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Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

The shrinking of Bill O'Reilly

I have long admired Bill O'Reilly as a TV performer. I once wrote that he was to the cable news genre what Johnny Carson was to late night — so at ease and skilled in the format that he looked as if he invented it. He's still the ratings king.

But when it comes to O'Reilly, the man, questions raised about his reporting career and the millions he and Fox have paid in settlements with women who have accused him of sexual harassment have reached a tipping point and then some for me.

Now when I come across him on screen, the only thing that comes to mind is the sick, sexist and predatory culture that is eating like a cancer at Fox News. The 67-year-old O'Reilly, who once told me how much he hated hypocrisy during an appearance on his show, has become one of the media's most disgusting hypocrites in my eyes. It would be sad if this is how he ended his groundbreaking career.

No wonder advertisers with quality brand identities like BMW, Mercedes-Benz and the Baltimore-based money management firm T. Rowe Price have removed their spots from "The O'Reilly Factor" despite its ratings. The latest tallies put the number of those who have distanced themselves from O'Reilly during the past week between 40 and 50.

No wonder Megyn Kelly, the best hope Fox News had for any sense of journalistic respectability, fled to NBC News once she had the chance in January, even though Fox offered her more money to stay. What woman who had other options would want to work in a place that up until July was run autocratically by Roger Ailes and catered to O'Reilly by supporting him through multiple settlements for sexual harassment during his career at the top-rated cable news channel?

A New York Times investigation published April 1 found that 21st Century Fox had supported O'Reilly through five lawsuits totaling about $13 million in payouts. Two of the those lawsuits were settled this year after Ailes, the founder of Fox News, was forced out and 21st Century Fox announced zero tolerance for sexual harassment.

The company was settling sexual harassment suits against Ailes himself when he departed with a $40 million check. One of the suits was settled for $20 million with former Fox show host Gretchen Carlson, who was very specific about the ways she said Ailes had harassed her. If even one of the allegations is true, Ailes is a monster who should have been banished long ago.

In her book, "Settle for More," Kelly wrote that she had been harassed by Ailes earlier in her career at Fox.

Both Ailes and O'Reilly continue to deny any wrongdoing. And they have formed a kind of mutual denial society.

"I stand behind Roger a hundred percent," O'Reilly told Seth Meyers, host of NBC's "Late Night," in July. Carlson's suit was making news at the time, and Ailes was making a last desperate stand to stay in power at Fox by seeking such statements of support from his loyalists.

In that statement, O'Reilly went above and beyond mere support for Ailes, smearing women like Carlson who filed suit against their alleged harassers.

It's a "deplorable" situation, he told Meyers, that famous and powerful men like Ailes and he are targets for opportunists out to make a buck.

Sadly, their mutual denial society expanded this week to include the president of the United States.

Donald Trump weighed in Wednesday on O'Reilly's sexual harassment controversy, telling The New York Times, "I think ... he is a good person. I think he shouldn't have settled ... I don't think Bill did anything wrong."

This from a man who can be heard on an "Access Hollywood" tape boasting in crude and graphic terms of sexually assaulting women himself. Hail to the chief, indeed.

Last summer when Ailes was fired, I said on CNN's "Reliable Sources" that despite all the statements of zero tolerance coming from Lachlan and James Murdoch, who were tasked by their father, Rupert, to clean up the mess at Fox, it was going to take more than cutting off the head to kill a snake as poisonous as the culture at Fox News.

With allegations of ongoing payments to Ailes' accusers, how could other senior managers at Fox News not have known what was going on? Did someone not have to sign the checks, deliver the hush money, try to keep the lid on the coverup when victims threatened to go public? Didn't other managers wonder why they were being ordered to promote one employe and demote another?

But only one senior manager left around the time of Ailes' ouster, and it appeared to have nothing to do with the claims made against Ailes of sexual harassment.

The lawsuits keep coming. On Monday, former Fox contributor Julie Roginsky filed against Ailes and current Fox News co-president President Bill Shine, alleging that a promotion to become a co-host on "The Five," an hourlong show airing at 5 p.m. weekdays, was "contingent upon having a sexual relationship with Ailes."

And now with the Times probe and advertiser boycott, O'Reilly becomes the face of all that misery and sickness at Fox.

He and Ailes can hire an army of tough-talking lawyers to say time after time with each new lawsuit how innocent their clients are and how outrageous it is for anyone to be making such claims against them. But, just like the allegations against Bill Cosby, this is mud that all the money and power in the world can't wash away. It's the first thing I now think of at the mention of either man's name.

I really did admire O'Reilly as a performer. That's not some rhetorical pose I am striking for effect.

We have been sparring since 2009 when I criticized O'Reilly for championing a piece of ambush journalism that was posted at Breitbart.com.

"Only on Bizarro Planet," I wrote, would this kind of journalism be praised.

O'Reilly fired back on his show the next night by saying, "Now, Mr. Zurawik is entitled to his opinion, but his opinion is almost always from Bizarro Planet, so his reference is germane." (You can still see the video on YouTube.)

Even I had to smile. It wasn't because it was so clever. It was because it felt like the give-and-take on the ball fields in working-class West Allis, Wisconsin, where I grew up and learned to fight.

O'Reilly's power is in giving voice to those Americans — the people in places like Wisconsin who paid Hillary Clinton back on election night for appearing not to care about their pain.

And God bless O'Reilly for that. Most of the East Coast media establishment looks so far down its nose at people in places like West Allis that they no longer see real people, just a faceless mass of blue-collar stick figures that "cling to guns or religion" amid a sea of global change which they are allegedly too ignorant or lazy to navigate.

But that's the good version of Bill O'Reilly, TV champion of an American underdog.

The story these days is that of the bad O'Reilly, the man described in lawsuits as an oppressor of women.

The uber narrative here is an old one: Money and power corrupting the man behind the populist image.

Despite getting blasted in the Times and pounded day and night on cable rivals MSNBC and CNN this week, O'Reilly is unlikely to disappear from our media lives anytime soon — not with Murdoch's Wall Street Journal reporting that O'Reilly and Fox recently signed a new multi-year deal. With Kelly gone, he's the prime-time franchise at Fox.

Unless the advertiser boycott catches wildfire, O'Reilly will weather this latest storm just like he withstood the serious challenges in 2015 to claims he made about his career as a correspondent at CBS.

Most of the advertisers who are fleeing his show are still advertising on Fox. And Fox makes a major chunk of its revenue from fees paid by cable operators — rather than from commercials. It's going to take a lot more than 40, 50 or 100 advertiser defections to make a dent in the Fox News cash flow

I believe O'Reilly has been diminished by the allegations and the news of his multiple settlements, even if he says he paid his accusers only to protect his children from public airings of their charges.

But, on the other hand, I may be whistling in the dark to say that — in a culture where someone can boast of sexual assault and still be elected president with 63 million votes. And that president goes out of his way to proclaim his support for O'Reilly.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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