What We’re Talking About When We Talk About Bill O’Reilly

A while ago, I worked on promos at Fox News. This was back when we all knew Fox was awful, but didn’t yet know how awful it would become, as its power grew to effectively eat the presidency. Anyway, I remember filming Geraldo Rivera pretending to load fake aid supplies on to a truck as if it were in a war zone, doing it multiple times until we got the right take. I remember filming with a correspondent (whose name I don’t recall but who’s most certainly gone now since that was at least ten years ago and she was a woman) who had a flag with a picture of Lenin on it on her wall, but who kept calling him Marx — as in, “Do you think it would be bad to have Marx in the frame behind my head?” I remember filming with Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes, then of the show Hannity and Colmes, before Fox stopped pretending that they were being “fair and balanced” by putting up this messy, unattractive, poorly-spoken liberal opposite a slick conservative with all the answers, and just made it Hannity.

But what I remember most was filming with Bill O’Reilly. Along with his plug to camera at his desk, which was basically the same as everyone else’s, we filmed a scene of him with his “team,” discussing pitches of the stories they would do that night. He was ruthless, cutting those people off and knocking down all of their ideas when he deemed them not fit, but the most impressive thing was how they clearly all worshipped him because of it. He had a power over them, a combination of the fact that he was their boss, and a star, and tall (never underestimate the power of physical stature) and that he was confident, unyielding, and unflinching in what he thought and what he wanted. He knew how to dole out cutting remarks, praise and abuse in the right amounts to keep those below him hanging on his every word.

I’m remembering that experience now that he’s been fired from Fox News, not actually for sexually harassing multiple women but for losing advertisers after the extent of the harassment claims against him finally came to light. Money talks, and this time, I guess, it said the right thing. But what struck me when I read about the scandal and the stories of what he did to these women who came forward was the idea of how many more there probably were out there who didn’t speak up. This was a guy who knew how to use his power over people, and did it for sexual gain. These women we’ve all heard about said “no,” they all felt that they had the wherewithal to do so. But how many were there who didn’t? How many underlings were overawed by his strong personality? How many women didn’t know what would happen if they spurned their powerful boss, were afraid of getting fired, or not getting asked back, worrying that it might be the end of a promising career, or a serious setback? How many felt belittled enough by him — because that’s how he treated people — and low enough in value as a result that when he picked them to be the object of his sexual advances, they felt somehow chosen, and gave in?

I get sexual harassment – I mean, I’m female. I’ve written before about how, like most women, I’ve experienced it many times but never reported it. It was simply easier not to, to avoid not getting rehired as a freelancer, or the discomfort that would be created in my work environment, which has always been majority male and used to be nearly all male except for me, or because I brushed it off as being nonthreatening, something I could handle. But it clicked for me this time in a new way, knowing that the perpetrator was someone who I’d seen exerting that kind of manipulative power over a room full of people. Just because nobody has come forward who actually was coerced into sex with him, or Roger Ailes, doesn’t mean that that didn’t happen. In fact, it most certainly did. We now know that he, and Ailes, did this again and again, with multiple women who reported it or sued Fox over it. People don’t repeat things that often when they fail, they repeat them because they work.

So let’s just remember that for every woman who has spoken up, there could easily be three who didn’t, and out of those three, or six or nine, there’s a good chance one felt like she had no choice but to acquiesce. She’s living with a memory much worse than being groped or verbally abused or flashed, or of even having to listen to him masturbate on the phone (although even hearing John Oliver try to describe what it might sound like is a pretty terrible experience). And how many of those cases must have happened, aside from the ones we’ve heard of (the most recent allegations reported in the press are from 2016), after O’Reilly’s serial harassment came to light with the first suit 2004, when Fox could and should have put a stop to it? And then think about all of the cases of sexual harassment with male bosses preying on women that you don’t hear about, and how often those guys — the non-famous ones who don’t make the news — have likely succeeded, and how they are probably continuing to succeed because, just like at Uber, someone calculated that those guys are worth more than the women they harm…until they aren’t.

That’s what we’re really talking about here, in terms of numbers, in terms of physical and mental and emotional pain suffered, in terms of the type of self-blame and self-disgust and self-hatred that inevitably result, in terms of slut-shaming and reputations created and destroyed, and how, overall, we are failing women in the workplace when we talk about Bill O’Reilly and sexual harassment.

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