Could Bill O'Reilly, the King of Cable News, Be Going Down?

Andy Kropa/Invision/AP, File

Bill O'Reilly attends The Hollywood Reporter's 2016 "35 Most Powerful People in Media" celebration in New York.  

"When you're a star, they let you do it," said Donald Trump about the joy he took in grabbing women by the genitals without their consent, back when he was eager to impress the likes of Billy Bush. "You can do anything." In a way, he was proven right, since for all the controversy around the release of that recording, he still managed to get elected president. And now his good friend Bill O'Reilly is testing the theory. Cable news's biggest star is confronting the most serious threat to his position he's ever faced, as a result of the revelation by The New York Times that O'Reilly and his employer have settled at least five sexual harassment claims against him, paying out $13 million—of course, always with the condition that the accuser keep her mouth shut. It would be deeply ironic for O'Reilly to lose his position just as he watches the presidency finally held by someone who embodies exactly the politics and perspective he has been promoting on air for years.

And while he still has his very lucrative job—his Fox salary is a reported $18 million a year, which doesn't account for the books he "writes" at a regular clip, all scooped up eagerly by his fans—there are serious danger signs. TV networks don't keep their hosts around if they aren't making money, and O'Reilly's advertisers are running for the door. At least 50 have canceled their ads, and some of the few that remain say they'll be pulling theirs soon as well. The last few episodes of his show have featured only a few ads, far less than it normally does. While the number of viewers remains high, that doesn't do the network any good if no one wants to pay to reach them.

O'Reilly has survived personal controversy before. There was the best known of the sexual harassment suits, which came to light in 2004 (O'Reilly paid a former producer, who was smart enough to record some of his lewd phone calls to her, $9 million). You've probably forgotten about it by now, but two years ago, it was reported that for years he had been claiming to have seen life-threatening action as a war correspondent, when it turned out that in his brief career as an actual journalist, the closest he ever got to war was Buenos Aires during the Falklands, 1,200 miles from any fighting. In defending himself, O'Reilly claimed that it was kind of like reporting from a war zone, because he covered a riot in that city in which Argentine soldiers were "gunning down" civilians. That too turned out to be a lie (he was at an angry protest featuring tear gas and coins being thrown at police, but no one was shot).

O'Reilly got through that controversy because his audience and his boss, Roger Ailes, never lost faith in him. Around the same time, Brian Williams was exposed for telling similarly fanciful tales of journalistic derring-do, and he was given a long vacation, followed by a banishment to NBC's cable channel. The difference was that as a nightly news anchor, Williams's brand was built in part on factual credibility, and he undermined that brand by claiming to have been in dangerous situations he didn't actually face. O'Reilly, on the other hand, has a brand built not on facts but on a deeper kind of truth, one that his audience feels way down in their guts.

O'Reilly's truth is about a world going to hell, with racial minorities running amok and political correctness keeping you from saying what you really think. There's a war on Christmas, kids today have no respect, and the only real victim left is the white man, who can't catch a break. He's an angry old man with angry old viewers (O'Reilly has long had one of the oldest audiences on television, with his median viewer being around 72), and they tune in to watch him rage on their behalf.

You can bet that most of those viewers are untroubled by the lawsuits, at least not the substance of them. They're surely mad that O'Reilly has been sued, and that some uppity girls thought they could try to impose their will on him in this way (by objecting when he imposed his will on them, that is). They are certain that he's being victimized. But they aren't disturbed by the idea that O'Reilly would harass women, any more than they were by the same allegations about the man they voted for in the presidential election. It's just more political correctness from the secular progressive elitists. O'Reilly has always told them that he's both hero and martyr, socking those no-good punks in the face and taking the slings and arrows from the left because of his willingness to speak the truth no matter who gets offended.

So why is it that O'Reilly is in genuine peril now? It certainly doesn't help his cause that his longtime boss, Roger Ailes, was drummed out of his job running Fox News after multiple women came forward and described the abusive, humiliating, and often downright horrific sexual harassment Ailes subjected them to. Combine that with new racial discrimination lawsuits that have been filed against the network, and it's becoming clear that Fox is a toxic workplace where anyone who isn't a white man ought to be watching their back.

But ironically, the person O'Reilly could blame most for the fact that this time he isn't getting away with it is his most high-profile defender: Donald Trump. In an interview last week with The New York Times, Trump said of O'Reilly, "I think he's a person I know well. He's a good person. I think he may, you know, I think he shouldn't have settled," adding that "I don't think Bill would do anything wrong."

You and I may have a different conception of "wrong" than the president does, given how many different women have accused him of sexual harassment (what an odd coincidence that the same accusations would be leveled at these three upstanding men). But in the Trump era, there's a heightened corporate awareness that consumers will hold companies accountable for the advertising choices they make. Advertiser boycotts are nothing new, but companies are being particularly proactive about distancing themselves from controversial media outlets and hosts. While many of the brands that used to advertise on The O'Reilly Factor might have stuck with him if this controversy had come up a few years ago, today they're deciding it isn't worth the risk.

If O'Reilly can't reverse that development and find new advertisers, he won't last long. Fox News is certainly dedicated to advancing the interests of the Republican Party, but it's also a moneymaking enterprise. Bill O'Reilly's years of service will count for nothing if he can't keep bringing in profits. And if he can't, they'll find someone else to tell viewers that their country is being destroyed by Hollywood liberals, by minorities, by women, and by the young, to assure them that modernity is chaotic and frightening and everything made more sense back in their day. It's a pretty good gig.

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