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What Brought Down Bill O'Reilly


On Fox News the other night, Bill O'Reilly said he was going on a long, planned vacation.


BILL O'REILLY: This time of year, I grab some vacation because it's spring and Easter time. Last fall, I booked a trip that should be terrific. I'll have a full report when I return.

INSKEEP: We can give a fairly full report now. Bill O'Reilly, we now know, traveled to Italy. He met Pope Francis because why would you not? And he also received a message informing him that he has been taken off the air permanently at Fox News. Revelations of just how many times O'Reilly settled sexual harassment lawsuits lead to pressure for Fox to dump its biggest star. And NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is here. He wrote the book on Fox or a book on Fox. Hi, David.


INSKEEP: So what made Fox News care? Because they'd obviously known about the suits for years.

FOLKENFLIK: Two things made Fox News care. The first off is that these allegations didn't stop. The New York Times refocused attention on Bill O'Reilly. There had been a big lawsuit that he settled for about $9 million a little over 10 - dozen years ago. But The Times brought forth additional accusations. And in the days since that story, other women have come forward to make formal complaints within Fox - the law firm that has been advising Fox. And they said they were likely to be credible, and they were likely not to stop. The second thing is that advertisers did - fled, and the issue didn't go away. And the Murdoch family that controls Fox had to decide, did we want this issue to be the one that defines Fox for much of the American public?

INSKEEP: Was O'Reilly's show actually losing money because of lost advertisers though?

FOLKENFLIK: O'Reilly's show was. Fox News says it wasn't. They were able to place almost all those advertisers on other programs. Sometimes they'd have to be given additional ads because O'Reilly's show, you know, commanded such an audience that you get a premium fee to be on that show. And at the same time, you know, you don't want your top-rated show to have only four or five advertisers an hour. It makes it a lot harder to go to the cable providers, who pay you close to $2 per household to carry Fox News programming, to make the case, hey, you really have to pass us this high level if your top-rated star can't get people to advertise on it, if there's that much taint around your brand.

INSKEEP: OK. So here's a question that I bet you've been posing to people you know inside Fox News and around the media world - does this suggest a culture change at Fox, or is it merely that they had no choice?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, the Murdoch family, Rupert Murdoch, who's been leading the company, would say it's a culture change. Let's not forget this happens in the context of the fact that Murdoch forced out the founding chairman of Fox News, Roger Ailes - really the propulsive vision behind the network's success - for sexual harassment charges that were very similar and sweeping last summer. On the other hand, women's advocates point out that both Ailes, who received a $40 million payday, and O'Reilly, who's likely to be paid a lot of money also to go away and not disparage Fox, you know, had a sort of easy path compared to those who could have been fired for cause. In addition, a lot of the people who were there when secret settlements were made to women, a lot of people who are now accused of never having reported issues that were raised to them earlier, remain in place. And one last thing I'll leave you with - Fox News is a news organization and has failed to cover this story adequately or even more than the bare minimum. A lot of women inside Fox, a lot of men inside Fox, look at that with skepticism, at times verging on cynicism.

INSKEEP: And people were noting on social media yesterday when the other cable channels were all about the Bill O'Reilly story, Fox News was, for the most part - if not entirely - covering other things. Thanks also for pointing out the - that we don't know if there's going to be a payout for Bill O'Reilly on the way out the door and...

FOLKENFLIK: I think he can be sure there will be.

INSKEEP: OK (laughter). NPR's David Folkenflik, thanks very much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.