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After much speculation, Bill O'Reilly was finally canned from Fox News. It came amid the long wake of a gutting New York Times exposé that revealed Fox had paid $13 million dollars to keep five different women who had accused him of sexual harassment quiet.
The Times report was just the most recent in several years of documented inappropriate and abusive behavior O'Reilly exhibited towards women — not to mention his long history of being terrible to women on-air.
So, why after all this time, did Fox choose to finally let him go? As onlookers celebrate O'Reilly's dethroning, the fact that it took so long should give us pause.
Fox's apparent calculation was simple; it was dictated by the company's bottom line. O'Reilly was cut loose because his transgressions had become bad for business. After the Times article, a flood of some 60 advertisers pulled their ads from The O'Reilly Factor. Not to mention the money they were burning on O'Reilly's settlements, which incidentally marked the second high-profile harassment scandal at Fox. In 2016, former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson slapped Fox News chairman Roger Ailes with a high-profile sexual harassment suit, forcing him to step down.
In the post-Cosby landscape, it's certainly not a good look for anyone, including Fox News, to harbor men with a penchant for abusive behavior towards women. From 2014 to 2015 as sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby piled up, and as one woman after another came forward, there were too many accusations for the public to ignore. Cosby, while not actively producing television, was canceled even from the networks that were syndicating his long cherished show, The Cosby Show. His fall from grace was swift and his legacy gutted. Surely, Fox wouldn't want to weather a similar storm.
But, it can be argued that Fox News facilitated O'Reilly's ascension as the godfather of on-air and off-air misogyny. Outside of tacitly standing by him and paying his accusers hush money, The O'Reilly Factor in particular is responsible for some of the ugliest moments of on-air sexism. In 2009, following the murder of abortion provider, Dr. George Tiller, O'Reilly defended his many mentions of Tiller who he once called "Tiller the baby killer." In 2006, justified the rape and murder of a woman because she was "wearing a halter top and a miniskirt". He's called women "witches" and said there is something "off" about them being president. And most recently, commented on Rep. Maxine Waters, saying he, "didn't hear a word she said," because he was, "was looking at the James Brown wig."
The O'Reilly Factor is the number one watched show on cable news and this cornucopia of Fox News' primetime misogyny crossed streams with a disturbing rise of anti-woman rhetoric in mainstream American politics: the rise of Donald Trump as a serious presidential candidate. When the Washington Post published audio of Trump on a hot mic talking about grabbing women "by the pussy," O'Reilly foreshadowed his own apparent disregard of upstanding conduct with a disturbing apology for the reality star-cum-GOP candidate: O'Reilly dismissed Trump's remarks as "crude guy talk."
O'Reilly's ability to outlast so many of the previous accusations of misogynistic behavior suggests a problem much deeper than O'Reilly himself, but a corporate culture that gives men permission to not just behave badly, but get away with it — until it impacts the public facing side of the business and their bottom line. If O'Reilly was given a severance package — as seems likely for a star of his magnitude — it would only serve to reinforce a troublesome pattern: O'Reilly has continuously been rewarded by Fox despite years of abusing women.
Whats more, Fox appears to have learned nothing. The network is moving to replace O'Reilly with Tucker Carlson, who has his own history of on-air misogyny. Just this past Christmas eve, Carlson went after Teen Vogue editor Lauren Duca and told her to "stick to the thigh-high boots," because of an article she had previously written, while they were debating over Ivanka Trump. If Fox was interested in actually supporting women, Carlson should be their last choice. It might even be nice to see a woman or a young person in O'Reilly's prime time slot — but those demographics are instead fleeing the network in droves.
On-air theatrics and actual harassment behind closed doors are different things, but they're part and parcel of Fox's broader sentiments with regard to women. O'Reilly's ouster is, in no uncertain terms, a victory for the five women that have come forward with claims of harassment. But, in the fight for fair and equal treatment of women, this doesn't feel like a victory.
What led Fox to fire O'Reilly wasn't a moral sense that women should feel safe in the workplace, let alone receive equal treatment. And that's the real problem. That the bottom line was the bottom line tells a much more troubling story about how Fox, and the viewers who made the network thrive, see women. The lasting damage of the virulent misogyny of The O'Reilly Factor is already in place and his toxic legacy fomented — especially when we glance over at the White House.
What's to say Fox won't keep fostering their anti-woman sentiments that its viewers ignored when they put Trump in office — and that the network itself ignored as it rode O'Reilly's stardom to the top.