Why Was Bill O'Reilly Really Fired?

The host’s ouster serves as an object lesson about what happens when morality and money come to a head.

Richard Drew / AP

Here are some of the things Bill O’Reilly has done, allegedly, to the women he has worked with throughout his two decades at the Fox News Channel:

  • approaching an African American woman whose desk was near his, referring to her as “hot chocolate,” and grunting like a “wild boar”
  • offering multiple unwanted sexual advances and lewd comments to a woman producer on his show, phoning her “when it sounded as if he was masturbating” and describing “various sexual fantasies”
  • suggesting that she “buy a vibrator,” “engage in phone sex or a threesome with him,” and listen to “the details of his alleged sexual encounters with a cabana masseuse, airline stewardesses, and Thai sex-show workers”
  • threatening to make any woman who dared to complain about his behavior “pay so dearly that she’ll wish she’d never been born”

Here are some of the things that happened to O’Reilly in reaction to these allegations, some of which have long been public, over that time: ... not very much. The accusations may have been reported in the media, and progressives may have had some laughs at O’Reilly’s expense because of them (Google “Bill O’Reilly loofah”), but there O’Reilly remained, the star of the Fox News Channel, pugnacious and indestructible. And he stayed on his perch in large part because from there O’Reilly was able to make massive amounts of money—for himself, and for the company that had elevated him. From 2014 through 2016, according to one report, The O’Reilly Factor generated more than $446 million in advertising revenues.

But even Bill O’Reilly, it turns out, is subject to the forces of gravity. The host, it was announced Wednesday afternoon, is out at Fox. And this is ostensibly because of the recent revelation of yet more allegations of sexual harassment against him. As 21st Century Fox put it in a terse press release, “After a thorough and careful review of the allegations, the Company and Bill O’Reilly have agreed that Bill O’Reilly will not be returning to the Fox News Channel.”

It’s notable that the company felt no need to elaborate on the “the allegations” in question; at this point, the conglomerate (and, ostensibly, the collective of crisis PR strategists who wrote this telling sentence on its behalf) seem to have figured, people understand roughly what those accusations have entailed. While Don Imus was fired for a racist comment, and Dan Rather was fired for an isolated journalistic indiscretion, and Brian Williams was suspended for exaggerating the truth … O’Reilly, the company’s statement on the matter suggests, was let go because of a pattern of behavior that is offensive not merely to the people who were its most direct targets, but to our broader ideals of decency, and respectfulness, and empathy.

It’s a line of logic borne out in the letter sent by Rupert Murdoch, the acting CEO of Fox News, to his staffers (a letter promptly leaked to CNN’s Brian Stelter):

What the company doesn’t say in its release, and what Murdoch also leaves silent in his talk of “trust and respect,” is that the firing seems to have been occasioned by so much more than “the allegations” in question—a string of events that have compromised The O’Reilly Factor as an (alleged) arbiter of American civic life, and also, relatedly, as a money-making juggernaut. There were the daily protests outside Fox News’s headquarters in New York, objecting to O’Reilly. And there’s the fact that several high-profile advertisers—more than 50 of them, in all—suspended the campaigns they had been airing on his show. The advertisers included, The Daily Beast reports, carmakers, pharmaceutical companies, financial and insurance firms, and many more, and many of them expressed particular concern about the allegations’ effect on The O’Reilly Factor as an agent of American morality. As Mercedes-Benz said in a statement of its decision, “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.”

Another factor in the death of the Factor: 21st Century Fox’s pending takeover of Sky TV, the European pay-TV company, in a deal said to be worth $14 billion. “On May 16,” New York magazine reported, “the British media regulator Ofcom is set to judge whether the Murdochs are ‘fit and proper’ to own such a large media property.” And “removing O’Reilly could appease critics and help close the Sky deal.”

You know what’s worth more than $446 million? $14 billion.

Morality via math: It’s not a particularly pleasant way to go about righting wrongs. Capitalism looks decidedly awkward when it tries on a superhero’s cape. But this is a time in which companies do act, often, as arbiters of discourse, and in which they are increasingly cognizant of their need to stay on the right side of history—for financial reasons if for no other ones. As United reels from one of the worst public-relations disasters in recent memory, and as Pepsi does the same, O’Reilly’s ouster is yet another reminder that the profit motive can itself be an agent of change. Money makes the world go round—and this can lead both to progress and to dizzying levels of hypocrisy.

It’s not merely the sexual harassment allegations, after all, that have haunted The Factor and its host. Here are some of the comments O’Reilly has made on the air—shaping millions of people’s views of the country and their fellow Americans—over the years:

  • “White people don’t force black people to have babies out of wedlock. That’s a personal decision; a decision that has devastated millions of children and led to disaster both socially and economically.”
  • “There is a violent subculture in the African-American community that should be exposed and confronted. Enter the Black Lives Matter crew which roams around the country promoting a false narrative that police officers are actively hunting down and killing blacks.”
  • “Don’t abandon your children. Don’t get pregnant at 14. Don’t allow your neighborhoods to deteriorate into free-fire zones. That’s what the African American community should have on their T-shirts.”
  • “I didn’t hear a word she said. I was looking at the James Brown wig. If we have a picture of James Brown—it’s the same wig.”
  • “The reason Trayvon Martin died is because he looked a certain way, and it wasn’t based on skin color. If Trayvon Martin had been wearing a jacket like you are and a tie, Mr. West, this evening, I don’t think George Zimmerman would’ve had any problem. But he was wearing a hoodie, and he looked a certain way, and that way is how gangstas look. And therefore he got attention.”

These are comments, too, that provoked outrage and indignation among many members of the American public; they are comments that, until today, had no real recourse. They simply solidified O’Reilly’s self-styled brand as a proud warrior against the pettiness of “p.c. culture.” O’Reilly may have made any number of shameful characterizations of African Americans to his legions of viewers, among them that “many of them are ill-educated and have tattoos on their foreheads, and I hate to be generalized about it, but it’s true.” He may have sent a correspondent on a tour through New York’s Chinatown for a segment that was a textbook example of everyday racism. He may have allegedly demeaned and insulted and threatened the women who were also his colleagues. He may have engaged in all manner of behavior that, taken together, suggests incuriosity and unkindness and bigotry and sexism. For years, none of that mattered. This week, finally, the thing that was always a big deal was recognized as such—and all that took, it turns out, was another big deal.