Sexual Harassment Charges Bring Down Bill O'Reilly

What led to the firing of Bill O'Reilly, Fox News' top host? Students explore the issue with a quiz, reading, and discussion.  


Share with students that the most popular host on cable TV, Bill O’Reilly, was fired on April 19, 2017, over claims of sexual harassment. 

Fox News announced that Bill O'Reilly, the network’s top moneymaker, would not be returning to his show, The O'Reilly Factor. The announcement followed recent revelations that Fox had paid out millions of dollars to settle claims of sexual harassment against O'Reilly by women at Fox News. Only nine months earlier, the founder and CEO of Fox News, Roger Ailes, was also forced to resign because of his record of sexual harassment.

Give students the quick quiz below.


1.  The reported value of the "exit packages" for Bill O'Reilly and Roger Ailes—both  fired from Fox News for serial sexual harassment—is the equivalent of which of the following:

a)  salary and benefits for 850 new teachers for a year
b) doubling the pay of 4,100 minimum-wage workers for a year
c) providing meals for 26,000 senior citizens for a year
d) drilling 10,000 water wells (and building washrooms) in Liberia
e) any of the above

Answer: e.  According to reports, O’Reilly will receive an exit package of up to $25 million; Roger Ailes’ package amounted to $40 million.

2. True or False

In a memo to staff, Fox CEO Rupert Murdoch stated, "Most importantly, we want to underscore our consistent commitment to fostering a work environment built on the values of trust and respect."

Answer: True

3. Which of the following was not written by Bill O'Reilly?

a) Old School: Life in the Sane Lane
b) Give Please a Chance
c) A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity
d) Killing Truth: the  Lies and Legends of Bill O’Reilly
e) The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly

Answer: d and e

4. The median age of Bill O'Reilly's viewers was:

a) 7
b) 27
c) 45
d) 59
e) 72

Answer: e


Student Reading: 
Why was Bill O’Reilly fired?

The allegations of sexual harassment at Fox are longstanding. Over the years, the company has made at least $33 million in payments to settle harassment claims against Ailes and O'Reilly. Sixteen women have come forward with allegations against the two.

O’Reilly was also known for making on-air comments that were offensive to many. For example, he asserted that the slaves who built the White House were "well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government." He said that many African-Americans "are ill-educated and have tattoos on their foreheads." He stated that "most of the terror violence in the world comes out of Muslim precincts." He also made derogatory comments about immigrants, LGBTQI people, and the homeless.

As the Atlantic reported, such comments "simply solidified O’Reilly’s self-styled brand as a proud warrior against the pettiness of ‘p.c. culture.’"  Merriam Webster defines p.c., or politically correct, as the "belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated." The term is often used by those on the right to dismiss charges of or concerns about racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression.

O'Reilly has weathered allegations, embarrassments and scandals for years. But Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of News Corp, which owns Fox, resisted calls to change the corporate culture that tolerated the behavior.  As Fox's most valuable asset, O’Reilly seemed to be invulnerable to bad publicity. He had his millions of loyal viewers and his show's lucrative advertising dollars.

So what changed? Why did Fox News decide to fire Bill O'Reilly?

Dogged reporting helped turn the tide. In particular, reporters at the New York Times outlined the record of charges against Bill O'Reilly for harassing women connected to his show, and also brought to light details of Fox's payments to O'Reilly's alleged victims. Five women who were either staff or paid guests made accusations that included propositions, unwelcome advances, lewd comments, threats of retaliation, and actual retaliation for refusing to have sex with him. The five women were paid over $13 million by Fox and O'Reilly to settle their claims. In addition, two other women connected to the show have alleged sexual harassment and have not reached settlements.

The Times reporting sparked a wave of activism demanding that Fox News take action.

  • Color of Change, which previously had pressured Fox to fire Glenn Beck, initiated a public campaign to oust O'Reilly.  
  • Organizations including the National Organization for Women, UltraViolet and Media Matters joined the fight.
  • Another group, called Sleeping Giants, organized around Twitter, has as its mission stopping the flow of ad money to "racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic news sites." Tens of thousands of people took part in their campaign to persuade advertisers to drop the O'Reilly Factor. Within days, 50 advertisers dropped the show.
  • The coalition pushing for O’Reilly’s ouster bought ads in social media, filed briefs against a Fox merger with a British company, and held demonstrations outside Fox News headquarters.

Another factor contributing to the Fox decision is reported to be the increasing influence of Rupert Murdoch's family—his two sons and their respective wives. While they are all focused on the bottom line profits, the younger generation  is apparently less influenced by the right-wing ideology and stubborn  resistance to change for which the elder, Rupert, is known. As with the dismissal of Roger Ailes, sons James and Lachlan won the family argument.

Despite the increasing power of the younger Murdochs, the successful campaign, and loads of negative publicity, it seems unlikely that there will be any big changes in the nature of Fox News anytime soon. Senior management remains unchanged and there is no sign that Fox's audience is very much disturbed by the toxic atmosphere at Fox headquarters.



For Discussion

  1. What level of racism or sexism should be tolerated of a high-profile public figure?
  2. Do you think there is a relationship between O’Reilly’s critique of "P.C. culture" and the allegations that he sexually harassed women?
  3. When a company pays an employee to settle a claim of sexual harassment or racial bias, the agreement usually includes no admission of guilt and requires that the details not be revealed to the public. Is there a public interest that is being violated when a national figure is involved?
  4. The campaign to defund the O'Reilly Factor by going after its advertisers was successful. What do you think of this tactic?
  5. Are you angry about Fox's longtime inaction concerning the sexual harassment of women employees? Why or why not?