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Lessons from Fox and O'Reilly


Former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly, the man whose lofty ratings were responsible for the growth of the network, is no longer on the air.

Revelations that $13 million had been paid, either by O’Reilly or the network, to women who said they had been sexually harassed repelled millions, some of whom protested outside Fox headquarters and took to the airwaves with their complaints. But it is unlikely that protests or complaints moved Fox to separate themselves from O’Reilly. Instead, it is most likely that the network severed connection with O’Reilly because advertisers did not want to be associated with a program anchored by a man who seemed to find nothing wrong with sexual harassment.

More than 52 advertisers did not want to be connected with the O’Reilly program. They included Advil, Mercedes, BMW, Jenny Craig, Hyundai, Allstate, Lexus and H&R Block. The O’Reilly program was the highest revenue-generator in cable television, bringing in about $120 million in the first nine months of 2016. The O’Reilly Factor dominated the 8 p.m. weekday hour, drawing more viewers than any other cable network.

Don’t cry for Bill O’Reilly. He is leaving Fox News with “tens of millions of dollars” in a settlement. Be concerned, instead, for the women who have had to put up with his odious behavior. Be concerned for those who didn’t come forward to get paid because they were afraid for their jobs, or because they feared they would not be believed. Be concerned for the Black woman that O’Reilly allegedly called “Hot Chocolate,” grunted when he saw her, and behaved so badly that she was frightened for her safety. Why didn’t she leave? She valued her job. She didn’t know if she could find another one. An African American woman who heads a household and had, on average, just $4400 in liquid assets, (compared to $20,519 for White women). With such a tiny cushion, an African American is likely to think twice before airing a sexual harassment complaint.

African American women are also less likely to be believed than White women are, at least partly because of the way the world views Black women. So, right on, to the sister who called the Fox Hot Line to report her harassment. She, and many of the other Black women who have protested the culture of sexism at Fox, need to have champions that are as vocal as the champions Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson had. Indeed, one might look at the fact that Megyn Kelley pushed Tamron Hall off her perch as the only Black woman anchor at the Today show as evidence of how much more highly valued White women are than Black women.

What do we learn from this, though? We learn, especially, that advertisers are controversy-averse. They don’t want to be associated with an accused sexual harasser, especially when the accusations are persistent and are backed up with numerous settlements to women who have experienced harassment. Advertisers saw their brand tarnished, and their consumer base angered, by O’Reilly’s behavior. Too many of the companies that abandoned the O’Reilly show have increasing numbers of women in senior management, in advertising, and on their boards. While Roger Ailes, now himself dismissed from Fox for his harassing behavior, excused O’Reilly’s antics with “Bill will be Bill,” increasing numbers of women (and some men) in charge find Bill’s behavior not only odious but also illegal. Increased sensitivity to issues of sexual harassment helped make it clear that O’Reilly’s behavior was simply unacceptable.

What would it take for advertisers to draw the line on racial discrimination and/or discrimination against African American women?

Racial discrimination does not cause the same repugnance that sex discrimination does. Indeed, companies that engage in widespread race discrimination might even get high fives from consumers who might like to practice racism themselves. The only way that African Americans could spark an advertiser exodus would be to either work with partners who would put their feet down strongly, or boycotting the goods and services that a discriminating company provided. But there are few African Americans who would emulate those who boycotted buses for 381 days in Montgomery during 1955 and 1956. It seems unlikely that a critical mass of African Americans would inconvenience themselves to punish a discriminator.

African American leaders would do well to study the O’Reilly case and to ask what it would take for us to send as strong a signal about race discrimination as the O’Reilly dismissal did about sexual harassment. Many thought O’Reilly was invincible, but he wasn’t. Race discrimination isn’t invincible, either. We just have to decide what we want to do about it.

Julianne Malveaux is an economist, author, and founder of Economic Education. Her podcast, “It’s Personal with Dr. J” is available on iTunes.