By Julie Frechette
Bill O’Reilly’s abrupt dismissal from Fox News in April serves as a long, hard fought victory for those who have called him out for his sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and classist rhetoric. Over the past two decades, viewers of Fox News have been subjected to O’Reilly’s histrionic tirades against women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community, among others. For some, O’Reilly’s rants tapped into the their own sexist attitudes toward minorities, while cultivating a culture of domination and discrimination in the workplace. But for many others, O’Reilly’s patriarchal, racist, and elitist denigrations of women and minorities emboldened a countercultural resistance to the “Mad Men” view of the office.
The great unraveling of Fox News’ patriarchs began in July 2016 when former host Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes, the network chairman. Following revelations of Ailes’ lewd predations toward her, an investigation led to his eventual dismissal, along with a $20 million settlement for Carlson.
Then came Megyn Kelly’s hasty departure from the conservative program in January 2017. When asked to comment on the sexual harassment allegations against Ailes, Bill O’Reilly defended the Fox News culture on his nightly program by retorting, “If you don’t like what’s happening in the workplace, go to human resources or leave.” Yet his own culpability was soon exposed. Investigative reporting by the New York Times revealed that Fox News and parent company 21st Century Fox had previously defended O’Reilly’s record of sexual harassment, which reached an approximate total of $13 million dollars worth of settlements with several women who accused him of sexual harassment.
This timely exposé set the social media and feminist activist wheels churning, leading to calls for O’Reilly’s ouster and advertising boycotts among groups that included UltraViolet, the Women’s March, NOW-New York, CREDO, Color of Change, Sleeping Giants, Media Matters, and MoveOn. Their collective efforts put pressure on over 77 advertisers to withdraw their sponsorship of “The O’Reilly Factor.” On April 19, O’Reilly was fired from Fox, with a sizable payout of $25 million dollars.
Presently, the saga at the Fox News headquarters continues to evolve. As of May 1, Fox News co-president Bill Shine has ‘resigned’ over rising criticism of his inability to address the pervasive sexual harassment claims against Ailes and O’Reilly. What’s more, there is mounting pressure among advocacy groups to fire Sean Hannity as well as Steve Doocy for their roles in inciting a culture of sexism and sexual harassment on the job. In her earlier lawsuit, Gretchen Carlson revealed that Doocy, her former co-host on Fox & Friends, also “engaged in a pattern and practice of severe and pervasive sexual harassment” toward her, and that he created a “hostile work environment” by treating her in a “sexist and condescending way,” as though she were a “blond female prop.”
So what lessons can be drawn from the seismic overthrow of Fox News’ central demagogue and other corporate news patriarchs?
For one, it reminds us that women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community continue to be subjected to sexism and racism, whether in working class jobs, education, politics, media production, and even social movements. As women have made strides across social sectors and organizations, sexual harassment and discrimination have served as institutionalized mechanisms to keep them in their place. It wasn’t that long ago that sexual harassment was first brought to public light. The 1964 passage of Title VII prohibited sex discrimination in the workplace, and the prevalent issue was finally given a name when the term sexual harassment was coined by Cornell University activists in 1975. In 1991, 35-year-old law professor Anita Hill was emboldened to testify in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary committee about the sexual harassment she endured while working for Clarence Thomas, a Supreme Court nominee. Over three days, millions of Americans watched the live televised hearings of Ms. Hill grilled by an all white male panel about her accusations. Her courage led the path for many women to follow, and helped institutionalize the anti-sexual harassment movement.
Second, it’s time to get rid of double standards that negatively affect women. Sexual harassment is all too often predicated on a powerful beauty myth and double standard applied to women’s professional appearance. Whereas men are judged according to their qualifications for political or business leadership, the beauty myth functions as a gatekeeper to remind women that they should adhere to normative standards of beauty and femininity in order to gain access to the same positions. For instance, a female politician’s fashion, dress, makeup, hairstyle, legs, and overall body type are more likely to be the subjects of media commentary, punditry or polling data than her leadership, experience, and qualifications. In essence, in a Catch-22 scenario, women are damned if they fail the beauty standard inasmuch as when they adhere to it. When women follow the norms of professional appearance, it often leads to reprisals through sexual harassment or gender discrimination.
There are many striking examples of how this double standard plays out. In both the 2008 and 2016 U.S. presidential election, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was ridiculed by male news reporters and commentators for wearing pantsuits that symbolized masculine power. Combined with her fashion, her age was the subject of scrutiny rather than her level of professional experience. Photos of an exhausted-looking Clinton on the campaign trail appeared on the Matt Drudge website and were used by politically motivated pundits to question her ability to lead the nation. Radio commentator Rush Limbaugh criticized Clinton’s appearance, posing the question, “will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis,” adding “men aging makes them look more authoritative, accomplished, distinguished. Sadly, it’s not that way for women, and they will tell you.” He noted that Hillary “is not going to want to look like she’s getting older, because it will impact poll numbers, it will impact perceptions,” and that, “there will have to be steps taken to avoid the appearance of aging.”
Social media sites offered the same scrutiny by offering digitally altered images of Hillary looking old, wrinkled, and out of shape. The pinnacle of misogynistic denigration toward Hillary Clinton occurred in October 2016, when then-presidential candidate Donald Trump insulted her appearance, telling his audience, “when she walked in front of me, believe me, I wasn’t impressed.” More recently, in March of this year, Bill O’Reilly doubled down on his misogynistic and racist invective by mocking the hairstyle of Congressional Representative Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), sneering, “I didn’t hear a word she said. I was looking at the James Brown wig.”
The double binds facing women also apply to the realm of corporate news. In the 1980s, TV news anchor Christine Craft filed a discrimination suit against KMBC-TV in Kansas City for how beauty standards were applied to her gender and age. Although the news station moved up in rank from third to first place in audience ratings after she became an on-air news anchor, Craft was demoted to reporter after research from a focus group indicated that she was “too old, unattractive and not deferential enough to men.” The jury awarded Craft $500,000 in damages, at which time the station’s corporate owner, Metromedia, initiated an appeal. The retrial led to another victory in Craft’s favor. However, Metromedia’s third appeal led the 8th Circuit Court to throw out the second verdict, at which time the Supreme Court denied hearing the case.
In 2002, Fox News Television Reporter Greta Van Susteren received media publicity for undergoing a surgical face-lift designed to remove “bags” from beneath her eyes before appearing on the program, “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren.” Although the public’s reaction generated heated discussions about the news industry’s practice of glamorizing entertainment stars rather than professional journalists, few analyses focused on the ways that the beauty myth systematically discriminates against female news reporters while holding men to a different standard. In a People magazine cover story about Van Susteren’s makeover, veteran television writer Michele Greppi was quoted as saying, “Fox hired a tomboy, and they got a babe,” underscoring the culture’s preoccupation with the female reporter’s appearance over her credentials as an attorney and reporter.
Similar public scrutiny was applied to CBS broadcast news correspondent and anchor Katie Couric, who in 2006 became the first female solo anchor of a weekday network evening news program. Prior to her debut on the station, CBS airbrushed 20 pounds off of a public relations photo designed to promote Couric’s new role on the station. Critics were quick to point out that this practice was not applied to ABC anchor Charlie Gibson or NBC anchor Brian Williams, thereby revealing inconsistent patterns of gender equity within broadcast news.
Third, depictions of women in commercial media and increasingly in social media reinforce other power differentials that put men on top of the socio-cultural hierarchy. Such imbalanced representations contribute to the culture of violence toward women, which includes sexual harassment and rape. For instance, the female rape trope has become a staple of corporate TV programming and films, and is often used as a backstory or a motivational device for the male hero to save the day. Think of how many women are victimized in programs like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, CSI and Criminal Minds, not to mention countless films and other narratives. In contrast, programs like Amazon Prime’s The Good Girls Revolt (based on Lynn Povitch’s book, subtitled How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace), Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Netflix’s House of Cards provide important narratives about the impact of sexual harassment, discrimination, and violence against women. Women need to be part of the upper tiers of media ownership and production in order to tell their stories of oppression from the perspective of social justice and change.
Finally, the most telling lesson to be gleaned from O’Reilly’s undoing is that, like most social change, a unified effort is needed to shift the tide of sexual harassment at work and in the culture at large. Education, scholarly research, investigative reporting, social media activism, and pressure from advertisers and/or sponsors are all necessary, along with the enforcement of anti-harassment and anti-discrimination laws and workplace policies. For all the patriarchal support that the Papa Bear of Fox News received from Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch, and even President Trump, O’Reilly’s prominence was no match for the collective social justice movement that helped to take him down. The same collective pressure needs to be applied to all corporate news and media organizations.
Julie Frechette, PhD, is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Worcester State University, Worcester, MA where she teaches courses on media studies, critical cultural studies, media education and gender representation. She is the co-editor of the book Media Education for a Digital Generation (Routledge, 2016), as well as the co-editor and co-author of the textbook Media in Society (Bedford St. Martin’s Press, 2014). Her book, Developing Media Literacy in Cyberspace: Pedagogy and Critical Learning for the Twenty-First-Century Classroom (Praeger Press, 2002), was among the first to explore the ‘new multiple literacies’ approach for the digital age. She is the author of numerous articles and book chapters on media literacy, critical cultural studies, and gender and media. She serves as co-president of the Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME).