Last January, six months after Fox News ousted its chairman amid a sexual harassment scandal, the network's top-rated host at the time, Bill O'Reilly, struck a $32 million agreement with a longtime network analyst to settle new sexual harassment allegations, according to two people briefed on the matter — an extraordinarily large amount for such cases.
Although the deal has not been previously made public, the network's parent company, Twenty-First Century Fox, acknowledges that it was aware of Lis Wiehl's complaints about O'Reilly. They included allegations of repeated harassment, a nonconsensual sexual relationship and the sending of sexually explicit material to her, according to people who were briefed on the matter.
The settlement was made in January, according to the Times report, just before O'Reilly signed a new four-year contract that would have paid him $25 million annually to continue as host of his top-rated prime-time program "The O'Reilly Factor."
It was at least the sixth agreement — and by far the largest — made by either O'Reilly or the company to settle harassment allegations.
Interviews with people familiar with the settlement and documents show how the company tried and ultimately failed to contain the second wave of a sexual harassment crisis that initially burst into public view the previous summer and cost the Fox News chairman, Roger Ailes, and eventually O'Reilly their jobs.
In January, the reporting shows, Rupert Murdoch and his sons, Lachlan and James, decided to stand by O'Reilly despite his most recent, and potentially most explosive, harassment dispute.
Their decision came as the company was trying to convince its employees, its board and the public that it had cleaned up the network's workplace culture. But by April, the Murdochs decided to jettison O'Reilly as some of the settlements became public and posed a threat to their business empire.
In a statement, Twenty-First Century Fox said that it was not privy to the amount of the settlement and regarded O'Reilly's January settlement with Wiehl as a personal issue.
Regarding O'Reilly's contract extension, the company said Fox News "surely would have wanted to renew" O'Reilly's contract, noting that "he was the biggest star in cable TV." It emphasized that provisions were added that allowed for his dismissal if new allegations arose.
O'Reilly's lawyer, Fredric Newman, described his client's relationship with Wiehl as an 18-year friendship.