When 21st Century Fox sent a team of lawyers into Fox News to investigate charges against former boss Roger Ailes, they also turned up a slew of allegations against top on-air personality Bill O'Reilly:
An investigation by The New York Times has found a total of five women who have received payouts from either Mr. O’Reilly or the company in exchange for agreeing to not pursue litigation or speak about their accusations against him. The agreements totaled about $13 million.For the sordid details, I refer you to the Times piece. But I wanted to share this one for a glimpse into O'Reilly as a person:
The reporting suggests a pattern: As an influential figure in the newsroom, Mr. O’Reilly would create a bond with some women by offering advice and promising to help them professionally. He then would pursue sexual relationships with them, causing some to fear that if they rebuffed him, their careers would stall. . . .
Among Ms. Huddy’s complaints was that he made inappropriate phone calls, the lawyers said in correspondence obtained by The Times. The letter said that when he tried to kiss her, she pulled away and fell to the ground and he didn’t help her up. When she rebuffed him, he tried to blunt her career prospects. . . .What does it all mean? Is Fox News an unusual workplace, where the strange tone set by the clumsily amorous Ailes, and the sexual atmosphere of news broadcasts by an array of women chosen as representatives of his fantasy life, led to rampant misbehavior? Are Ailes and O'Reilly both just cads?
Or is it that the top men in any hyper-competitive realm – politics, sports, the media – are likely to be testosterone-charged beasts like Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods and Bill O'Reilly? If so, how should we react to that? Try to ban them all from public life? Or accept a certain level of background scandal as the price for having forceful leadership? Millions of Americans seem to have made the second choice when they voted for Donald Trump. Seriously, if (say) half the prominent men in public life have sex scandals in their closets, we would be limiting our choices in a big way by excluding them. Would that be worth it? How many of my readers think sexual scandal would motivate them to support the presidential candidate of the other party?
Does power corrupt everyone? Should we start from the assumption that anyone who has had enough power for enough time has probably used it wickedly?
Could it be, as some feminists seem to think, that when men advocate "traditional values" they really just mean that women should submit sexually to powerful men, and therefore that any non-feminist man is inherently suspect? I don't think this is true in general, but I confess that after so many scandals I have come to instantly distrust anyone who stands up too loudly for morality.
I didn't say anything about Vice-President Pence's oath never to dine alone with a woman because 1) I doubt it hurt any woman's career, since Congressman and Governors hardly ever dine alone with anyone, preferring to schmooze at least a dozen potential campaign contributors at once; and 2) because the degree of temptation presented by the pumped up atmosphere of high politics in mixed company must be tremendous, and if the Pences want to deal with it through rigid rules that's not really my business. At least they are trying to stick to their moral principles in a world where hypocrisy seems to be the norm.
Lots of feminists attacked Mike Pence as weak, complaining that he is some sort of sissy for not wanting to be alone with a woman lest he lose control of himself. But that is too simple a reading of what goes on between men and women who spend a lot of time together. If the people at Jezebel and Ms think that most men and women are good, strong people who can work together and hang out together and have dinner together and keep their relationships perfectly collegial, and that only a handful of caddish or weak men would ever have any trouble with this, they are foolish. There is a real price to be paid for breaking down the walls between men's and women's work, and scandal is part of it.
The other thing I wanted to note was the relationship between all of this and the declining respect for institutions in our society. One of the major changes in the public discourse over the past 60 years has been the collapse of respect for the government, the church, big business, unions, school, universities, and just about every other big institution. Respect for authority figures – ministers, teachers, presidents – has also declined. This seems to be one of the things that most bothers conservative critics about our times. Critics like Bill O'Reilly, who built a huge audience by posing as America's moral scold, the one who said that Bill Clinton's shenanigans were unacceptable, that obsession over frivolous celebrities like the Kardashians is disgusting, that people should be upright and moral and if they do stray they should damn well shut up about it instead of making a shameful spectacle of their sins. Millions of people feel that we need such voices.
And now O'Reilly has hired one of the same people who helped Bill Clinton fight his own legal problems, "crisis communications expert" Mark Fabiani. Is is any wonder that people of "traditional morality" feel abandoned and adrift in our world?
I have a strong sense that the respect people used to feel for presidents and bishops was created and maintained by manipulating the media. Scandals were hushed up, good news trumpeted. In our world we have much more information about what presidents and bishops (and actresses, sports heroes, inventors, etc.) are really like, but the price for this is a destruction of idols. We have few heroes now, because we know all too well that everyone is human and weak.
I personally don't much care about that loss, but millions of people feel it keenly. Our world is more honest and open than that of 70 years ago, but also a lot more sordid. What is the effect of 24-hour scandal mongering? The constant assertion that everyone in public is lying, fornicating, double-dealing and covering up? Does it, as conservative critics complain, undermine everyone's morality by making it seem like everyone is doing it? Does it, maybe, reinforce political partisanship, by creating the impression that everyone is a moral failure except insofar as they support the right political party? Do we cling to strongly to progressive or conservative politics because those are the only values we have left? Besides getting rich and famous, that is. Speaking of which, is the generally sordid moral atmosphere related to the way CEOs and investors no longer feel any shame at getting as rich as possible by any means possible?
This the world we live in. There are no heroes now, only flawed human beings scraping by as best we can. This makes it hard to draw moral lines, but it is still imperative to do so. Whatever else is going on in the office, for powerful men to extort sexual favors from their female employees is still wrong, and we ought to take a stand against it. I commend the advertisers who have pulled out of O'Reilly's show in protest of his behavior. But I don't think that means we are in an easy situation. We have fought for and won a remarkable degree of personal freedom, smashing one rule and one barrier after another. It now falls to each of us to limit the harm we do with the freedom we have been given.