The tens of millions of dollars Fox News has paid in legal settlements in response to accusations of sexual harassment by former chairman Roger Ailes and top personality Bill O’Reilly, among others, appear to be acceptable damages the company is willing to incur, a moral judgment made at the expense of profit.
“Bill, you’re my boss!” said Andrea Mackris, a former Fox News producer who filed a lawsuit against O’Reilly in 2004, in response to the TV host propositioning both Mackris and her college friend to have phone sex, and then inviting the women to a hotel to give them sex “lessons.”
For over a decade, women employees at Fox have claimed that O’Reilly, the network’s biggest star, and Ailes have sexually harassed them. Fox, its parent company 21st Century Fox and O’Reilly have paid more than $30 million in settlements.
Last year, Fox News agreed to pay $20 million alone to settle a harassment suit by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson on behalf Ailes, who denied any wrongdoing but resigned in July. With regard to allegations against O’Reilly, five women received settlements in exchange for not suing the company.
The New York Times reported Saturday that three of the settlements involving O’Reilly had been previously undisclosed, dating back to 2002. Fox settled two of them, and in 2011, O’Reilly privately settled a third.
But O’Reilly is a top earner for the company, generating nearly half a billion dollars in advertising revenues alone between 2014 and 2016, according to research firm Kantar Media. For a company that makes over $2 billion a year, the cost of legal settlements, plus O’Reilly’s $18 million annual salary, is inconsequential and appears to be just a cost of doing business.
According to the Times, the private settlement was so secretive that 21st Century Fox was unaware of it until last year. The women involved in the settlements either worked for O’Reilly or appeared as guests on his program “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Rachel Witlieb Bernstein, a former producer, claimed that O’Reilly had verbally abused her in 2002 in front of colleagues; Rebecca Gomez Diamond, a fomer Fox Business Network host, reportedly recorded conversations with O’Reilly and settled in 2011; Juliet Huddy, a regular guest on O’Reilly’s show, accused O’Reilly of pursuing a sexual relationship with her and trying to hamper her career after she rejected his advances; and former Fox anchor Laurie Dhue, accused both O’Reilly and Ailes of harassing her, but not sexually, the Times reported.
"The O'Reilly Factor" host Bill O'Reilly and Fox News co-President Jack Abernethy were both named in the suit.
The largest settlement was a payout of $9 million in a sexual harassment lawsuit former Fox News producer Andrea Mackris brought against O’Reilly in 2004, according to the Times.
The lawsuit claimed that he subjected Mackris to repeated instances of explicit sexual harassment. For example, over dinner, O’Reilly propositioned both Mackris and her college friend to have phone sex, and that the three should go to a hotel and “have the time of their lives.”
He said that the women needed to be trained so they’d be equipped when “a real man shows up in your lives,” according to Mackris’ claim. He offered them “lessons,” and told them they should use their sexuality to their advantage. Also at the dinner, he reportedly told the women about losing his virginity in a car at a New York airport.
According to the claim, O’Reilly even shared with Mackris his sexual fantasies about taking her on a Caribbean vacation:
“Well if I took you down there, I’d want to take a shower with you right away, that would be the first thing I’d do … yeah we’d check into the hotel room, and we would order up some room service and uh, you’d definitely get two wines into you as quickly as I could get into you, I would get ’em into you … maybe intravenously, get those glasses of wine into you …”
O’Reilly said in a statement Saturday regarding the Times story that he has been unfairly targeted because of his public prominence.
“In my more than 20 years at Fox News Channel, no one has ever filed a complaint about me with the Human Resources Department, even on the anonymous hotline,” he said. “I have put to rest any controversies to spare my children.”
21st Century Fox said in a statement:
“While he denies the merits of these claims, Mr. O’Reilly has resolved those he regarded as his personal responsibility. Mr. O’Reilly is fully committed to supporting our efforts to improve the environment for all our employees at Fox News.”
Investigation of Payments
Since last September, Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney in Manhattan, had been investigating the payments by Fox News on behalf of Ailes and O’Reilly. Prosecutors are probing whether the company made adequate disclosures about them to investors.
“Securities law requires publicly traded companies — such as 21st Century Fox and its predecessor company, News Corp. — to disclose ‘material’ events affecting the company’s finances,” according to The Washington Post.
However, Bharara was abruptly dismissed on March 11 after he refused to tender his resignation to the Trump administration. In March there was a purge of 46 remaining federal prosecutors appointed by the Obama administration. Bharara claims that he had been told by Trump earlier this year that he could stay on in his role.
On his personal Twitter account Bharara wrote: “I did not resign.Moments ago I was fired.”
A candidate that is frequently mentioned as a possible successor to Bharara is Marc L. Mukasey, a former prosecutor who has represented Ailes.
Fox News and Trump Supporters
In November, election month, Fox News was the most-watched basic cable channel in primetime, according to TVNewser.
“The O’Reilly Factor” marked 192 months as the No. 1 cable news program across the board with an average of 4.1 million total viewers and 816,000 from the ages 25-54 demographic.
According to a Pew Research Center survey published in January, “Americans who say they voted for President Donald Trump in the general election relied heavily on Fox News as their main source of election news leading up to the 2016 election.”
The survey also found that 40 percent of Trump supporters relied on Fox News, and only 3 percent of Hillary Clinton voters named it as their main source. No single news source was pronounced among Clinton voters, but the highest percentages were CNN (18 percent) and MSNBC (9 percent). Only 1 percent of Trump’s voters relied mostly on MSNBC.
“These findings are consistent with past research revealing that those on the right and left have significantly different media diets, with Fox News in particular standing out among conservatives,” according to the survey.
Trump maintains a close relationship with Rupert Murdoch, 85, executive co-chairman of 21st Century Fox, who took over Fox News after Ailes resigned and remains the CEO.
“They have been friends for a long time,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer wrote in an email to NPR in March. “They speak on occasion as the president does with all his friends.”
In February, Trump gave O’Reilly an exclusive interview in which he said he respects Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also speaks highly of Fox News.
“I don’t watch CNN, so I don’t get to see as much. I don’t like watching fake news. So — but Fox has treated me very nice. Wherever Fox is, thank you,” Trump said at a Black History Month event at the White House in February.
"I'm sure it was friendly," Trump said of Ailes' alleged sexual assault of over 20 women. He also did not immediately rule out voting for former KKK grand wizard David Duke for Senate.
Trump also has close ties with Ailes. In an interview on “Meet the Press” in July, Trump defended him amid the sexual harassment allegations.
“I can tell you that some of the women that are complaining, I know how much he’s helped them,” Trump said. “And even recently. And when they write books that are fairly recently released, and they say wonderful things about him. And now all of a sudden they’re saying these horrible things about him.”