John Drescher

How a UNC grad uncovered sexual misconduct allegations against Fox’s Bill O’Reilly

O’Reilly, Weinstein and the culture of power

New York Times reporters Michael S. Schmidt and Emily Steel discuss how nondisclosure agreements, also known as NDAs, and workplace dynamics kept Bill O'Reilly’s accusers silent.
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New York Times reporters Michael S. Schmidt and Emily Steel discuss how nondisclosure agreements, also known as NDAs, and workplace dynamics kept Bill O'Reilly’s accusers silent.

A woman who once was a regular guest on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show told a reporter privately that O’Reilly had propositioned her. When the woman declined O’Reilly’s advance, she said O’Reilly didn’t follow through on a prior promise to secure a lucrative role at the network for her.

The woman was reluctant to speak on the record about O’Reilly. “You are making very serious allegations against really powerful people,” the reporter, Emily Steel of The New York Times, told me last week.

But Steel, a 2006 UNC-Chapel Hill graduate from East Lyme, Conn., persisted. After all, as one writer noted, she has a name from a James Bond movie. When the former Fox News guest, Wendy Walsh, told Steel she participated in a Pilates class, Steel flew to Los Angeles to join her. “I did this excruciating class with her,” said Steel, 33.

Emily Steel headshot 2
Emily Steel Photo by Sharon Suh

Walsh decided to speak on the record. She was an important voice in Steel’s story (reported with her colleague Michael S. Schmidt) that said five women had received payouts totaling about $13 million from O’Reilly or Fox in exchange for agreeing not to pursue litigation or speak about their accusations against him. Four of the women’s complaints about O’Reilly were sexual in nature.

O’Reilly denied the allegations, but more than 50 advertisers abandoned his show and he was dismissed by Fox.

Steel’s story followed the 2016 dismissal of Fox News chairman Roger Ailes in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal prompted by a lawsuit from former anchor Gretchen Carlson.

Combined with other stories, especially the Times’ about producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of alleged sexual misconduct, Steel’s story led to other revelations and a national discussion about men using their power and influence to harass, coerce and sometimes assault women.

Jedi order

As the year comes to a close, Steel has received widespread praise for her work. Vanity Fair photographed her, Schmidt and their colleagues Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor and enshrined them into the magazine’s hall of fame: “Because the rolling thunder of reckoning unleashed by the investigative reporting of this Jedi order of journalists continues to rattle the high windows of executive suites and the tall letters of the Hollywood sign.”

Columbia Journalism Review named Steel one of its journalists of the year. Time magazine added its praise: “Determined journalists — including Emily Steel and Michael Schmidt, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey ... among many others — picked up where so many human-resources departments, government committees and district attorneys had clearly failed, proving the truth of rumors that had circulated across the whisper networks for years.”

The stories were difficult to report because the women and their lawyers signed agreements to not discuss the settlements.

Steel and Schmidt worked the O’Reilly story for about seven months before publishing in April. In October, they reported that O’Reilly also had struck a $32 million settlement agreement with a Fox analyst to settle her sexual harassment allegations, and that Fox knew about the women’s complaints before granting him a four-year contract extension at $25 million a year.

A threat

The stories were difficult to report because the women and their lawyers signed agreements to not discuss the settlements, Steel said. (Walsh, the former Fox guest who attended the Pilates class, had not signed any agreement and therefore was free to talk.)

Steel and Schmidt were able to view some of the settlement documents or interview people who had knowledge of the agreements. “It was really hard to crack,” she said.

And then there was the blustery O’Reilly himself. He and Steel had a history. In 2015, she reported about published allegations that O’Reilly had overstated his role in covering the Falklands War in 1982.

O’Reilly told her that her reporting had been fair but that there would be repercussions if that changed. “I am coming after you with everything I have,” O’Reilly told Steel. “You can take it as a threat.”

Steel didn’t bend or fold. She reported the comment. She’s quick to say now her reporting on O’Reilly this year wasn’t a response to his threat.

Public skepticism of the media is high. But Steel’s determined work shows the value of what journalists can do. None of our other institutions was able to put a dent in this widespread problem of workplace sexual misconduct.

“By doing our best to follow the facts and report fair and accurate stories and give voice to people who have been silenced and hold people accountable, story by story you gain trust and respect with your readers and the public,” she said. “It’s been an honor and a privilege to be able to do that work.”

John Drescher: 919-829-4515, @john_drescher

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