Bill O'Reilly is on the losing end of history

NYT: Pattern to lawsuits against O'Reilly
NYT: Pattern to lawsuits against O'Reilly

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Story highlights

  • Peggy Drexler: Reports of $13 million to settle harassment claims against O'Reilly dispiriting
  • Drexler: But it's bad news for "bro-culture" firms, good news as more women speak up

Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)To many women, the most recent news about Fox powerhouse host Bill O'Reilly may seem like an awful Groundhog Day: another day, another powerful white man accused of a longtime pattern of mistreatment of women in the workplace -- apparently aided and abetted, no less surprisingly, by that workplace itself. Nothing changes, right? Not necessarily.

After a New York Times investigation revealed Saturday that five women made allegations of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior against O'Reilly over a number of years, something did happen, and it may begin to set things right. And it should not only give women hope that change is afoot but also put men who enter companies expecting the warm embrace of "bro-culture" and the "perks" that entails on notice: There's increasingly a price to be paid for the mistreatment of women.
In the case of O'Reilly, the women -- all of whom either worked for him or appeared on his show -- told the same story: that O'Reilly would offer advice and promise to help then professionally, then pursue relationships with them. If they rebuffed him, they were punished, they said. In some cases, out of fear, they did not rebuff.
    But they did come forward -- just not publicly. In exchange for agreeing not to press charges or talk about their allegations, the five received settlements totaling about $13 million. These settlements, it appears, were made mainly by 21st Century Fox, the parent company of Fox News.
    O'Reilly denies the claims have merit -- but not that the payouts were made.
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    It's news that's both surprising and, unfortunately, not. On one hand, Fox is still reeling from the ouster last year of its former chairman, Roger Ailes, amid his own scandal of sexual harassment. At the time, a statement issued by the company said it did not tolerate behavior that "disrespects women or contributes to an uncomfortable work environment." And yet, the Times reported, the network was well aware of the allegations against O'Reilly when it recently renewed his contract, reportedly for $18 million.
    It would at first seem cause for despair: How can anything be expected to change for women in the workplace, and the world, when the wrongs committed against them are so widespread -- and so often covered up, to be made not to matter, and left to persist, often even by the very people who claim to object?
    It's true. But it's important to remember that change takes time, and that stories such as this aren't steps backward but, in fact, forward. Although it may be disheartening to hear about the alleged actions of O'Reilly, and of his bosses, consider how long it took to expose and eject Ailes (who denies wrongdoing, even as his company paid $20 million to settle Gretchen Carlson's claim he harassed her) and how very pervasive his behavior reportedly was. (He is, in fact, even facing brand new harassment allegations -- which he denies.)
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    Is it any wonder that the same attitude toward the treatment of women was reportedly practiced by others under his charge?
    Yet this is changing. And the more we hear about, and make of, the mistreatment of women in the workplace and anywhere, the more women are likely to band together to hasten that change. It starts with realizing there is strength in numbers, that speaking up -- and in many cases demanding compensation -- is crucial.
    As Wendy Walsh, one woman now accusing O'Reilly, said in a press conference, "What she (New York Times reporter Emily Steel) told me off the record were a lot of stories of women under gag orders who couldn't talk. My story was so mild that I thought I had to come forward and be the voice for them."
    The message to women: By telling your story, you can help others to tell theirs -- and perhaps protect others from similar mistreatment.
    The problem is, of course, that big money also talks. O'Reilly is the network's most profitable personality, with a show that just enjoyed its highest-rated quarter in history, attracting about 4 million viewers a night. From 2014 to 2016, it generated more than $446 million in ad revenue, according to the Times. You can see why Fox would be inclined to protect its asset.
    Meanwhile, it's not difficult to understand why a woman would take a secret payout rather than go through the process of a public, possibly humiliating, career-ending legal battle. But increasingly, men such as O'Reilly may not be able to count on women to accept money to "make it go away." The headlines attest to that.
    And that's why it means so much that already O'Reilly's show has lost three major car advertisers -- Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai and BMW -- as well as ads from a growing list of other companies (seven more as of this writing) in response to the allegations and settlements. Hopefully more will follow, and companies will show they mean business by staying away, even after the story dies down.
    Beyond this, to make the response to mistreatment of women really meaningful, companies, such as Fox, should consider putting offenders on the financial hook for allegations of harassment if they're otherwise "too valuable" to terminate. O'Reilly apparently personally settled one complaint in 2011, but if he had been held fully accountable, even monetarily, for the settlements would so many allegations have followed?
    In the meantime, companies' limp censure of powerful men -- particularly when it's exposed (by a female journalist) in such a thorough and seemingly incontrovertible way -- has a kind of upside. It will be the provocation women need to come forward and to understand that change is in their hands, and their hands only.