Bill O’Reilly types aren’t just a conservative problem

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Fox News Alert: The world is changing.

If Bill O’Reilly, who was Fox’s big star, can be toppled by credible allegations of sexual harassment, then almost anyone can.

In the end, not even a character reference from President Trump — “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong” — or a propitious photograph with Pope Francis was enough to stave off O’Reilly’s ouster. And that’s good news for everyone — everyone, that is, except the other harassers out there making lecherous comments or pressuring coworkers for sexual favors.

Inevitably, this controversy has taken on a political overlay. In O’Reilly’s world, any critic is labeled a loony leftist or a far-left zealot or part of an ideological crusade. No surprise, then, that that’s a line his team adopted as they tried to fend off these allegations.


“Bill O’Reilly has been subjected to a brutal campaign of character assassination,” one that “is being orchestrated by far-left organizations bent on destroying O’Reilly for political and financial reasons,” Reilly attorney Marc Kasowitz said earlier this week. O’Reilly cast himself as a victim of “completely unfounded claims.”

The New York Times has reported that, according to documents and interviews, O’Reilly’s various accusers have “complained about a wide range of behavior, including verbal abuse, lewd comments, unwanted advances, and phone calls in which it sounded as if Mr. O’Reilly was masturbating.”

To dismiss it as an ideological crusade, one has to think that these women decided to fabricate stories about O’Reilly. And that Fox News and O’Reilly himself were willing to spend heavily — some $13 million in total — to put meritless claims to rest. And, further, that several women who haven’t received settlements made up phony stories of their own.

Let’s enter the common-sense zone. Does all that seem likely?


But though Fox News has a sordid history here, it’s also a mistake to see the problem of sexual harassment through an ideological lens. There is, after all, a long list of harassers on both sides of the political aisle. The impulse isn’t an ideological characteristic, but rather a serious character flaw enabled by a sense of workplace power and impunity.

Here’s one thing you can say with certainty: It’s a character flaw men suffer from, and indulge, far more than women do. Yet that doesn’t make O’Reilly’s ouster a victory for women alone. It’s encouraging news for anyone who cares about decent treatment in the workplace.

Some years back, my wife, who then worked for a high-profile Boston bank, was subject to that kind of piggish behavior. I’ve had several other female friends who were as well. And I’m not talking about comments that are clumsy but perhaps not, at core, ill-intentioned, but rather sexual suggestions or remarks that were clearly out of bounds.

Overall, about 30 percent of women say they have suffered sexual harassment at work. Unless someone you know well has been a target, it’s hard to understand how traumatizing it is. A victim must struggle with how to handle unwanted attention or touching or suggestions or comments. Should she report them? Will she be believed? What will the consequences be for her career? How will making a formal complaint affect her relationships with other workplace colleagues? In my wife’s case, she lost several male friends. The guilty party had been a drinking buddy of theirs, and they resented the fact that he was fired as a result. She should have just shrugged it off, they thought.


So whatever your ideological outlook, don’t cry for Bill O’Reilly. He’s always thought of himself as a national example. And now he truly is, though not in the way he intended.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.