For nearly two decades, Bill O’Reilly has been Fox News’ top asset, building the No. 1 program in cable news for a network that has pulled in billions of dollars in revenue for its parent company, 21st Century Fox.
Behind the scenes, the company has repeatedly stood by O’Reilly as he faced a series of allegations of sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior.
An investigation by the New York Times has found a total of five women who have received payouts from either O’Reilly or the company in exchange for agreeing to not pursue litigation or speak about their accusations against him. The agreements totaled about $13 million.
Two settlements came after the network’s former chairman, Roger Ailes, was dismissed last summer in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal, when the company said it did not tolerate behavior that “disrespects women or contributes to an uncomfortable work environment.”
The women who made allegations against O’Reilly either worked for him or appeared on his show. They have complained about a wide range of behavior, including verbal abuse, lewd comments, unwanted advances and phone calls in which it sounded as if O’Reilly was masturbating, according to documents and interviews.
The reporting suggests a pattern: As an influential figure in the newsroom, O’Reilly would create a bond with some women by offering advice and promising to help them professionally. He then would pursue sexual relationships with them, causing some to fear that if they rebuffed him, their careers would stall.
Of the five settlements, two were previously known — one for about $9 million in 2004 with a producer, and another struck last year with a former on-air personality, which The Times reported on in January. The Times has learned new details related to those cases.
The three other settlements were uncovered by The Times. Two involved sexual harassment claims against O’Reilly, and the other was for verbal abuse related to an episode in which he berated a young producer in front of newsroom colleagues.
Besides the women who reached settlements, two other women have spoken of inappropriate behavior by the host. A former regular guest on his show, Wendy Walsh, told The Times that after she rebuffed an advance from him, he didn’t follow through on a verbal offer to secure her a lucrative position at the network. And a former Fox News host named Andrea Tantaros said O’Reilly sexually harassed her in a lawsuit she filed last summer against the network and Ailes.
Representatives for 21st Century Fox would not discuss specific accusations against O’Reilly, but in a written statement to The Times, the company acknowledged it had addressed the issue with him.
“21st Century Fox takes matters of workplace behavior very seriously,” the statement said. “Notwithstanding the fact that no current or former Fox News employee ever took advantage of the 21st Century Fox hot line to raise a concern about Bill O’Reilly, even anonymously, we have looked into these matters over the last few months and discussed them with Mr. O’Reilly. While he denies the merits of these claims, Mr. O’Reilly has resolved those he regarded as his personal responsibility. Mr. O’Reilly is fully committed to supporting our efforts to improve the environment for all our employees at Fox News.”
According to legal experts, companies occasionally settle disputes that they believe have little merit because it is less risky than taking the matters to trial, which can be costly and create a string of embarrassing headlines.
The revelations about O’Reilly, 67, come after sexual harassment accusations against Ailes led to an internal investigation that found women at Fox News faced harassment. Current and former Fox News employees told The Times that they feared making complaints to network executives or the human resources department.
Ailes, who has denied the allegations against him, received $40 million as part of his exit package. The company has reached settlements with at least six women who accused Ailes of sexual harassment, according to a person briefed on the agreements.
At the time of Ailes’ departure, 21st Century Fox’s top executives, James and Lachlan Murdoch, the sons of the executive chairman, Rupert Murdoch, said the company was committed to “maintaining a work environment based on trust and respect.”
Since then, the company has struck two settlements involving O’Reilly and learned of one O’Reilly reached secretly in 2011.
The company declined to answer questions about whether O’Reilly had ever been disciplined.
O’Reilly has thrived since joining Fox News in 1996. He earns an annual salary of about $18 million as the host of “The O’Reilly Factor.” Every weeknight at 8, he presents a pugnacious, anti-political-correctness viewpoint and a fervent strain of patriotism that appeals to conservative viewers.
His value to the company is enormous. From 2014 through 2016, the show generated more than $446 million in advertising revenue, according to the research firm Kantar Media.
This is a sensitive time for Fox News as it continues to deal with the fallout of the Ailes scandal. The network is facing an investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, which is looking into how the company structured settlements. Fox News has said that neither it nor 21st Century Fox has received a subpoena but that they have “been in communication with the U.S. attorney’s office for months.”
Details on the allegations against O’Reilly and the company’s handling of them are based on more than five dozen interviews with current and former employees of Fox News and its former and current parent companies, News Corp. and 21st Century Fox; representatives for the network; and people close to O’Reilly and the women. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing confidentiality agreements and fear of retaliation. The Times also examined more than 100 pages of documents and court filings related to the complaints.
Walsh, the former guest on O’Reilly’s show, said his offer to make her a contributor never materialized after she declined an invitation to go to his hotel suite after a dinner in 2013. “I feel bad that some of these old guys are using mating strategies that were acceptable in the 1950s and are not acceptable now,” she said. “I hope young men can learn from this.”
She said romantic relationships at the workplace “should never happen when there is an imbalance of power and colleagues shouldn’t unwittingly be manipulated into obtaining sex for somebody.”
Just over a week ago, O’Reilly hired crisis communications expert Mark Fabiani — who worked in the Clinton White House — to respond to The Times. In a statement, O’Reilly suggested that his prominence made him a target.
“Just like other prominent and controversial people,” the statement read, “I’m vulnerable to lawsuits from individuals who want me to pay them to avoid negative publicity. In my more than 20 years at Fox News Channel, no one has ever filed a complaint about me with the Human Resources Department, even on the anonymous hot line.
“But most importantly, I’m a father who cares deeply for my children and who would do anything to avoid hurting them in any way. And so I have put to rest any controversies to spare my children.
“The worst part of my job is being a target for those who would harm me and my employer, the Fox News Channel. Those of us in the arena are constantly at risk, as are our families and children. My primary efforts will continue to be to put forth an honest TV program and to protect those close to me.”
Fredric S. Newman, a lawyer for O’Reilly, said in a statement Friday evening, “We are now seriously considering legal action to defend Mr. O’Reilly’s reputation.”
Lurid Claims Burst Into View
Fox News has been aware of complaints about inappropriate behavior by O’Reilly since at least 2002, when O’Reilly stormed into the newsroom and screamed at a young producer, according to current and former employees, some of whom witnessed the incident.
Shortly thereafter, the woman, Rachel Witlieb Bernstein, left the network with a payout and bound by a confidentiality agreement, people familiar with the deal said. The exact amount she was paid is not known, but it was far less than the other settlements. The case did not involve sexual harassment.
Two years later, allegations about O’Reilly entered the public arena in lurid fashion when a producer on his show, Andrea Mackris, then 33, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him. In the suit, she said he had told her to buy a vibrator, called her at times when it sounded as if he was masturbating and described sexual fantasies involving her. Mackris had recorded some of the conversations, people familiar with the case said.
Mackris also said in the suit that O’Reilly, who was married at the time (he and his wife divorced in 2011), threatened her, saying he would make any woman who complained about his behavior “pay so dearly that she’ll wish she’d never been born.”
Fox News and O’Reilly adopted an aggressive strategy that served as a stark warning of what could happen to women if they came forward with complaints, current and former employees told The Times.
Before Mackris filed suit, Fox News and O’Reilly surprised her with a pre-emptive suit of their own, asserting she was seeking to extort $60 million in return for not going public with “scandalous and scurrilous” claims about him.
“This is the single most evil thing I have ever experienced, and I have seen a lot,” he said on his show the day both suits were filed. “But these people picked the wrong guy.”
A public relations firm was hired to help shape the narrative in O’Reilly’s favor, and the private investigator Bo Dietl was retained to dig up information on Mackris. The goal was to depict her as a promiscuous woman, deeply in debt, who was trying to shake down O’Reilly, according to people briefed on the strategy. Several unflattering stories about her appeared in the tabloids.
After two weeks of sensational headlines, the two sides settled, and O’Reilly agreed to pay Mackris about $9 million, according to people briefed on the agreement. The parties agreed to issue a public statement that “no wrongdoing whatsoever” had occurred.
Settling Behind Closed Doors
In the years that followed, O’Reilly and Fox News dealt with sexual harassment allegations in private, striking agreements with three more women.
In 2011, Rebecca Gomez Diamond, who had hosted a show on the Fox Business Network — also supervised by Ailes — was told the network was not renewing her contract. Similar to Mackris, she had recorded conversations with O’Reilly, according to people familiar with the case. Armed with the recordings, her lawyers went to the company and outlined her complaints against him.
Diamond left the network, bound by a confidentiality agreement, and O’Reilly paid the settlement, two of the people said. The exact amount of the payout is not known.
Although that deal was made nearly six years ago, Fox News’ parent company, 21st Century Fox, learned of it only in late 2016 when it conducted an investigation into Fox News under Ailes’ tenure, according to another person familiar with the matter.
In the aftermath of Ailes’ ouster last summer, as 21st Century Fox was completing settlements and trying to put the scandal behind it, it reached deals with two women who had complained about sexual harassment by O’Reilly.
One was Laurie Dhue, a Fox News anchor from 2000 to 2008. Although Dhue had not raised sexual harassment issues during her tenure or upon her departure, her lawyers went to the company to outline her harassment claims against O’Reilly and Ailes, according to people briefed on the complaints. In response, 21st Century Fox reached a settlement with her for more than $1 million, according to a person briefed on the agreement.
In September, 21st Century Fox reached a settlement worth $1.6 million with Juliet Huddy, who had made regular appearances on O’Reilly’s show, according to people familiar with the matter. Huddy’s lawyers had told the company that O’Reilly pursued a sexual relationship in 2011, at a time he exerted significant influence over her airtime.
Letter to her lawyer
Among Huddy’s complaints was that he made inappropriate phone calls, the lawyers said in correspondence obtained by The Times. The letter said that when he tried to kiss her, she pulled away and fell to the ground and he didn’t help her up.
When she rebuffed him, he tried to blunt her career prospects, the letter said.
Huddy was eventually moved to an early morning show on WNYW, an affiliate station, where she worked until she left the company in September.
Before Huddy reached an agreement with 21st Century Fox, Newman, O’Reilly’s lawyer, sent a letter to her lawyer outlining some embarrassing personal issues he said Huddy had. He stated that she would “face significant credibility concerns if she tries to pursue a claim against Mr. O’Reilly.” The letter, which was obtained by The Times, said that if she were to follow through with a claim against O’Reilly, he would pursue legal action “to hold Ms. Huddy, and all who have assisted her, personally liable for any damage suffered by him or his family.”
In January, when The Times and others reported on Huddy’s settlement, representatives for Fox News and O’Reilly dismissed the allegations.
Fox News is now in a legal battle with Tantaros, the former on-air personality who is suing the network and Ailes after turning down a settlement offer of nearly $1 million. O’Reilly is not a defendant, but in the suit, Tantaros said that in early 2016, O’Reilly had asked “her to come to stay with him on Long Island where it would be ‘very private,’ ” and told her “on more than one occasion that he could ‘see (her) as a wild girl,’ ” according to court documents.
In an affidavit filed under oath, Tantaros’ psychologist, Michele Berdy, who treated her from 2013 to 2016, said that she recalled “a number of occasions when Andrea complained to me about recurring unwanted advances from Bill O’Reilly.”
Fox News said it investigated Tantaros’ claims and found them baseless. The company explained her departure by saying she published a book that violated company policy. In court papers, the network said that she “is not a victim; she is an opportunist” and that her allegations bore “all the hallmarks of the wannabe.”
Walsh, the former guest on “The O’Reilly Factor,” told The Times she was propositioned by O’Reilly in 2013 but did not lodge a complaint because she did not want to harm her career prospects.
Walsh said that she met O’Reilly for a dinner, arranged by his secretary, at the restaurant in the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. During the dinner, she said, he told her he was friends with Ailes, and promised to make her a network contributor — a job that can pay several hundred thousand dollars a year.
After dinner, she said, O’Reilly invited her to his hotel suite. Walsh said she declined. Trying to remain cordial, she suggested that they go to the hotel bar instead. Once there, she said, he became hostile, telling her that she could forget any career advice he had given her and that she was on her own. He also told her that her black leather purse was ugly.
Walsh continued to appear on his show for about four months, but she said she sensed that he had become cold toward her on camera. Then, a producer for “The O’Reilly Factor” told Walsh that she would no longer appear on the show. She was never made a contributor.
“I knew my hopes of a career at Fox News were in jeopardy after that evening,” said Walsh, now an adjunct professor of psychology at California State University, Channel Islands, and a radio host at KFI AM 640 in Los Angeles.
A person briefed on the network’s decision said Walsh was removed from the broadcast because the program’s ratings declined during her segments.
Shadowing another’s exile
Mackris, the producer who sued O’Reilly in 2004, never worked in television news again.
In the years after the dispute, she suffered from post-traumatic stress and spent years seeing a therapist, struggling to figure out how to create a new life, according to interviews with people close to her at the time.
Mackris’ settlement prevents her from talking about Fox News and her dispute with O’Reilly, according to people briefed on the deal. But she is allowed to talk about her life now.
Today, Mackris lives with her cats in an art-filled condo in her hometown, St. Louis, where she keeps bowls of colorful gumballs on tabletops. Her family is close by. She has traveled the world, volunteered, returned to school, discovered prayer and meditation, and started writing.
She is working on a book she researched and wrote over the past four years about a woman who fled Romania during World War II.
“A few years ago, I heard about a pair of natural pearl earrings forgotten in a drawer for 35 years that had just sold for millions at auction,” Mackris said. “They’d been given to a woman named Elena Lupescu by the king of Romania who ruled up until World War II, and I was immediately and completely taken by her story.”
“She lived in exile,” Mackris continued. “She lived in silence. And I got really curious about three things: How did she live with it all? Did she forgive them? And was she free?”
O’Reilly’s record ratings
At Fox News, O’Reilly has continued his dominance. In the months since the presidential election, as the network has pulled in record ratings, his show has averaged 3.9 million viewers a night, according to Nielsen. Since September, he has released three books, including one for children, adding to his growing publishing empire. And in February, O’Reilly landed a coveted interview with President Donald Trump before the Super Bowl.
O’Reilly was an early defender of Ailes and Fox News during that sexual harassment scandal last summer. His support remained resolute into the fall, after the company had reached agreements to settle the harassment claims from Huddy and Dhue. In November, he chided Megyn Kelly, his colleague at the time, after she described being sexually harassed by Ailes in her memoir.
“If somebody is paying you a wage, you owe that person or company allegiance,” he said on his nightly show, without mentioning Kelly by name. “You don’t like what’s happening in the workplace, go to human resources or leave.”