NEW YORK – During an interview Friday with Glenn Beck, another former Fox News Channel personality who was the subject of an advertiser boycott, Bill O’Reilly complained of a liberal “hit job” that did him in.
“In the weeks to come we’re going to be able to explain all of it,” O’Reilly said in his first interview since he was fired on April 19. “It has to do with destroying voices that the far left and the organized left-wing cabal doesn’t like.”
While Fox’s critics don’t see it that way, indeed, a powerful mix of lawyers and liberal groups savvy about the media and often working together, have sought to amplify allegations of sexual and racial harassment at the network in a series of scandals that have also cost the jobs of founding CEO Roger Ailes and co-president and veteran executive Bill Shine.
They’re not backing off, as they seek more firings and try to influence a British regulator’s ruling on Fox News parent company 21st Century Fox’s bid to acquire the Sky satellite network.
The drama has upended the most powerful conservative brand in media, one that has long rallied its viewers with talk of liberal conspiracies. O’Reilly’s voice, for two decades the one most followed in cable news, has been silenced — for now.
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Shortly before O’Reilly was fired on April 19, O’Reilly’s lawyer distributed a copy of an email as evidence of a “smear campaign.” It was sent by Mary Pat Bonner, a consultant who helped raise money for former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, less than two weeks after The New York Times reported on settlements paid to quiet claims against “The O’Reilly Factor” host. It invited people to a phone update on a campaign to pressure advertisers.
Bonner’s firm was hired by Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog founded in 2004 to criticize conservative media outlets, particularly Fox. The calls were an effort to keep various organizations that opposed O’Reilly informed, said Angelo Carusone, Media Matters president.
The groups include Color of Change, a racial justice organization; Sleeping Giants, social media activists who try to persuade companies not to advertise on conservative websites; and UltraViolet, a women’s rights group co-founded by a leader of Moveon.org that advertises on its website the O’Reilly firing as one of its successes.
Carusone characterized the organizing as “not that much,” basically sharing information and advertiser lists. But he said he gets the need for O’Reilly’s supporters to concentrate on a foe.
“It’s not as sexy as I think the idea is,” he said. “But I understand why it’s appealing to say.”
Pressure put on O’Reilly advertisers to pull commercials from his show is a tactic familiar to Carusone, who led a similar campaign that choked lucrative ad dollars from Beck’s former Fox show and drove him from the network.
Dozens of O’Reilly advertisers backed out within days of the Times story, an exodus so quick that much was likely independent of pressure groups. But Rashad Robinson, Color of Change executive director, said his group had been talking to companies that ran commercials on O’Reilly’s show well before the Times story and he believes that “we created a climate that made it incredibly hard for corporate advertisers not to choose a side.”
O’Reilly’s relatively swift firing — less than three weeks after the Times story appeared — may have worked in Fox’s favour.
Carusone said Media Matters had been preparing a campaign for May, a key month in the television business when many companies allocate their advertising dollars, to encourage a general boycott of Fox News, not just O’Reilly’s show. He still supports that goal, but concedes O’Reilly’s firing has sapped it of any momentum. Many advertisers have returned to O’Reilly’s old time slot, now occupied by Tucker Carlson.
Robinson said he’s been in contact with two lawyers, one who has filed a lawsuit against Fox and another who is considering it, to see how visible their clients would be publicly in speaking out against Fox. He wouldn’t identify them.
Several high-profile attorneys are taking on Fox. Nancy Erika Smith, a specialist on workplace rights, filed the first harassment case against Ailes for former anchor Gretchen Carlson and also represents two other women suing over their treatment. Manhattan lawyer Judd Burstein’s client is former Fox anchor Andrea Tantaros, who charged the network operated like a “sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult.”
Doug Wigdor, known as the lawyer for the woman who accused French official Dominique Strauss-Kahn of assault in a New York hotel, filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against Fox with more than a dozen plaintiffs.
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Lisa Bloom, a former truTV anchor and lawyer Gloria Allred’s daughter, has represented Wendy Walsh, who has accused O’Reilly of hurting her career after she spurned his advances. Ailes and O’Reilly have denied all of the accusations against them.
Wigdor, who also represented former Fox reporter Juliet Huddy in a harassment charge against O’Reilly, said if there is a co-ordinated campaign against Fox, “I’m not part of it.” He said he is not taking on Fox for political purposes.
“My politics are probably very different than Nancy Erika Smith and Lisa Bloom,” he said. “I’m a lifelong Republican and a Trump supporter.”
After Carlson filed her lawsuit, a conservative website accused Smith of working on behalf of Clinton; in fact, she said she supported Bernie Sanders. Smith said she’s had no contact with other lawyers involved in lawsuits against Fox. She has been vocal about suggesting that some other executives who worked under Ailes and remain at Fox should also be cut loose.
“It’s not one person,” she said. “It’s a culture. It’s an environment. You need a lot of change.”
Wigdor and Bloom have both travelled to London to speak with regulators who will make the decision on 21st Century Fox’s fitness to take over Sky. Wigdor, in his meeting Thursday, called for Fox to waive confidentiality agreements that prevent some victims of racial and sexual harassment from speaking out.
“You have to ask yourself, is this the sort of company that you want controlling Sky?” he said.
The “smear campaign” accusation by O’Reilly lawyer Marc E. Kasowitz circulated widely in right-of-centre media outlets. One website, Young Conservatives, said it was anxious to see whether the legal cases against Fox will continue. “Many are eager to learn how much of these charges … are the result of yet another campaign by the left to discredit someone for leaning too far to the right,” the website wrote.
Yet in the circumstances that brought down Ailes, O’Reilly and Shine, Media Matters’ Carusone said a campaign wasn’t really necessary.
“They created their problems and they attributed them to everybody else but themselves,” he said. “It’s not that we ginned it up. We didn’t frame them. It’s a response to the realities of what took place.”