For years when I was growing up, Fox News was the soundtrack of my family home. I’m convinced my father slept with it on so he could sublimely absorb more Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and friends. So my parents were thrilled in August 2002 when producers from “The O’Reilly Factor” called to book me for a segment to promote my book “A Girl’s Life Online.” Before taping the show, O’Reilly came out to introduce himself, and my mother was giddy to tell him that she watched him when she was hot and sweaty, while on the treadmill. O’Reilly seemed baffled.
Though this was almost 15 years ago, I can remember the experience of being a guest on “The Factor” so well because it’s an episode that still haunts and disturbs me to this day. And the dismissive way O’Reilly dealt with my own history as a victim of assault made the allegations that finally pushed Fox News to fire him this week feel all too familiar.
At 19, I appeared on “The O’Reilly Factor” to tell my story in the hopes that it would prevent sexual assault. Six years earlier, I had been molested by a man I went to go meet after I spent six months developing an online relationship with him. The assault occurred in 1996 and resulted in a landmark federal case.
O’Reilly challenged me about the fact that I decided to go meet this person I didn’t know. He then insisted that at 13, I should have known better than go meet someone, and I should have been able to predict what would happen. Fair enough; in the back of my head, even then, I did know I was taking a massive risk. In typical O’Reilly preaching, though, he told me I made a huge mistake and appeared to suggest that I deserved to become a victim of sexual assault because I knew I was doing something I shouldn’t have done.
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I sat there speechless. I stared at him. All I could think to ask was, “You’ve never made mistakes at 13?” His answer, “Well, that’s a really big one to make.”
Of course, I didn’t know it when I was on the air, but the women whose accusations of sexual harassment forced O’Reilly out of his job say he was already subjecting them to sexist remarks, leers and worse at the time. Which means that in O’Reilly’s mind, meeting a stranger off the Internet who you think is your friend at 13 is a mistake. But sexually harassing your staff as an adult is just fine.
A number of his viewers were so outraged by his treatment of me that he felt moved to address it the following night. One viewer wrote to tell him he’d “judged” me in a way that was “very unfair” and “cruel.” O’Reilly disagreed. “I didn’t do that,” he said on air.
“I pointed out that she made an enormous mistake, so that children watching ‘The Factor’ would get the point.”
I couldn’t stomach watching him after that. I actually agreed with many of his political beliefs, but not his hypocrisy. I can only wonder how many people watched the night I was on, who saw that in the “no-spin zone,” it was acceptable to blame the victim. I can only wonder how many other victims he blamed when they appeared on his show. (He did it often enough that it became a frequent trope for his critics.) I can only wonder how many other victims watched those nights and then chose to be silent for fear that they, too, would be blamed.
Over the past decade, I ran into O’Reilly a handful of times for events at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. As they played videos of victims, I would wonder if he was trying to figure out who became a victim “by mistake” and who was a “real” victim. I never said anything to him, and he couldn’t have cared less who I was.
I never said anything to him, because I believed that his hubris and karma would settle the score. But that didn’t happen until people spoke up. Fox News perhaps made its most “fair and balanced” decision by firing O’Reilly for his sexual harassment of women. But the network has known about O’Reilly’s treatment of women for almost two decades. It was all silenced because the show, at its peak, was earning $178 million. The network only began investigating when advertisers such as Mercedes-Benz and others pulled out. O’Reilly’s bosses only cared when his behavior cost their bottom line. That profit was made at the expense of many women’s emotional well-being – both staffers and viewers.
That should have been enough for the network to cut ties with O’Reilly, not the fear of lost dollars. That should be enough for the network moving forward.
Tarbox is the author of “A Girl’s Life Online.” Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Time. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.
The Washington Post