As you probably know, Bill O’Reilly and 21st Century Fox recently announced an end to their nearly twenty-year association, ironically just after agreeing to a lucrative multiyear contract. Although some might reasonably say that Fox News made O’Reilly, I think a good argument could be made for the opposite. In its twenty-year run, his show would easily become the most watched weekday primetime cable news program. O’Reilly would cement the network as a bulwark for a brash and new type of conservative, sowing the seeds for the election result we saw last November.
It was a format and style developed by conservative media maven Roger Ailes that would be quickly adopted by such conservative pundits such as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and, more recently, newcomers Tomi Lahren and Alex Jones. Sadly, developments have turned the tables on these commentators in ways we could scarcely fathom just one year ago.
Roger Ailes is no longer chairman on Fox News, effectively bought off by Rupert Murdoch’s young heir-apparent sons after settling numerous sexual harassment charges levied on him and the network. Glenn Beck left Fox News after an acrimonious fallout between him and executives in 2012. Although his startup online organization known as The Blaze is seen as a viable alternative to Fox News, even Mr. Beck has professed shock and dismay at the ascendance of Donald Trump. Rush Limbaugh has seen his listenership steadily decline in the face of more able and congenial radio hosts such as Mark Levin and Charlie Sykes, while Tomi Lahren and Alex Jones have fallen from their own personal grace by either failing to toe the line (Lahren) or seeming to admit that their show is nothing but an act (Jones).
This all pales in comparison to the realization that accusations of harassment and victim shaming on the part of the network to protect their star host have been swirling around O’Reilly and Fox News for more than a decade now. That this new environment finally produced the necessary ingredients to force his ouster is a sad reminder of how far we have come and how far we still have left to go.
This article, however, is not about how prolific the conservative media landscape is or the concurrent dearth of mainstream progressive media sources (thankfully free of harassment!) but rather about how these titanic shifts in our media landscape came about. As you have all probably read, O’Reilly’s recent ouster was the result of over fifty high-dollar TV sponsors pulled their ads from the 9 p.m. O’Reilly Factor time slot. This tendency to only pull a controversial figure when sponsors begin to pull their money is not new in our recent history.
The recent spate of child and domestic abuse scandals in the NFL, the ouster of Don Imus from his radio show, and even President Trump’s rare moment of contrition (at least seeming to be) when the Hollywood Access tape was released were all the product of major advertisers making their dissatisfaction known after intense public pressure to do so. It is an alarming trend that seems to have become quite predictable once a scandal begins to gain traction. You can pretty much bank that once major sponsors like automobile and pharmaceutical companies, along with the added online company or two, begin to release statements of condemnation, it’s merely a matter of time before that host, issue, or scandal comes to a head.
But although these moments, such as the departure of Bill O’Reilly, stand as important reminders of the new world that has evolved over the past decade, it is wrong to credit that change simply to the fact that companies have simply dropped their advertising or sponsorship. Such narratives promote the false impression that Fortune 500 companies are the true guardians of civilization and decency rather than what they really are. At the end of the day companies such as Daimler-Chrysler, Amazon, and Viagra are just companies—entities and organizations created for the simple purpose of making money and little else. They cannot decry injustice any more than a simple plant or a park bench can read. They’re simply not set up for that. The idea that these companies have been imbued with such abilities to strip power from others is not only preposterous but dangerous as well.
It speaks to a larger issue that we all must confront in the post–Citizens United era. Not only should we reassess what makes a citizen, but we must also seriously look at the emerging narrative that companies should be counted among those privileged few who influence elections and voting through their contributions and policies. This is not as academic a debate as some might rightly assume it to be. I for one do not consider myself to be the equal of McDonald’s or Sherman-Williams. They cannot think, they cannot reason, they cannot judge, and, most important of all, they do not breathe, sleep, eat, or talk.
The real credit for O’Reilly’s ouster should instead go to the thousands of people—like you and me—who pressured those advertisers to pull their funding. It was they who put the screws on such companies as Geico, Subaru, and Lumber Liquidators, which together accounted for $35 million dollars in losses to Fox News’s bottom line. The scandal also stood in the way of the Murdoch brothers’ plan to acquire SKY News, purportedly an $11 billion transaction, which the brothers are desperate to complete. In all, it was a combination of the money and bad PR that did O’Reilly in.
Sadly, the work of those activists who pressured these companies has been ignored in this narrative. But I would like to salute them here, not only for their persistence and perseverance in making O’Reilly accountable for his actions but also for every time some controversy flares and requires our attention. If only our government could respond with the same speed and heft as companies as Credit Karma and Allstate (no offense).
So next time a major scandal occurs on the airwaves, remember the secret ingredient to make the wheels of change happen. Once companies begin abandoning ship, the drumbeat for change will not be far behind. Although this is a practical reality to the way things work now, we must never forget that it is we the citizens, we the taxpayers, and, yes, we the people who are the real power behind our moral social order. It’s time we start reminding the politicians, CEOs and TV executives of that.