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With O’Reilly getting pummeled, free speech takes a beating, too

Five women have received about $13 million in payouts from either Bill O’Reilly or Fox News in exchange for agreeing to not pursue litigation or speak about their harassment accusations against him.
Five women have received about $13 million in payouts from either Bill O’Reilly or Fox News in exchange for agreeing to not pursue litigation or speak about their harassment accusations against him. Associated Press

Corporate America is shocked – shocked! – to find gambling in the Fox News casino.

More than 40 big advertisers – including major automakers, financial service providers, insurance firms, drug companies and dozens of others – reportedly have pulled their advertising from the “The O’Reilly Factor” in the wake of a “bombshell” New York Times story this week that Bill O’Reilly and Fox News since 2002 have quietly settled five lawsuits by women alleging sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior.

In addition to being an alleged sexual predator, however, O’Reilly is also a ratings powerhouse for Fox News. According to Adweek, he closed out 2016 with the top-rated cable news show, up nearly 20 percent in viewers over 2015. In fact, since the controversy exploded on April 1, The Hollywood Reporter tells us that O’Reilly’s numbers have rocketed even higher, zooming 20 percent above the previous week. His show reaps about $115 million annually for Fox, and he just reportedly signed a new three-year contract for an estimated $18 million a year.

But whether he and Fox News are damaged over the long term by his misconduct, friends of free speech ought not to be celebrating. Content-based boycotts and economic pressure on programmers and news operations are nothing to be proud of, and they can cut both ways – deeply.

But wait, you say. This is not about his content; it’s about his conduct toward women. Punishing Fox economically will send a powerful message – indeed, the only message corporations understand – about workplace dignity and safety. What’s wrong with sponsors voluntarily pulling their spots in response to his alleged harassment and the underhanded Fox attempts to quietly buy off the victims?

Nothing, perhaps, if it were truly a voluntary response to fresh revelations of workplace misconduct. But no media consumer could possibly be unaware, after 21 years on Fox News, that Bill O’Reilly is a boor and a bully, a truculent ideologue who at 6-feet-4, physically and verbally dominates dissenting guests by repeatedly interrupting, shouting over them, telling them to shut up, and even cutting off their mics when he’s had enough. His commodified abuse is on full display any given night.

If you can’t stomach that, check out Robert Greenwald’s highly entertaining, if highly partisan, 2004 documentary, “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism”. It’s a compendium of the innumerable journalistic sins O’Reilly and Fox News commit on a regular basis. They include O’Reilly’s relentless browbeating of a young man who lost his father, a Port Authority employee, on 9/11 – simply because the son subsequently signed a newspaper ad opposing the Iraq War. We see O’Reilly deny that he rudely tells guests to shut up—followed by a full minute of O’Reilly clips telling guests and others to shut up.

Nor are lurid accounts of his piggish conduct anything new. When he settled former producer Andrea Mackris’ sexual harassment claim in 2004, it was widely reported, yet his ratings jumped then, too, by as much as a third.

Just in case you’re still unclear on the end-game, this week the anti-corporate activist group SumOfUs.org emailed its supporters to say, “Our pressure is working, now it’s time to turn up the heat on … O’Reilly’s remaining advertisers,” declaring that “If we take action now we can build on our momentum and get O’Reilly off the air – for good.”

But we needn’t weep for O’Reilly to worry about the potential threat to everyone’s free speech. The ad boycott aims not to punish O’Reilly for his noxious conduct – civil actions are already doing that – but for his noxious politics. So why are advertisers who formerly turned a blind eye suddenly bailing on his show, when his ratings are near their all-time high? Maybe they’ve decided that in the era of President Donald Trump, and its galvanizing effect on a burgeoning protest movement, courting controversy is no longer good business.

Back in 1994, First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams explained the problem with content-driven boycotts, compared to those protesting on business or economic grounds against sweatshops, union-busting, and corporate polluters. “If this kind of boycott against an individual happens often enough,” he told journalist Nat Hentoff, “there has to be a dangerous inhibiting effect on a lot of other people's speech.”

That’s what’s really at stake here. The title of one of Hentoff’s own books says it best: “Free Speech for Me – But Not for Thee.”

Joel Bellman worked in journalism and local government in Los Angeles for 35 years. He now teaches and writes on politics and pop culture. He can be contacted at jbellman@ca.rr.com

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