This story has been updated.
This time, he just might not survive. Fox News ratings king Bill O’Reilly has always weathered controversy, from offensive comments to previous accusations of sexual harassment (both settled out of court). None of it hurt his O’Reilly Factor viewership, the biggest for a cable news show in 2016. His latest claims antagonized a less-forgiving constituency: his advertisers, at least 20 of whom have now pulled their commercials from the show. Such boycotts haven’t usually been effective at dislodging such a powerful TV personality, but the speed of the anti-O’Reilly campaign and the nature of the accusations may actually get results.
The boycott exploded within days. A cadre of Twitter activists, battle-hardened from ongoing campaigns against the Trumps and Breitbart News, swarmed the initial New York Times story about the sexual harassment allegations and put pressure on advertisers to take a stand. They did—quickly and vocally. Within about 24 hours, over 20 companies— including major players like Allstate, BMW, and T. Rowe Price—pulled their advertising from the O’Reilly Factor and denounced his alleged behavior. Within a week, up to 80 advertisers had ditched the show.
“So many advertisers are not just removing their ads, but giving comments that they typically avoid, or would avoid. I mean, they’re making value judgments,” says Angelo Carusone, president of liberal watchdog organization Media Matters for America. That Carusone was caught off guard shows how unexpected the reaction was, as he’s long been planning for such a day. “I had the @StopOReilly [Twitter] account for seven years, and I just sat on it,” he says.
Carusone knows of what he speaks. Back in 2009, he led an advertising boycott of then-Fox pundit Glenn Beck to counteract the host, whom he claimed had engaged in bullying behavior and spread misinformation about his political targets. Based on advertising sales data he collected, Carusone claims that the campaign had a major financial impact on the show that led to Beck’s departure from Fox. Carusone also spearheaded a campaign against Rush Limbaugh, and though it did not bring down the radio pundit, he claims it still did financial damage. In the case of O’Reilly, however, Carusone says he’s playing catch-up to other online activists— by following the effort, not leading.
A Role Reversal
Perhaps it’s fitting that such an unusual turn of events began on April Fools’ Day. That’s when New York Times journalists Emily Steel and Michael S. Schmidt published an extensive investigation of claims against O’Reilly. They included two previously unknown sexual harassment settlements, one settlement for verbal abuse, a pending lawsuit for sexual harassment, and described yet another account of harassment that didn’t result in a lawsuit.
No accusations have been proven in court, and O’Reilly hasn’t admitted to any wrongdoing. But the preponderance of evidence has been persuasive in the court of public opinion. The latest news lands atop a mountain of previous sexual harassment and discrimination charges against Fox leaders including its ousted chairman, Roger Ailes.
The weekend was calm, but things sped up on Monday evening, when Mercedes-Benz announced that it would pull advertising from The O’Reilly Factor. “The allegations are disturbing and, given the importance of women in every aspect of our business, we don’t feel this is a good environment in which to advertise our products right now,” the luxury automaker’s spokeswoman Donna Boland wrote in an email to media outlets. Then, Hyundai announced that it was canceling an upcoming ad campaign.
Carusone was surprised to see advertisers take the lead. “No one ever really viewed them as a decision maker or even a participant,” in boycott campaigns, he says. “That culture is a new phenomenon that’s emerged over years because of the way that these brands utilize social media, interact with their user base, that they get pulled into things.”
Still, the defections looked more like a glancing blow than a serious wound early on Tuesday when I emailed professor Brayden King of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, the guru of boycott studies.
“I doubt it will work,” he wrote back around 1:30 p.m. Eastern time. “O’Reilly is a powerful figure at Fox News and has the ability to resist a great deal of pressure from sponsors. Even though a few major brands have left his show, the network will be able to find replacements.” But right around then, the defections sped up. When we emailed again just before 6 p.m., King wrote, “At some point, the number of fleeing brands will reach a critical mass that it will start to damage the reputations of the companies that decide to stick with [Fox News]. At that point, I’d expect to see a change.” (He reckons that change to be something like a temporary suspension of O’Reilly, rather than his dismissal.)
What happened to change the rules so quickly and surprise even experts in the field? One factor, according to Carusone, was aggressive reporting by journalists from the Times, CNN, BuzzFeed and other outlets who proactively called other O’Reilly Factor advertisers, asking if they would follow suit. That may have nudged advertisers to act, he says. “Typically when you’re an activist, you’re the vanguard. You’re out there first, and reporters and the news media are catching up,” says Carusone. “In [this] case I was like, Oh my God, I have fallen behind.”
The Breitbart Effect
It didn’t take long for activists to catch up, because so many on the left were already primed for such a battle. Carusone, who follows and critiques O’Reilly as part of his job, went through past episodes of O’Reilly Factor shows, writing down the names of major advertisers and tweeting them requests to pull their support. He enlisted help from his staff to publish a roster of about 130 advertisers on the Media Matters website.
Carusone wasn’t alone. For instance, Judd Legum, the editor-in-chief of liberal news site ThinkProgress was tweeting out the Twitter handles of O’Reilly Factor advertisers he’d seen on the show Monday night. Legum’s action resembles the Sleeping Giants movement on Twitter that’s focused on punishing Breitbart News. The anonymous activists who work in digital marketing began a campaign in November against what they consider offensive articles and comments posted on the news site formerly run by President Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon. By tweeting out screenshots of a company’s ads next to inflammatory content, Sleeping Giants and their Twitter followers have convinced over 1,700 companies and organizations, including some online ad networks, to pull advertising from Breitbart.
Now Sleeping Giants is piling on. “There was enough of an outcry in our community that we kinda put it to a vote [Monday] night,” says Sleeping Giant’s anonymous spokesman, “and like 90 percent of the respondents were on board.” As with Breitbart, the group started by making a Google spreadsheet of O’Reilly Factor advertisers starting with those Legum had been tweeting. They asked followers to identify more advertisers and tweet requests asking the companies to drop O’Reilly. “I had watched their work with Breitbart and saw they were considering looking at O’Reilly advertisers,” said Legum. “So I did reach out to them because I knew it would be too much for me to keep track of myself.” Sleeping Giants now lists about 80 companies that have dropped The O’Reilly Factor. (This is substantially more than the roughly 30 defecting advertisers on the Media Matters list, which Sleeping Giants say is a subset of their list.)
A Risk To Free Speech?
Every good movie about the press seems to include a scene in which the muckraking reporter’s work is jeopardized by angry advertisers threatening to pull out. In an ideal news environment, journalism and truth are shielded from the whims of commercial interests. But with the current O’Reilly boycott, as well as the Beck and Limbaugh campaigns that preceded it, the public (including even liberals who typically distrust business) are looking to corporations to set things right. “They can be real vanguards,” says Carusone.
He points out that O’Reilly’s issue is not one of free speech but rather of behavior. The charges against him, other Fox colleagues, and Fox itself are serious and mounting. “Sexual harassment is a really big fucking problem in this country,” says Carusone. “I do think it matters if you have corporate leaders standing up and saying, hey, this is an issue that we think is a super-big third rail, and so even if you give a whiff of this, we’re not going to go anywhere near it.”
Even if O’Reilly is guilty of some or all of the accusations, it hasn’t been proved. And what’s to stop newly emboldened advertisers from acting against other journalists for alleged, or even trumped-up, charges? Once the Pandora’s box of media boycotts is opened, how do you ensure the powers are only used for good?
“To an extent, I think that’s where media and reporters play an important arbiter role there, to separate: what is a legitimate thing to ask of an advertiser and where their roles and responsibilities begin and end,” says Carusone, whose role is to unmask what his organization deems to be misinformation in the media. It also seems convenient for liberal activists that these boycott efforts have been waged against the right-wing press.
Carusone and others try to draw a line by saying that the trigger for action is a pattern of prejudice or bullying behavior, not merely disagreeable opinions. “We never want to silence somebody, but we don’t want to make it profitable to be involved in sexual harassment,” says the Sleeping Giants spokesman. Carusone agrees, adding that “it’s playing with fire” to use corporate influence as a tool to punish journalists. “But I also don’t think you should be rewarded for being a total bully.”