Following the swift and stunning downfall of Fox News star Bill O’Reilly, many liberal commentators and women’s rights advocates were quick to claim victory, hailing the conservative firebrand’s firing as confirmation of a dramatic sea change in the tolerance of sexual harassment against women in the workplace. “When women speak our truth the old order shatters,” wrote my friend and colleague Lisa Bloom on Twitter. “We slayed the dragon,” said Bloom, whose law firm represents several of the women who claim to have been sexually harassed by O’Reilly.
CNN Newsman Jake Tapper also saw O’Reilly’s firing as a watershed moment. “It seems to be, in terms of what happened with Bill O’Reilly, really a change in corporate culture in terms of what is tolerated.”
To support their claim, pundits like Tapper point to the prior canning of O’Reilly’s boss, Roger Ailes, who’s been accused of making lewd comments and unwanted sexual advances to a slew of women during his tenure as Fox News President. They also cite the ongoing court case involving Bill Cosby, who’s finally been hauled before a judge after decades of drugging and rape allegations by dozens of women. The fact that these very rich and powerful men are finally being held accountable for their reprehensible actions is proof positive to many that times have changed.
But on this point, I beg to differ with my colleagues. In each of the above cases, in my opinion, action was compelled by extraordinary external forces, not the least of which was the prospect of losing tens of millions of dollars in advertising revenue.
In the case of Bill Cosby, for instance, claims of drugging and rape by dozens of women had essentially been discarded or ignored. Cosby was able to continue his career as a highly successful entertainer with impunity. It was only when comedian Hannibal Buress used his platform to shine a spotlight on the entertainer’s past sexual misdeeds that interest in the rape charges were revived. Fox News’ Roger Ailes similarly thrived in the toxic swamp he created, despite claims from a half a dozen women that he sexually harassed them. It was only after former anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit, and rising network star Megan Kelly accused Ailes of sexual impropriety, that the network launched an investigation. And even then, it was only when the corporation determined it stood to lose tens of millions of dollars in additional lawsuits payouts and lost advertising revenue, that it decided to part ways with Ailes.
All of which brings us to Mr. O’Reilly. The Fox host’s boorish behavior was first brought to light in 2004, when the network was force to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a female employee for $9 million dollars. But even when five other women made claims of sexual harassment, Fox was willing to shell out millions more to keep O’Reilly’s sexual misdeeds quiet. Women, alone, were powerless to stop the powerful host. It took an in-depth investigation by the New York Times, which uncovered the multimillion dollar payouts, to spark an uproar, which in turn led to a mass exodus of more than 50 sponsors from the show. It was only then—in the face of potentially tens of millions of dollars in loss ad revenue—that Fox parted ways with O’Reilly.
So, we shouldn’t kid ourselves into believing that CEOs and corporate board members have suddenly become enlightened when it comes to the issue of sexual harassment. Yes, some progress has been made, but for the most part women’s claims are still ignored or shelved in a filing cabinet. In an era of corporate greed, where rising stock prices and the bottom line is all that matters, the only guaranteed way to spur action is to threaten the cash pipeline. And if you still don’t believe that in today’s world a man can behave crudely and terribly toward women and thrive, you need look no further than our newly elected president.