The Internets are abuzz today with the New York Times report (which is basically just a more extensive version of a LawNewz exclusive from yesterday) that Fox News Channel has recently settled an explicit sexual harassment claim against its long-time superstar host Bill O’Reilly, by former on-air personality Juliet Huddy. The allegations are specific and, if true, a troubling case of a woman being punished in her career by a powerful man because she allegedly rebuffed his sexual advances.
There are solid reasons to both believe, as well as be skeptical of, Huddy’s claim.
This is not the first time Fox has settled a lawsuit in this realm against O’Reilly (on whose show I have appeared as a guest multiple times, but not since 2009). Huddy’s allegations have a level of specificity consistency. She clearly had extensive on-air contact with him and then, just as obviously, had her career suddenly take a dramatic nose-dive. She is very attractive, but also of the perfect age and stature to be a target.
On the other hand, Fox strongly maintains that the allegations are false. The case never came close to going to a trial and was settled for a significant, but not astronomical, amount of money. The claim was brought at a time of extreme vulnerability of the company given the downfall of former chief Roger Ailes over remarkably similar charges. There does not appear to be any “smoking gun” proof, and Huddy theoretically could be seeking to cash out of what was left of a television career which was now clearly on a downhill slide for reasons that had nothing to do with O’Reilly.
As with many cases like this, it all depends on the prism through which you see the timeline of events. For instance, did O’Reilly rush to defend Ailes, and demean his accusers, when those allegations came out because he is a remarkably poor judge of character, or knowing that he himself was very vulnerable if the walls of the Ailes kingdom came crashing down around him?
I honestly don’t know, for sure, the answer to that question. My gut instinct and experience in this business is that the allegations seem legitimate, but I have personally seen cases in similar situations (where money was a motivator) which were based on falsehoods.
Until more facts are in, I would like to reserve final judgment on O’Reilly’s guilt (a novel concept, I know, in this era of instant response). However, I do think that sharing a few brutally honest thoughts on this general subject and on why these stories seem to be increasingly prevalent in television “news” is now more than appropriate.
First, a little background on my own career which is relevant to this topic. After graduating from Georgetown University way back in 1989, my first real career incarnation was as a local television sportscaster. Frankly, in retrospect, I went in this direction because I loved sports and because I figured being on television was the only way that a total geek like me with a lousy dating record could possibly ever be sexually attractive to good-looking women.
I quickly learned that, even on the local level and on small stations, that, just as I had been hoping, a guy like me with absolutely no game in the dating department could, despite his own incompetence, do way better with women than he deserved to, simply because he was on television. But what was most interesting about this phenomenon is that, for a variety of reasons, it was almost always with women who were also working in the industry and usually at the same station.
For a while I found this to be one the better perks of the job, but it also had its grave dangers. I once had my very talented news co-anchor follow me home after a show, overtly wanting to have sex, which sounds really great until you realize that she was seriously dating the boss at the time and that, mostly thanks to me, the sex was absolutely terrible.
Years later, in my hometown of Philadelphia, I was part of a show hosted by the older female wife of another station boss. She made clear sexual advances towards me which I unartfully rebuffed and I was then suddenly terminated from the program. I made a claim of sexual harassment and was given a small settlement, which my lawyer urged me to take because I had, purely by coincidence, already gotten another job in Louisville days after I had been let go. Of all my many regrets from my rather bizarre career, not pursuing that case fully is near the top of the list. What that woman did to me was wrong and the feeling of violation/betrayal she inflicted has never fully faded.
The television “news” industry is a magnet for men who, like me as a younger man, are not very physically attractive, are insecure both personally and sexually, but who are also ambitious/confident enough to try to change their romantic equation, all while fooling themselves that they are in it for “journalism.” Similarly, because of the greater value placed on the physical appearance by female on-air “talent,” women in TV news tend to be far more attractive than the men, but also insecure enough about themselves to need the fraudulent affirmation of being on television (an insecurity which is enhanced in the industry because they know that their careers are unlikely to last much past their mid-40s).
In short, TV news attracts men who couldn’t get laid in their teenage years and women who didn’t quite make head cheerleader or prom queen. At some level they are using their television career to make up for that. In addition to being an absolutely horrible recipe for creating good journalism, this is also a toxic mix when it comes to the sexual dynamics of the television workplace.
It is no coincidence, in my view, that Fox News Channel apparently became an environment where bad behavior in the realm of sex was both facilitated and tolerated. Let’s face it, the audience for Fox News is mostly older and male. This means attractiveness among male “talent” is not a high priority, but for the women it is paramount.
The “conservative” opinion bent of the channel also dictates that most of the stars are men while the women play mostly subservient/complementary roles (it is important to point out that Megyn Kelly, the only woman to really break the Fox News mold, felt so uncomfortable that she just left the network). This clearly helped create a culture that is not unlike a high-class strip club where behavior which would normally be seen as totally inappropriate is eventually accepted, at least if perpetrated by the most powerful and wealthy of the men.
Here is where Ailes and O’Reilly come in. Both are unattractive older men of extreme power, money, and celebrity. In their defense, many women, especially those who gravitate towards the television industry, routinely fall all over men like that. The problem for men like Ailes and O’Reilly is that they begin to think that ALL women of a certain status either like them, or will at least pretend to, because of who they are. Inevitably, they pick wrong and their massive egos don’t allow them to get out of the situation gracefully. That is when ethical lines are inevitably crossed.
I’m not remotely justifying the behavior or, in the case of O’Reilly, saying that I know the allegations to be based in truth. I’m simply explaining the circumstances unique to TV “news” which help facilitate these kind of situations. Ask nearly anyone in the industry if I am right about this and, if they are being honest, they will probably agree that this is the dirty little secret which no one wants to admit.