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Op-Ed: What we know, and don’t know, about Bill O’Reilly

"The O'Reilly Factor" host Bill O'Reilly in 2010.
“The O’Reilly Factor” host Bill O’Reilly in 2010.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

You’ve heard the news, right? Now that we have definitive, conclusive, unassailable proof that Bill O’Reilly is a leering, sexually-harassing comb-over of a man, more than 30 companies, including such honorable blue-chippers as BMW, Mercedes and GlaxoSmithKline, have yanked their advertising from Fox News, ensuring that their ad dollars no longer line O’Reilly’s bottom-snipped easy-access pockets.

The exodus of big-money advertisers has imperiled the future of “The O’Reilly Factor,” the highest-rated show on cable, and may exile the host to the table near the bathroom, or perhaps to Roger Ailes’ upstate estate, where the two men can compare seduction techniques.

For a liberal such as me, this narrative would be very good news indeed, if it were true. But it’s basically false. The reality is that we don’t know what O’Reilly did; advertisers’ money will still find its way to him; and his show may well survive. What we’re seeing is not a group of wealthy corporations doing good, using their dollars to stop a predator and affect social change, but rather a bit of stage-managed posturing, in which image-conscious companies polish their pro-woman credentials with loads of free advertising.

Now, I’m inclined to believe the five women discussed in last Saturday’s New York Times article — women whom O’Reilly and Fox News paid about $13 million. That is, I believe that he was lewd and degrading with colleagues, halted the career advancement of women who didn’t sleep with him, and called one of his show’s producers on the telephone to describe his sexual fantasies as (if she is correct) he was masturbating.

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In the long run, the ad withdrawals may not even hurt O’Reilly, let alone Fox News.

I’m inclined to believe them because such acts strike me as the plausible behavior of a man whose grandiosity, we know from past reporting, has led him to falsify or exaggerate reporting exploits, scream at underlings, and inflate his resume with awards he hadn’t won. But because none of these women went to court — preferring, understandably, to take some monetary justice rather than lose years in scorched-earth litigation — we don’t know O’Reilly’s side. We don’t know what would come out on a witness stand, from him or them. I suspect such testimony would make him look worse, not better — but even solid reporting doesn’t replace real legal discovery.

Next, none of the companies that have stopped advertising on O’Reilly’s show has promised to stop advertising on Fox. They have, as far as I can tell, just moved their accounts to other Fox shows. According to a statement from Paul Rittenberg, the network’s executive vice president for ad sales, “the ad buys of those clients have been re-expressed into other programs” on Fox.

And the companies themselves tell the same story. Here’s how Hyundai put the matter, according to AdvertisingAge: “Hyundai currently has no advertising running on ‘The O’Reilly Factor.’ We had upcoming advertising spots on the show, but are reallocating them due to the recent and disturbing allegations.”

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So let’s get this straight: Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and (let’s not forget) the shirtmaker Untuckit are so aghast that Bill O’Reilly may not be the man they thought he was that they instructed Fox to put their seven-figure ad buys toward other shows on the Fox network. They get credit from the press for being pro-woman, while continuing to fund the work of such feminist theorists as Sean Hannity and Greg Gutfeld, who once compared government spending to “a wife and her credit cards.”

“What makes me suspicious of ad-pulling and similar boycotts by major corporations is that they look like a form of advertising,” Alex Gourevitch, a Brown University political scientist, told me. “I’m betting that O’Reilly is a soft target, and this all amounts more to posturing — and advertising for the companies pulling their ads — than it does to really causing harm to the sources of the relevant injustice in society.”

In the long run, the ad withdrawals may not even hurt O’Reilly, let alone Fox News. Losing advertisers for O’Reilly’s show could hurt Fox’s bottom line, at least a little, if Fox has to drop rates for the show to bring in new advertisers. But if Fox keeps O’Reilly, and his ratings stay high, then ad rates will come back up, and — once the sense of outrage has passed — old advertisers will return. Meanwhile, the companies’ continued business with Fox will help keep O’Reilly’s $18-million annual paycheck coming.

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Unless, of course, Fox fires O’Reilly. Which could happen. But don’t hold your breath. Plagiarist Fareed Zakaria still has a show on CNN. The sexual harassment suits against Casey Affleck didn’t get in the way of his Oscar. Actors yearn to work with Woody Allen. Maybe, like Don Imus, the radio and television host who made racist, sexist comments about college basketball players, O’Reilly will have to take his show from a big network to a smaller one. But maybe not. We’re a very forgiving country, especially for men with high ratings.

Mark Oppenheimer, a contributing writer to Opinion, is the host of the podcast Unorthodox.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion or Facebook.


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