What Fox News teaches us about sexual harassment

In April, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly was removed from the network due to allegations of sexual harassment. This was just the latest of claims related to sexual harassment that have arisen from the network’s office culture, and the network paid $13 million to settle five claims brought related to O’Reilly starting around 2002. The network’s CEO, Roger Ailes, had been previously removed after over 20 women accused him of sexual harassment and psychological torture over a 20-year period.

One reason O’Reilly lasted so long was that he was extremely popular with viewers. He’d gotten four million viewers on average each night in 2017, and viewers continued to watch in spite of the allegations. Around 50 advertisers eventually pulled out because they didn’t want to be associated with the claims against him, which involved staff and guests being subjected to aggressive sexual advances, verbal abuse, and lewd comments. The staff and guests were ignored when they reported it to management, which is unsurprising because the CEO appears to have also been involved in sexually harassing people.

All the way back in 2002, O’Reilly was observed berating a junior producer, who settled for a small amount. Two years later, another producer sued for sexual harassment on the grounds that O’Reilly had told her inappropriate stories about his sex life, advised her to buy a vibrator, and detailed sex fantasies to her over the phone while masturbating. O’Reilly responded by suing the victim, claiming she was extorting him. They settled for $9 million.

Seven years later, the host of another Fox show sued O’Reilly, claiming harassment that was similar to the 2004 lawsuit. She also recorded her conversations, and an unknown amount was paid to settle. In addition to sexual harassment in the workplace, allegations were made in court about other types of abuse engaged in by O’Reilly against his wife and daughter.

Sexual harassment allegations were also made against O’Reilly after Ailes was ousted from his position in mid-2016. These claims were similar to the earlier claims, and they were settled, as were claims brought in 2017. In all of the claims, O’Reilly was alleged to have abused his position of power over the claimant, and many of the incidents happened when nobody was around, which made it important for the claimant to record the conversations.

It can be challenging to take on an office culture of sexual harassment, particularly one as strong as the office culture at Fox News is alleged to be. Sometimes a settlement can make it harder to resolve a later case because it includes a confidentiality agreement that allows it to be resolved and covered up. This permits sexually harassing conduct to continue with very few checks, and ultimately the harasser may feel arrogant and protected due to the settlement.

When a harasser is at the very top, as is the case with Fox News, he can influence the entire office culture. Any education or training in the office is likely to be unsuccessful in such a climate. In order to combat sexual harassment in the workplace, it may be necessary for a company to fire a popular leader. Unfortunately, as we can see from what happened at Fox News, the company may be more interested in the enormous profits associated with a particularly productive or popular employee than with protecting employees with less power.

It can be important to obtain representation from an experienced employment lawyer when you have a dispute with your employer regarding sexual harassment or other matters. Contact us at (214) 528-6500 or via our online intake form.

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