Polman: Is Bill O'Reilly too big to fail?
Fox News, where women work at their own risk in a misogynist culture frozen somewhere in the 1950s, is back in crisis mode. Nine months after chairman and accused sexual harasser Roger Ailes was forced out, we're wondering whether accused sexual harasser Bill O'Reilly will be forced out, too.
Don't hold your breath.
I don't write much about O'Reilly, although it was fun two years ago to recount his phony boasts of covering a war that was actually 1,000 miles away from his hotel. But now attention must be paid, because his new flap is for the highest stakes. It's morals versus money.
Advertisers are currently fleeing "The O'Reilly Factor," indicating in press releases that they prefer not to be associated with an old-school male chauvinist who has cost his company $13 million to settle sexual harassment claims. The news about O'Reilly — who allegedly made sexual advances to his five female accusers, and when rebuked, hurt the women's careers — broke bigly over the weekend, and more than a dozen bailing sponsors have scrambled onto the high road.
Mercedes-Benz is patting itself on the back: "The allegations are disturbing and, given the importance of women in every aspect of our business, we don't feel this is a good environment in which to advertise our products right now." Ditto clothing company UNTUCKit: "It is important that our corporate partners reflect the same principals of inclusivity and equality upon which we have built our brand." Ditto the pharmaceutical company Bayer, which says it "supports a safe, respectful and non-abusive environment for women."
All very noble. But let's not get carried away, because the firms are ultimately beholden to the business of making money.
These sponsors are merely shifting their ads to other Fox shows, which means that O'Reilly's notoriety isn't costing Fox News a penny. Plus, the network gets most of its revenue from licensing fees paid by cable and satellite operators, so it's cushioned from any sponsor rebellion. And if the sponsors truly wanted to take a moral stand, they'd bail on Fox News entirely. After all, the network, which claims to have "zero tolerance" for sexual harassment, just renewed its contract with O'Reilly last year after it paid off female accusers. Unfortunately, the sponsors have shown no interest in cutting the cord completely.
Granted, ad boycotts have worked on occasion. MSNBC nixed the simulcast of Don Imus' radio show, and Glenn Beck left Fox News after sponsors fled his TV program. But Bill O'Reilly may be too big to fail.
To use the mob's terminology, O'Reilly is an earner. He makes $18 million a year, which is dwarfed by the bucks his show brings in: $446 million ad-revenue dollars got pumped into Fox coffers between 2014 and 2016. That's likely deemed to be more important to Fox executives than the sex harassment stuff — like, for instance, the allegation that O'Reilly told one woman to buy a vibrator, and serenaded the same woman by phone with masturbation noises.
By the way, O'Reilly says he has never harassed anyone, that he routinely draws accusers just because he's famous, and that he and Fox have paid off the women because "I'm a father who cares deeply for my children ... I have put to rest any controversies to spare my children." In February 2016 he lost custody of his children, who said they wanted to live with their mother.
Bottom line is, money talks. One Fox source told New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman (the journalist with the best Fox sources), "The impact of these boycotts can be cosmetic. The feeling is, let's keep our heads down and hope this blows over."
Which may well happen. Here's another remark, from a different source: "We've seen this many times in the past. Some of the advertisers that left will come back, and some will be replaced. Life will go on."
That remark was uttered in 2012 by Michael Harrison, who publishes a talk radio magazine. He was referring to Rush Limbaugh — who, at the time, was hemorrhaging advertisers after he ridiculed a law student, a birth control user, as a "slut" and a "prostitute." You may remember that flap. Scores of big-ticket advertisers, from Capitol One to Quicken Loans, said they would no longer do business with Rush. Critics gleefully tallied the boycotters and awaited Rush's downfall.
Last August, Rush inked a new contract with his overlords at Premiere Radio Networks — for another four years. You get my point.
Perhaps Peggy Drexler, an author and gender scholar, is right when she says that the O'Reilly scandal will ultimately help women- "the more we hear about ... the mistreatment of women in the workplace and anywhere, the more women are likely to band together to hasten that change" — but Rupert Murdoch and his old-boy underlings are fine with Fox's toxic culture if it works for the balance sheet.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a "Writer in Residence" at the University of Pennsylvania.