What You Need to Know About the New $32M Bill O'Reilly Scandal

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Media about media about media: The New York Daily News cites CNN, which cites the Times.
Media about media about media: The New York Daily News cites CNN, which cites the Times. Credit: New York Daily News

What's this all about?

The New York Times ran a story by Emily Steel and Michael S. Schmidt above the fold on its Sunday front page headlined "O'Reilly Settled Claim, Then Got a New Fox Deal." The newspaper released the report about former Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly online in advance Saturday afternoon—complete with a "breaking news" email blast—with the headline "O'Reilly Settled New Harassment Claim, Then Fox Renewed His Contract"; the subhead: "In January, the Fox News host was said to have agreed to a $32 million settlement with a former network analyst, the largest of his known payouts."

OK, so we all know that The New York Times previously reported about sexual harassment claims and settlements involving O'Reilly, which led to him getting kicked off of Fox News months ago. What makes this new news?

Yeah, the April 1 New York Times story (published on the front page of its print edtion on Sunday, April 2) about O'Reilly was headlined "Bill O'Reilly Thrives at Fox News, Even as Harassment Settlements Add Up." That story, which was also by Steel and Schmidt, detailed about $13 million that had been paid out "over the years to address complaints from women about Mr. O'Reilly's behavior," while noting that "He denies the claims have merit." The latest report is notable for the amount involved—$32 million paid to "a longtime network analyst to settle new sexual harassment allegations"—and because of, well, some of the salacious details, which the Times serves up right in the second paragraph:

Although the deal has not been previously made public, the network's parent company, 21st Century Fox, acknowledges that it was aware of the woman's complaints about Mr. O'Reilly. They included allegations of repeated harassment, a nonconsensual sexual relationship and the sending of gay pornography and other sexually explicit material to her, according to the people briefed on the matter.

Shortly thereafter, Fox News parent 21st Century Fox rewarded O'Reilly with a new $100 million contract extension—$25 million per year (up from $18 million per year) for four more years.

Woah. What do Bill O'Reilly and Fox News have to say about all this?

Per the Times, O'Reilly "said there was no merit to any of the allegations against him." And 21st Century Fox "said it was not privy to the amount of the settlement and regarded Mr. O'Reilly's January settlement, which was reached with a 15-year Fox News analyst named Lis Wiehl, as a personal issue between the two of them."

Bill O'Reilly also posted a "Statement by Mark Fabiani on Behalf of Bill O'Reilly Relating to the New York Times Smear Piece" on his website on Saturday (Fabiani is O'Reilly's spokesman). It begins,

Once again, The New York Times has maliciously smeared Bill O'Reilly, this time even failing to print a sworn affidavit [link leads to a PDF download] from his former lawyer, Lis Wiehl, repudiating all allegations against Bill O'Reilly. The Times ignored that evidence, sworn under oath, and chose to rely on unsubstantiated allegations, anonymous sources and incomplete leaked or stolen documents.

Regarding O'Reilly's claim that the Times somehow disregarded Wiehl's affidavit, well, as Pete Vernon of the Columbia Journalism Review notes in his "The media today" post this morning,

The only problem with that argument: Steel and Schmidt quoted from the affidavit in their piece. Twice.

Huh. Oh, hey, back up a second. Gay smut?

Oh, you noticed that too? So did former Timesman (and current New York magazine writer and "Veep" executive producer) Frank Rich:

It's not often that the words "gay pornography" appear in The New York Times, let alone on its front page. (A quick nytimes.com search reveals that the phrase last appeared on Oct. 23, 2016—today's the one-year anniversary!—in a "What's on TV" story that briefly mentioned "a low-budget, all-male variation of sorts on 'Boogie Nights'" starring Christian Slater and James Franco.) Anyway, per Steel and Schmidt,

In response to questions about why he sent sexually explicit material to Ms. Wiehl, Mr. O'Reilly said that during his time at the network, he had been sent threatening messages almost every day, including some that had obscene material. To deal with this problem, Mr. O'Reilly said, he set up a system in which the material would be forwarded to his lawyers so they could evaluate whether he needed to take any legal action. Mr. O'Reilly said Ms. Wiehl was among those lawyers.

Um, OK. Now back up to Fox News. What does this mean for the network?

Well, obviously the optics of Fox News re-upping O'Reilly's contract (with a sweet raise) just weeks after O'Reilly paid $32 million to settle with Wiehl are ... not good.

As CNN's Brian Stelter writes,

The [NYT] story immediately raised new questions about the ongoing Justice Department investigation into Fox News. Observers speculated that the revelation could cause further trouble for Fox's parent company 21st Century Fox. British regulators said scandals in the U.S. have already threatened its attempt to acquire the European satellite network Sky.

Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson called the Fox News decision to re-up O'Reilly "horrifying" in a CNN interview that the New York Daily News quotes on its front page this morning:

And PR for NBC News' "Megyn Kelly Today" sent out a transcript of former Fox News anchor Kelly's comment this morning at the start of her show; it reads, in part,

And we begin today on a serious note. The news about Bill O'Reilly and Fox News, have you seen it? It is shocking and it's upsetting to many of us. I spent this weekend on the phone nonstop, talking to many women at Fox News and otherwise, who are deeply disturbed over the latest New York Times report. On Saturday, The Times revealed yet another settlement paid to dispose of a sexual harassment case against O'Reilly. Not a huge shock there, we already knew of five, thanks to a Times report in April. But this latest one was for 32 million dollars, reportedly paid directly by O'Reilly to Fox News legal analyst Lis Wiehl. Right before Fox News renewed his contract. 32 million dollars. That is not a nuisance value settlement. That is a jaw-dropping figure. OJ Simpson was ordered to pay the Goldman and Brown families 33.5 million for the murders of Ron and Nicole. What on earth would justify that amount? What awfulness went on?

Watch the full "Megyn Kelly Today" segment, in which she reads from an email about sexual harassment at Fox News that she sent last year to the network's then-co-presidents, here.

So what happens next?

For one thing, more media-world soul-searching about how sexual harrassment cases involving powerful media figures went unreported for so long. The Times' Jim Rutenberg, in a column in this morning's paper titled "A Long-Delayed Reckoning of the Cost of Silence on Abuse," compares O'Reilly to Harvey Weinstein, writing that the two men ...

... kept their alleged misconduct under wraps with the help of the nondisclosure agreements included as part of the numerous out-of-court settlements that allowed them to admit to no wrongdoing. The sums they paid their accusers bought them silence. A full, public airing did not come to be until those meddling reporters came along.

For his part, Bill O'Reilly seems to realize that the latest Times story probably won't help his employment prospects. A key sentence in that Fabiani statement above, made on O'Reilly's behalf:

In its latest diatribe against Bill O'Reilly, the Times printed leaked information provided by anonymous sources that is out of context, false, defamatory, and obviously designed to embarrass Bill O'Reilly and to keep him from competing in the marketplace.

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