The lesson likely to be widely drawn from the eviction of Bill O’Reilly from Fox News, announced Wednesday, is that even the biggest of big shots can’t evade their comeuppance forever. Put simply, “what goes around comes around.”
This will no doubt gratify the legions who detest O’Reilly for his politics, his abusive manners, his baleful influence on American public discourse and his reported history of sexual harassment, the proximate cause of his departure from Fox.
But it’s the wrong lesson. The right lesson is less uplifting. It’s that if you bring in lots of money for your employer and have the right friends in the right places, you can get away with the most egregious conduct almost forever.
O’Reilly, after all, has been at the top of the broadcasting world for at least a couple of decades. He made it all the way to the post-retirement age of 67 before getting fired despite having been publicly accused of sexual harassment, in great detail, by a Fox producer in a quickly settled lawsuit nearly 17 years ago. The terms of his separation from Fox haven’t been disclosed, but it’s a safe bet that it will be measured in the millions of dollars.
What may be most telling about the O’Reilly case is that it’s far from unique. Indeed, many of its features were replicated at an institution that, on the surface, is as different from Fox as one could imagine: UC Berkeley. Neither Fox nor Berkeley would probably relish being discussed in the same sentence as the other, but it’s their handling of accused serial harassers that makes them cousins.
The Berkeley case involves renowned astronomer Geoff Marcy, who was forced to resign his tenured professorship in 2015 after reports surfaced of multiple accusations from students of unwanted sexual overtures. Marcy had joined the Berkeley faculty in 1999 from San Francisco State University and was touted as one of its stars. Often cited as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, he commanded millions of dollars in research funds.
As BuzzFeed observed upon breaking the story of Berkeley’s sub-rosa investigation of the astronomer, Marcy’s behavior had been an open secret among his colleagues in astronomy; some had witnessed what they considered improper conduct at a major scientific conference. Confronted by what seemed to be a wall of tolerant silence within the department, many female astronomy students felt their only recourse was to keep out of Marcy’s way, even though that could hamper their career development. Other promising graduate candidates avoided Berkeley altogether.
The university’s initial response after investigating the allegations was effectively to let Marcy off with a warning that repetition would have more dire consequences. Marcy later claimed that he had changed his behavior years earlier, after being told by colleagues that "it made women uncomfortable."
BuzzFeed’s disclosure of Berkeley’s quiet slap on the wrist to Marcy ignited a firestorm of condemnation.
Astronomy department co-chair Gibor Basri, an old friend of Marcy’s who had known of the allegations and the investigation, issued a remarkably tone-deaf statement the day after the article was published, calling the event “hardest for Geoff in this moment.” But two days later, Basri joined 23 astronomy faculty members in a formal statement asserting that Marcy “cannot perform the functions of a faculty member.” Two days after that, Marcy resigned.
Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele saw him off with a statement calling his conduct, as established by the investigation, “contemptible and inexcusable.” But he departed with the title of emeritus professor, which he still claims and which the university described as a formality granted to anyone who resigns as a professor. “He doesn’t have an office, and will not have an office,” a university spokesman said. “He’s not teaching, and never will in the future.”
It may be tempting to view the outcomes of the O’Reilly and Marcy cases as victories in the fight against sexual inequality in the workplace. But that only ignores the difficulty of bringing them to a conclusion, the pain inflicted on victims and targets along the way, and the persistence of an indulgent environment in corporate America, academia and, yes, government.
The determining factor in the existence of serial sexual harassment isn’t necessarily a tolerant employer — even though Fox News was headed by an accused harasser, Roger Ailes — but power exercised without restraint or oversight. That can happen even in an institution that defines itself as a progressive, inclusive workplace, such as Berkeley.
Power plays can happen anywhere. Indeed, domineering behavior is common throughout academia. A 2014 study by researchers at the University of Illinois Skidmore and Harvard documented widespread “harassment and assault” of students on field assignments in science. Few were aware of codes of conduct and sexual harassment policies and fewer knew how to complain. Women were the principal targets, with senior professionals the perpetrators. In 2011, the distinguished astronomer Joan Schmelz described years of harassment in her field: “I was a young astronomer in a vulnerable position and the harasser was my supervisor.”
The necessary factor is an emphasis on a powerful person’s ostensible value to the enterprise, rather than that person’s effect on the work environment. In her celebrated expose of the abusive bro-culture at her former workplace, Uber, Susan Fowler detailed how harassers at the company were repeatedly defended, even by senior personnel executives, as “high performers.”
It’s true that many such performers live on a knife-edge, perhaps knowing that not much would be needed to bring them down. Fowler’s lone article, published on her own blog in February, inspired a flood of reports of abuse of female employees at Uber and placed its CEO, Travis Kalanick, on thin ice thanks to his responsibility for the workplace environment at the transportation company.
Marcy’s conduct became a public issue only after BuzzFeed disclosed Berkeley’s confidential investigation, resulting in his resignation only days later. O’Reilly’s downfall can be traced to the immediate effect of a New York Times article detailing repeated financial settlements reached with his accusers, and Ailes’ departure from Fox News to a lawsuit filed by former on-air personality Gretchen Carlson.
Yet much more conduct surely continues behind the curtain, waged by powerful people (usually men) against victims who perceive that the career consequences of speaking out may be more dire and long-lived than the suffering they face, or that they won’t receive a fair hearing from superiors who often are longtime friends and colleagues of their tormentors, or those who profit from their “high performance.”
The sad truth is that “high performance” still casts a protective shroud over “contemptible and inexcusable” behavior. It’s arguable that what really eroded the ground under O’Reilly’s feet at Fox wasn’t his conduct per se, but the flight of advertisers from his daily TV program. Certainly his conduct had been no secret to his employers, but the fact that profits flowing from his show could cease was a revelation. He was the same Bill O’Reilly as ever, just no longer such a high performer.
That suggests that the O’Reilly syndrome is nowhere near cured. Somewhere in America, even now, people are ruthlessly abusing underlings with the confidence that stems from professional prestige or the ability to bring in the big bucks. They may be quietly told by superiors to knock it off, but their victims are also being quietly told to take it if they know what’s good for them. Nothing at Fox, Berkeley or Uber will do much to change that, yet.