The Murdochs Face the Bill O’Reilly Factor – What Kind of Fox Do They Want?

It’s a decisive moment for James and Lachlan: Keep the hot-button host or cut him loose?

It’s decision time for James and Lachlan Murdoch over their damaged star Bill O’Reilly.

The pressure is rising to cut loose Fox News’ most lucrative on-air talent as advertisers flee in droves and reports are seeping out of unrest inside the company over the news that the network and host have paid $13 million to make five harassment lawsuits go away.

It’s a defining moment for James and Lachlan: Keep him or cut him loose?

To let O’Reilly go means slicing out the heart of the Fox News body politic: Opinionated, unabashedly right-wing, populist and bearing the paternal air of authority, O’Reilly is the brand. His massive fan base generates a stunning $440 million for the network. He’s also the friendliest friend to the President in Foxland (sorry, Sean Hannity).

But to keep him suggests that Fox will tolerate sexual harassment within its highest ranks, a message that the company sought to counter last year when the Murdochs made the painful decision to dismiss the network’s powerful founder and CEO, Roger Ailes. Indeed, the company said at the time that it was committed to changing the culture of Fox News.

The arrival of James and Lachlan to the corporate suites at 21st Century Fox in 2014 was expected to herald a new day, culturally speaking. Rupert’s two sons are believed to be far more liberal politically than their father, who took over leading Fox News when Ailes was dismissed.

No one doubts that they are their father’s sons, devoted to sustaining a sprawling modern media conglomerate and all that entails. But the dismissal of Ailes after paying out $20 million to settle Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit was meant to send a clear message: It’s a different era.

Tolerating Bill O’Reilly despite his record — unproven in court, but grounds for action within the company — fundamentally undermines that claim. As NPR’s David Folkenflik reported last week, the women inside Fox News now have little reason to take that corporate promise seriously. Folkenflik reported that female Fox News employees have expressed “anguish, distress and concern” at the way O’Reilly has continued despite the ongoing complaints.

He wrote: “Some of O’Reilly’s co-workers are upset that the host ‘has been allowed to continue almost un-rebuked’ by the network despite having been accused of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior by five different women.

“There’s sort of a contempt for O’Reilly from some of his colleagues, particularly female colleagues,” Folkenflik reported on “Morning Edition” Friday. “And there’s a cynicism about the degree of sincerity with which the Murdoch family and the top executives are operating.”

With this latest stream of allegations, Fox has said in a statement, “21st Century Fox investigates all complaints and we have asked the law firm Paul Weiss to continue assisting the company in these serious matters.”  

More than 60 companies have pulled advertising from the show since the story broke in the New York Times a week ago Saturday. Among the big-name sponsors dropping the show are Advil, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Hyundai, Mitsubishi, BMW, Jenny Craig, Bristol Myers Squibb and Reddi-wip/Con Agra.

The loss of the advertisers from the flagship show is bad, but that is not the real issue at stake, especially since many of those advertisers have simply moved to other programming on the network. And cable fees are more important financially. The problem is one of brand and culture.

The network’s rising star Megyn Kelly already left the building. Lawsuits against Ailes continue to pile up, including the latest by on-air contributor Julie Roginsky.

And Fox News is part of a larger corporation that employs many women leaders. As I noted in writing from CinemaCon last month, the Fox movie studio is run primarily by women, led by Stacey Snider. Dana Walden sits atop Fox Television with Gary Newman.

What message does the impression of rampant old-school sexism at Fox send within the larger company?

That’s the hard part. The choice cuts to the heart of what the younger Murdochs want the company to be. Or more significantly, what they want it to become under their leadership.

Their call. Either way, not an easy one.