On Wednesday afternoon, the king of cable was summarily—and in the eyes of many, finally—dethroned.
Bill O’Reilly’s stunning fall was both swift and extraordinarily prolonged: Swift for a public newly woken to his alleged transgressions, courtesy of a bombshell New York Times investigation earlier this month that revealed O’Reilly’s employers at Fox News had paid out some $13 million to women who claimed the bombastic TV host had sexually harassed them or otherwise exposed them to inappropriate behavior (just yesterday another woman came forward). Prolonged for those both inside and outside of Fox HQ who had witnessed the host flourish even after 13 years of reportedly questionable behavior (his contract was recently renewed for an estimated $18 million a year).
Whatever the timeline, O’Reilly’s dismissal from the top of the media power grid is still shocking: His was a conservative juggernaut that showed no signs of slowing, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year, with an estimated four million viewers tuning to see him each night. In the age of Trump, it would have seemed that O’Reilly was in the catbird seat: giving voice to the same powerful strain of disaffected conservatism that put Donald Trump in the Oval Office, excitedly (and lucratively) excoriating America’s Losers each night without pause.
And yet, the backlash to the Trump presidency—the outrage it stoked among those very losers, the restive progressive base, and the subsequent push towards collective, grassroots action—was precisely the force that secured O’Reilly’s demise. In other words: If Trump hadn’t been elected, Bill O’Reilly might still have a job.
That’s not to say that the seeds of O’Reilly’s downfall weren’t sown by the women who came out against him and eventually threatened legal action, including Juliet Huddy, Andrea Mackris, Rebecca Gomez Diamond, Laurie Dhue and Andrea Tantaros. Had they not spoken up, O’Reilly would undoubtedly be returning to his post at 8PM next week, rested and rejuvenated from an Italian vacation.
These women, and women like them, were critical in the effort to oust the Fox host, according to Media Matters President, Angelo Carusone—who led his organization’s “Stop O’Reilly” campaign. “I think that women spent a lot of time and did a lot of ground work to make sexual harassment an issue that people would be held accountable for. If that groundwork wasn’t done, advertisers,” who subsequently fled the program in the wake of the Times investigation, “wouldn’t have been persuaded at all.”
But, as Shaunna Thomas, the co-founder of Ultraviolet, a women’s rights organization that led protests against O’Reilly as recently as this week, pointed out: “It’s worth noting that he’s been a problem—a known sexual predator—for decades.”
Thomas explained that the issue of sexual harassment is now prominent in a way it has not been—ever—in part thanks to the president himself. “Ultraviolet launched in 2012,” she recalled, “and it was hard to even name sexism as a real problem without getting real pushback, even on the left.”
I asked her whether Trump’s campaign scandals, including the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tapes, did anything to change that. “I do think Trump helped educate the public about what consent means,” she said, “considering that someone who was bragging about assaulting women became president. That was a huge wakeup call.”
Carusone concurred: “Trump forced the realization that people can get away with [sexual harassment] so brazenly.” He added, “In an atmosphere where the president of the United States can do what he did and say what he did—it’s a constant reminder that everyone needs to be more engaged, and more forcefully so.”
If Trump put sexual harassment on the front burner during the campaign, his election left many Americans indignant and fearful about the direction in which the country was headed—a powerful mixture of outrage and engagement that appears to have been critical in O’Reilly’s demise. The fate of the Fox News host became one more way for the resistance to make its voice heard, a key battle in the fight against Trump’s tide.
“This is the same group of people who were marching [during the Women’s March], the same group of people who demanded their senators oppose [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions, the same group of people who have resisted Trump’s agenda when it’s clear that it’s endangering women,” said Thomas. “They are part of a really loud, effective campaign against leaders in politics and media who are undermining women.”
“This presidency has given a sense that for individuals—it’s up to them to act,” said Carusone.
Advertisers, the lynchpin to O’Reilly’s demise, understood this. I spoke with Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change, one of the groups that orchestrated the successful behind-the-scenes effort to pressure advertisers to abandon The O’Reilly Factor—that weeks-long cascade of dollar departures undoubtedly added certain urgency to the argument for the host’s dismissal.
Corporations, Robinson explained, usually have the option of removing their ads in the immediate and waiting to see “what the climate is going to be like,” with the option of returning to a program once the proverbial smoke has cleared.
But this time, Robinson said, “We wanted to make clear that we weren’t going away, that this wasn’t just a vacation they could take from The O’Reilly Factor.”
Activists made their intentions explicit, in part, he said, through the use of social media. “Everyday people can now bypass filters that corporations have, to speak directly to the brands,” he said. “For many of [the corporations], it became too hard to ignore the people who were engaged. People are willing to stand up and fight back and use their voices.”
O’Reilly, long a Trump ally (and vice versa: the president was one of the very few in recent days to publicly offer a defense of the controversial host), is unlikely to be the last casualty of the fractious divide that has emerged in the wake of a resurgent white populism.
An energized, activist community—possessed of renewed clarity as it concerns its values and goals—is not solely the byproduct of last year’s American presidential election: 2016 had consequences elsewhere, too. And in places that may equally threaten the fortunes of the Murdoch empire. At present, the clan is in the process of trying to complete a takeover of Sky News in the UK, an estimated $13.9 billion deal that dwarves whatever dollars O’Reilly was hauling into the family coffers.
British regulators are currently trying to determine whether 21st Century Fox passes what’s known as a “fit and proper” test to takeover the U.K. television station (O’Reilly’s fiasco was a potential complication in this test, and it remains to be seen how his dismissal will be interpreted by the Brits).
As with the Fox battle here in the U.S., many of the same forces may be at work to scuttle certain Murdochian goals: Grassroots groups, including Avaaz, have been petitioning members of Parliament to reject the deal, pulling many of the same levers that were used here, including public petitions (there are 70,000 signatures and counting) and direct email engagement with the powers-that-be. Their motivation, moreover, is not unlike the that of the activists the U.S.: In the wake of 2016’s Brexit vote, England is divided as to what kind of country it is, and what kind of country it wants to be.
Bert Wander, the director of Avaaz’s campaign in the UK, explained to me that there has been “huge public engagement” in the wake of the Brexit vote, as well as special attention paid to the “work” Murdoch’s UK-based outlets did to push for the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union—he owns nearly a third of the newspapers in the country.
“People are beginning to realize what’s at stake with our media and the way it works. The political outcomes of these highly polarized, fact-free campaigns … I think it’s made people want to take things into their hands a bit.”
The fate of the Murdoch’s (second) bid to gain full control over Sky News remains to be seen—but today, in the wake of the ouster of its most prominent and profitable television personality in the U.S., the irony of the situation is hard to ignore. The very force that the Fox media empire ushered in—a strain of irascible, combative nativism—may have given rise to a countervailing movement that will ultimately undermine the Murdoch’s bottom line.
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