Why the Murdochs Should Fire Bill O'Reilly

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Bill O'Reilly

Rupert and sons James and Lachlan have reached a fork in the road. The path they choose will determine their company’s future.

Somewhere deep into Bill O’Reilly’s new philosophical missive Old School: Life in the Sane Lane (Henry Holt & Co., out since March 28) — after he’s lacerated liberals (“snowflakes”), mowed down modernists (“morons”), assailed his adversaries (“sniveling cowards”) and had the temerity to suggest that Thomas Jefferson possibly didn’t have sex with Sally Hemings (“That has not been proven 100 percent”), DNA evidence to the contrary — he gets to the heart of his subject, what it means to be Old School:

“You’re Old School if you don’t care if it’s paper or plastic. You’re Old School if you actually have ten items or less. You’re Old School if you root for the underdog. You’re Old School if you stand up during the national anthem. You’re Old School if you meet someone who says he’s a ‘citizen of the world’ and then ask him, ‘So, what embassy are you going to run to when you get into trouble?’ You’re Old School if you still bend over to pick up a penny…. You’re Old School if you get kinder with age.”

Whether O’Reilly has gotten kinder with age is best left to others to judge. What he hasn’t done is become aware of his blind spots — not least that nowhere in this multipage summary, nor anywhere else within O’Reilly's and co-author Bruce Feirstein’s 178-page paean to traditionalism, do they say the following:

You’re Old School if you don’t abuse your power. You’re Old School if you keep sex out of the workplace. You’re Old School if you consider sexual harassment, not just wrong but anathema.

With exquisite timing, O’Reilly has made his moral code public just as a conflagration has broken out about his moral conduct in private.

For those who’ve managed to avoid the news, here’s what we know:

On April 1, The New York Times published a report that $13 million had been paid to five women who’d accused O’Reilly of sexual harassment and verbal abuse, by either Fox News or O’Reilly himself. Without confirming or denying the details, the pundit issued a statement, noting: “Just like other prominent and controversial people, I’m vulnerable to lawsuits from individuals who want me to pay them to avoid negative publicity.... I’m a father who cares deeply for my children and who would do anything to avoid hurting them in any way. And so I have put to rest any controversies to spare my children.”

Within days, O’Reilly had lost dozens of his advertisers, creating a huge dent in Fox’s estimated $200 million annual ad revenue from its primetime juggernaut, The O’Reilly Factor. On April 11, O’Reilly announced he was taking off on vacation, leaving his future with Fox unresolved.

It’s important to acknowledge that at no point has any court of law delivered a verdict against him. But the sheer number of accusations; the prominence of the women who have leveled them; the absence of any categorical denial (let alone apology); the mind-boggling sums of money involved; and O’Reilly’s feeble excuse for settling — his children? — indicate that, failing a terrific explanation, there’s fire as well as smoke.

If that’s true (and the Murdoch family has wisely hired the law firm Paul Weiss to investigate), there’s only one way forward: O’Reilly must go.

For the Murdochs, this presents an excruciating dilemma. Losing O’Reilly doesn’t merely mean saying farewell to their biggest news star, it means assisting in the further erosion of their crown jewel, Fox News, which has already endured the departures of Roger Ailes and Megyn Kelly (the latter, it was reported this weekend, driven away partly by O’Reilly’s behavior).

Unlike Ailes (who operated largely behind the scenes) and unlike Kelly (whose questioning of Donald Trump undermined her support among Fox News’ core audience), O’Reilly is the very quintessence of the brand, as closely defined with Fox News as Edward R. Murrow was with CBS or Mike Wallace with 60 Minutes.

Cutting him loose will mean more than plugging the 8 p.m. dike; it’ll mean reimagining Fox News’ very future — and doing so before a rival snaps O’Reilly up, along with his conservative followers.

Firing him is a huge step, but the Murdochs’ own history leaves them with little choice: In July, they established a precedent, terminating Ailes (with a $40 million spoonful of honey), based on similar accusations.

That precedent could be critical in determining how they move forward. Not firing O’Reilly would lead to accusations of hypocrisy. Ailes was older, critics will argue; he jostled for power with the junior Murdochs; and he was ultimately deemed dispensable (Jack Abernethy and Bill Shine were promoted under the elder Murdoch, who stepped in to take over as chairman and acting CEO of Fox News Channel). By contrast, O’Reilly, 67, is still young enough to be viable for years, has no interest in a turf war and has nobody to replace him.

Adding pressure to the Murdochs is their recent history with scandal, most notably the biggest one ever to strike their company: when reporters and editors at London’s News of the World were accused of wiretapping celebrities and other figures.

That matter not only resulted in a hearing before the House of Commons (when Rupert famously was assaulted with a shaving-foam pie), but also led to a jail term for former editor Andy Coulson. The Murdoch trio (father Rupert, sons James and Lachlan) got away scot free (well, no jail time), but the same can’t be said of their image. James was forced to step down as chairman of BSkyB, and soon after, News Corp was split into two.

Back then, Murdoch was still guiding the ship; but now James and Lachlan have seized the till. If their father was a swashbuckler, they’re not: they must buckle down and avoid any swashing.

Three years after “phone-gate,” they must convince investors that they’re their own men, that they can successfully guide their company into a future that may last even longer than its decades-old past. They must reassure prominent female employees (they’ve promoted such top-level women as the Fox studio’s Stacey Snider and Emma Watts) that the old boys are no longer running rampant, whatever one might think. And they must win over shareholders who are increasingly under pressure to invest in corporations that are ethically as well as financially sound — especially those with access to the public airwaves.

The Murdoch juniors are not running the private fiefdom that their father built almost from scratch, but a vast public company that is presently seeking regulatory clearance in the $14.6 billion acquisition of Sky Plc. How they handle O’Reilly will affect not just that but almost all their other major transactions.

Keep O’Reilly, and the scandal could balloon, damaging the Murdochs as well as Fox News; cut him loose, and Fox News could deflate without him.

The Murdochs must long for the Old School days when scandals like this could be swept under the rug. But those days are gone. Whatever O’Reilly might think, we’re living in the New School now.

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