April 4, 2017

Sponsors Jump Ship as Bill O’Reilly is Shown to be a Predator

Fox News stood by Bill O'Reilly when he settled a high-profile sexual harassment lawsuit in 2004 and when a 2015 Mother Jones article chronicled the host's misleading claims about having covered a “war zone” during the Falklands War. More important, advertisers stood by O'Reilly.

In fact, the King of Cable News enjoyed a ratings boost at the height of the Falklands scrutiny, which only made his nightly show a more appealing forum on which to air commercials. The New York Times, citing data from Kantar Media, reported on Tuesday that O'Reilly's program hauled in $446 million in ad revenue from 2014 to 2016.

The Times also reported this:

Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai said they were withdrawing their ads from Mr. O'Reilly's prime-time show, “The O'Reilly Factor,” after the New York Times published an investigation this weekend that found five women who made allegations of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior against him. Those five women received settlements totaling about $13 million, the Times reported.

O'Reilly's problems just got real.

Losing advertisers, let's remember, contributed to Glenn Beck's downfall at Fox News in 2011. Walmart, Geico, CVS and Procter and Gamble were among the major companies that pulled ads off Beck's show, which had quickly become one of the most popular in cable news after its 2009 debut.

Despite his large following, Beck's polarizing commentary frightened off mainstream brands. Most memorably, Beck declared on the air that President Barack Obama was “a racist” who “has a deep-seated hatred for white people.”

Sponsors didn't desert Beck all at once, but eventually hundreds of companies refused to buy airtime during his show.

O'Reilly is a long, long way from becoming a business liability on par with Beck. But when advertisers start walking, TV executives start paying attention. The bottom-line reality is that lost revenue registers in a way that liberal outrage over something like, say, a “James Brown wig” does not. 

Even questions about journalistic integrity can be shrugged off or spun to O'Reilly's advantage. The Falklands episode two years ago centered on previous claims O'Reilly had made about his career as a reporter, such as this one in his 2001 book: “I've reported on the ground in active war zones from El Salvador to the Falklands.”

In fact, O'Reilly — like almost all journalists who covered the Falklands War in 1982 — never set foot on the Falkland Islands. After Mother Jones published its report, O'Reilly said he never meant to suggest he was on the islands and was referring to his on-the-ground coverage of postwar protests on the Argentine mainland, in Buenos Aires. He said that distinguishing between combat on the islands and faraway demonstrations in which soldiers used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters amounted to “splitting hairs.”

Slate's Justin Peters explained at the time why reporting by Mother Jones and subsequent coverage by the likes of Media Matters would not dent O'Reilly:

Being accused of fabulism by liberal news outlets like Mother Jones and Media Matters doesn’t harm O’Reilly’s credibility because O’Reilly’s credibility is dependent on exploiting a sense of victimization among his audience. Much of the Fox News demographic is composed of people who feel that they’re under attack by unscrupulous liberals. So when it appears that a host comes under attack by unscrupulous liberals, that serves to reinforce their existing worldview. The first thought isn’t Bill O’Reilly is a liar. It’s The world is out to get Bill O’Reilly.

O'Reilly's viewers might be similarly galvanized now. But the success of his show depends on advertisers’ willingness to pay for access to those viewers, and two just said they are no longer willing.

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