The two cases are not alike, except for the organized advertiser pressure tactics used.
Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News career now swims with the fishes.
The conventional wisdom is that after the NY Times exposed a history of sexual harassment settlements, and two new accusers came forward, advertisers “fled” the show, forcing the hand of News Corp and the Murdochs.
That conventional wisdom is only partially correct — advertisers didn’t flee, they were chased away by the same organized effort as was used against Glenn Beck once upon a time, and Rush Limbaugh in 2012.
Longtime readers will recall my extensive and groundbreaking research into the StopRush operation just after Limbaugh’s comments about Sandra Fluke in 2012, for which he apologized.
I proved then that the operation — at least initially — was a Media Matters astroturfed assault on Limbaugh’s advertiser base, based on a pre-existing plan by Angelo Carusone, then Director of Online Strategy for Media Matters (and now President). Supposedly independent groups coordinated their efforts with Media Matters, and then tried to cover it up.
My research led Limbaugh to activate his personal Twitter account to spread the results of my research. It also earned me threats to interfere in my employment, although those threats never materialized as far as I know. I continued to follow the main group, as it targeted advertisers and eventually imploded from infighting and infiltration. The efforts largely failed at causing any meaningful damage to Limbaugh.
Nonetheless, a small cadre of operatives, who often used multiple proxy accounts to multiply their effect, continued to plug away at harassing Limbaugh advertisers over a variety of issues. That eventually led Limbaugh, through a spokesman, to push back against the operatives, Limbaugh outs #StopRush Twitter operatives.
The pre-existing plan to be used against Limbaugh also existed for O’Reilly, as Carusone admitted in an interview shortly after the Times report on O’Reilly, Here’s Why The Bill O’Reilly Ad Boycott Just Might Work This Time:
The boycott exploded within days. A cadre of Twitter activists, battle-hardened from ongoing campaigns against the Trumps and Breitbart News, swarmed the initial New York Times story about the sexual harassment allegations and put pressure on advertisers to take a stand. They did—quickly and vocally. Within about 24 hours, over 20 companies— including major players like Allstate, BMW, and T. Rowe Price—pulled their advertising from the O’Reilly Factor and denounced his alleged behaviour.
“So many advertisers are not just removing their ads, but giving comments that they typically avoid, or would avoid. I mean, they’re making value judgments,” says Angelo Carusone, president of liberal watchdog organization Media Matters for America. That Carusone was caught off guard shows how unexpected the reaction was, as he’s long been planning for such a day. “I had the @StopOReilly [Twitter] account for seven years, and I just sat on it,” he says.
The justification for these tactics against O’Reilly was that it was conduct at issue, not politics:
[Carusone] points out that O’Reilly’s issue is not one of free speech but rather of behavior. The charges against him, other Fox colleagues, and Fox itself are serious and mounting. “Sexual harassment is a really big fucking problem in this country,” says Carusone. “I do think it matters if you have corporate leaders standing up and saying, hey, this is an issue that we think is a super-big third rail, and so even if you give a whiff of this, we’re not going to go anywhere near it.”
But of course, for Carusone and Media Matters, it was all about politics, and part of a plan hatched years ago, as we wrote about in 2011, Media Matters Plans “Guerrilla Warfare and Sabotage” on Fox News And Conservative Websites.
Despite O’Reilly being gone, Carusone plans on continuing the effort against Fox News, Statement Of Angelo Carusone As Bill O’Reilly Exits Fox News:
Fox News was forced to act. They had years to address serial sexual harassment at Fox News. They didn’t; they actually enabled it. So, individuals and groups took action to educate advertisers. Advertisers fled because they immediately recognized what Fox News has ignored for over a decade: that serial sexual harassment is not only wrong, but bad for business.
Without advertisers, Bill O’Reilly’s show was no longer commercially viable. Fox News had no choice but to fire O’Reilly. Accountability came from the outside, not from within. Fox News deserves no accolades, only scorn for the industrial scale harassment they have forced their employees to endure.
The open question is what Fox News will do about the epidemic of sexual harassment at Fox News that extends well beyond O’Reilly as it seems to be in-part facilitated by its current co-president Bill Shine. Shine reportedly retaliated against women that came forward with reports against former Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes as well as those that came forward against Bill O’Reilly. Aside from mistreating staff, Shine put shareholders and advertisers at risk by resigning a contract with O’Reilly just a few weeks ago despite knowing all the allegations.
If Fox News wants to signal that they’re serious about addressing sexual harassment, they’ll fire Bill Shine too. If not, then staff, advertisers and shareholders should beware.
So why did the pressuring of advertisers work with O’Reilly, but fail with Limbaugh?
Here’s my take:
1. Conduct (O’Reilly) versus Words (Limbaugh)
Conduct was at issue with O’Reilly. Multiple alleged instances over a long period of time involving demands for sexual favors in return for career advancement (or threats to damage careers) simply is more abhorrent than saying mean things to someone who testified on Capitol Hill about a political issue. Though O’Reilly never was proven to have engaged in the conduct, the notion of multiple high figure settlements worked against any presumption of innocence, even though lawsuits are settled all the time even if the accusations are not true. That O’Reilly never publicly and forcefully defended himself created the impression that there was a there there.
2. Company Man (O’Reilly) versus The Company (Limbaugh)
When interviewed by AP early after the Times article about O’Reilly, I noted that O’Reilly was not bigger than the corporate interest:
“At some point, even the most popular TV personalities are expendable,” said Cornell’s Jacobson.
And so it was. O’Reilly was a big cog in the Fox News wheel, but he wasn’t the company. He was replaceable if what was at stake were greater corporate interests. Limbaugh, by contrast, was the company. There were no replacements for Limbaugh, he was the franchise. While Limbaugh wasn’t the radio network, few people focused on the radio network. They might have known the local radio station, but not the entity syndicating the show.
3. Centralized (O’Reilly) versus Dispersed Advertising (Limbaugh)
There was a relatively small stable of advertisers on O’Reilly, since it was just a one hour show on a single network. The advertiser base presented a relatively well defined target. With Limbaugh, by contrast, he was on hundreds of local radio stations, and a high percentage of the advertising was local. So the anti-Limbaugh forces had thousands of advertisers to deal with, from national brands to the local tire store. While Limbaugh’s national advertisers were targeted, they were less of a factor than the attacks on O’Reilly advertisers.
4. Non-Ideological (O’Reilly) versus Ideological Advertisers (Limbaugh)
O’Reilly was a television personality, Limbaugh was (and is) an ideological leader. That many of those national advertisers had ideological motivations with Limbaugh, but not O’Reilly, also helped. Corporate advertisers abhor controversy, particularly controversy involving hot button social issues. That worked more on O’Reilly’s national advertisers, who were non-ideological name brands. Users of Limbaugh’s advertisers also had ideological motivations, as was witnessed by the damage to Carbonite after it very publicly parted ways with Limbaugh.
5. No Apology (O’Reilly) versus Apology (Limbaugh)
Limbaugh quickly apologized for the Fluke remarks. That matters. People make mistakes. It provided cover for advertisers. O’Reilly, by contrast, never publicly apologized, and indeed, his lawyers were tone deaf as the controversy escalated by claiming that left-wing groups were smearing O’Reilly.
Early on after the Times article I recognized that O’Reilly likely would not survive. The allegations were too serious, and the pressure tactics on advertisers were designed to work in just such a situation.
The use of organized attacks on advertisers will continue, and will be used against conservative personalities who are not accused of anything near what O’Reilly was accused of. There’s blood in the water now.