'Reilly would allegedly make lewd and explicit advances, promising to use his influence at Fox to help women if they acquiesced to his propositions. If they rebuffed him, he'd turn cold and vindictive, even threatening to "destroy" one when she started litigation.
O'Reilly, who's been off the air since April 11, denies all of this, declaring that he is being targeted because he is "prominent and controversial." That would have been more believable if his victims—who include co-workers and guests of his show—weren't all independently reporting the same pattern of behavior (and if two of them didn't have taped phone conversations as proof!).
None of this, however, perturbed O'Reilly's viewers, given that his ratings didn't drop one iota. To some extent, this is not surprising given that most of us don't launch inquires into the personal lives of people from whom we buy products and services unless it starts affecting their ability to deliver. As Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group, noted, all of this was just "background noise" for Fox fans. On the other hand, given that O'Reilly was a champion of traditional moral values that his followers claim to hold dear, his personal life couldn't really be separated from his brand and service.
But O'Reilly's loyal viewership didn't mean much if he couldn't monetize it—which he had so far been spectacularly successful at doing given that show pulled in a whopping $178 million in ad revenue in 2015, the highest of any cable news show.
That's precisely why the decision by Fox's big advertisers like Mitsubishi, Lexus, BMW, Hyundai, Credit Karma, T. Rowe Price, Allstate, and Mercedes-Benz to either pull out completely or reassign their ads to other shows hit where it hurt. Allstate delivered a pointed statement when it withdrew, noting that "inclusivity and support for women" are paramount values for it. Likewise, UNTUCKit, a men's apparel company, declared that as an employer with a workforce that is two-thirds female, "we take sexual harassment claims very seriously."
In a free society, companies are at liberty to associate—or not—with whomever they choose, which makes ostracism a powerful way of enforcing basic norms.
However, such pressure tactics by advertisers in this case aren't entirely unproblematic either.
The big problem with many of the companies that turned against O'Reilly is that they didn't do so of their own accord, no matter how much they pretend to be paragons of virtue, but rather because they themselves were under pressure from advocacy groups such as the National Organization of Women. In this case, that's fine, given that O'Reilly's misconduct is egregious by any yardstick, and so most people will consider it a good thing that someone was able to step in and do something about it. However, NOW and its ilk are ideological opponents of O'Reilly and his brand of conservative politics. Unlike Fox's management and audience, they are motivated not by the internal health of the organization. They're not operating based on their purity of the market, either. They're manipulating market forces to enforce their own agenda.
Hence, there is a real risk that these fleeing advertisers will look like they've been captured by progressive interest groups trying to undermine Fox. To avoid that perception (and reality), these advertisers will have to be prepared to go after liberal media stars when they fall—as they surely will—with equal vigor. Furthermore, these advertisers must avoid the temptation of using their market clout to dictate editorial decisions, or the backlash against their backlash could be swift too.
O'Reilly got so drunk on his power that he came to feel invincible. He is playing the victim, and that's true if he means of his own success. His exit shows that when those in a position to hold him directly accountable fell on the job—namely the Fox management and his viewers—other forces arose to pick up the slack. But no one in America is too big to fail—and that includes those who brought O'Reilly to heel. (Or almost no one!)
A version of this column appeared in The Week