Fox News talking head Bill O’Reilly likes to call his top-rated show “the no-spin zone”, but right now it would be more accurate to describe it as ‘the no-ads zone’, with top-shelf companies pulling their spots as a sexual harassment scandal keeps on getting bigger.
On Wednesday, advertisers walked away in droves after a New York Times expose revealed O’Reilly, 67, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation had forked out $US13 million to buy the silence of women who accused the opinionator of being a hazard to anything remotely female.
It is the second sex scandal to rock the network in less than 12 months and has boosted not only the impression that standards of male behaviour at Fox are more than somewhat raunchy, but also raised questions about Mr Murdoch and how firm a grip the 86-year-old founder maintains on his empire.
Last July, Fox supremo Roger Ailes was pushed out of the cable news service he launched for Mr Murdoch some 20 years earlier after scores of women complained of being harassed and propositioned. It also emerged that he snooped in his employees’ emails, hired private detectives to spy on them, and kept a gun in his desk drawer.
“You have to wonder if Rupert is losing it,” said a former senior editor at the New York Post, the brassy News Corp tabloid.
“If you went to Langan’s,” the 46th Street watering hole where News journos slake their thirsts, “you’d hear the stories – and such stories!”
Now it’s the O’Reilly scandal’s turn to drag what little is left of Fox’s good name through a gutter brimming with allegations – and huge payouts.
One of his accusers was Juliet Huddy, of whom the Times reported that O’Reilly “pursued a sexual relationship with her in 2011, at a time he exerted significant influence over her career”. When she asked to part ways, he set out to ruin her, Ms Huddy’s lawyers charged. The Times reported she received a “high six figures” settlement.
All of this amid an advertiser boycott rival CNN reported as having swollen to 18 clients.
Among those to confirm they have yanked their sponsorships are Hyundai, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Mitsubishi Motors; financial firms T. Rowe Price and Allstate Insurance; drugmakers Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline; plus Ainsworth Pet Nutrition, the online marketing company Constant Contact and men’s apparel seller Untuckit – meaning tens of millions of dollars won’t be added to Mr Murdoch’s bottom line.
“Given the importance of women in every aspect of our business, we don’t feel this is a good environment in which to advertise our products right now,” Mercedes-Benz spokeswoman Donna Boland told Advertising Age.
O’Reilly’s style rubs many the wrong way, but others love his blowhard sermonising. It was their support that drove ratings and kept the host safe through 15 years of hushed-up complaints.
Like Mr Ailes, he was a huge fan of Donald Trump, who never hides his loathing for the media. For O’Reilly, though, he agreed to an intimate 40-minute chat. Mr Trump, who infamously boasted of grabbing women “by the pussy”, would seem to have more in common with the TV star than their politics – including a knack for getting facts totally wrong.
Eager to prove that he is more than a big mouth, O’Reilly penned a recent book, Killing Lincoln, which purports to tell the “real” story of the Civil War president’s assassination at Ford Theatre by John Wilkes Booth.
The theatre remains a Washington landmark and sells a wide variety of Lincoln memorabilia, but it refuses to stock O’Reilly’s book because of its many errors.
It is surprising that O’Reilly, who began as a Florida high school teacher, would flunk history. Now the question is this: will O’Reilly end up in the remainder bin with his much-derided book?
If the O’Reilly Factor’s advertisers keep quitting and don’t come back, News Corp will have little choice but to cut him loose, much as happened to Mr Ailes when a reluctant Mr Murdoch was persuaded by sons James and Lachlan to show his friend the door.
As the boycott grows, Mr Murdoch will once again be pondering if another old mate who made him a lot of money is too costly to keep around.