Bill O’Reilly is out, but Fox will continue to pay for sexual harassment sins

By David Zurawik

The Baltimore Sun

It was hard to imagine a news organization taking any hit comparable to the one Fox News did in August when founder Roger Ailes was pushed out amid charges of sexual harassment.

But the news Wednesday that Bill O’Reilly would not be returning to the highest rated show on cable news might be even bigger, because of his status as an on-air personality and the foundation of an incomparable primetime ratings lineup.

Ailes, after all, was behind the scenes. The 67-year-old O’Reilly was the on-air figure more then 3 million viewers tuned in each night to see.

O’Reilly was forced out in the wake of a New York Times investigation that found he and Fox had paid settlements totaling $13 million to five women. Two of the settlements came after Ailes departure and a vow by management of 21st Century Fox, the parent company of Fox News, that it would have zero tolerance for sexual harassment.

With Greta Van Susteren and Megyn Kelly having left on their own, and now O’Reilly forced out, three-fourths of what was the highest-rated lineup on night-time cable TV news is now gone from the channel. And the work of management is not done yet.

Fox News is infested with a sick, predatory, sexist culture, and most of Ailes’ top lieutenants are still on the job. They say they knew nothing of the payments and cover-ups during the last two decades, but that seems impossible.

There’s a bigger cultural story here about the end of a troubling era in which men from the generation of Ailes and O’Reilly ruled and women were at their mercy in the workplace.

Such cultural change does not happen overnight, of course. But the need for a more enlightened corporate culture at Fox has apparently at least been recognized by Lachlan and James Murdoch, the sons of Fox patriarch Rupert Murdoch. How deeply they will be able to cut into the culture to root out such sexist behavior is another question.

The Murdoch family’s 21st Century Fox has paid a terrible price for allowing the exploitation of women to last this long. It goes well beyond the $20 million it paid former show host Gretchen Carlson to settle her sexual harassment suit, or the $40 million it paid to get rid of Ailes.

The company lost its best hope for journalistic respectability and a younger demographic when Kelly left in January for NBC even though Fox offered her more money to stay. Her departure was in large part because of what she experienced at the hands of Ailes and O’Reilly.

A parallel cultural change involves advertisers understanding the economic power of women. The Murdochs cannot afford to let their Fox News brand become any more damaged than it already is with that demographic — even it Rupert Murdoch doesn’t quite understand that change.

Now Fox has to try and pick up the pieces. And it has to start with firing the senior mangers who knew and said nothing — or even participated in the coverups.

O’Reilly was only the face of that sickness at the sorry end of his career. And sorry doesn’t even start to describe how badly things have ended for him and Ailes after all their bombast and bluster.

Now the disease itself needs to be cut out of the culture of Fox.

In the wake of O’Reilly’s ouster, Fox announced that Tucker Carlson will take over his 8 p.m. slot with “The Five” moving into Carlson’s 9 o’clock hour. Sean Hannity will remain at 10 p.m.

The panelists on “The Five” include: Dana Perino, Bob Beckel, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Greg Gutfeld, Juan Williams and Jesse Watters, who had been a regular contributor on O’Reilly’s show.