Weinstein & Bill O’Reilly Had Something Else in Common: Contracts That Enabled Sexual Harassment
As part of his recent testimony before the United Kingdom’s Competition & Markets Authority, 21st Century Fox independent director Jacques Nasser revealed something disturbing about (alleged) serial sexual harasser Bill O’Reilly’s old contract at Fox News: “he could not be dismissed on the basis of an allegation unless that allegation was proved in court.” [Emphasis mine]
I’m pretty ‘meh’ on buying this contract business as a legal/moral excuse for Fox News’ continued relationship with O’Reilly. But whatever course Fox should have taken, or whether this helps to explain their behavior, the very existence of this “proved in court” condition raises a far more pressing question:
How the hell does a clause like that get into his contract in the first place?
In a statement made back in October, Fox admitted that it knew about the latest allegations against O’Reilly when it entered into contract renewal negotiations – and that they modified his contract as a result. “When the company renewed Bill O’Reilly’s contract in February , it knew that a sexual harassment lawsuit had been threatened against him by Lis Wiehl,” the statement read, “but was informed by Mr. O’Reilly that he had settled the matter personally, on financial terms that he and Ms. Wiehl had agreed were confidential and not disclosed to the company. His new contract, which was made at a time typical for renewals of multi-year talent contracts, added protections for the company specifically aimed at harassment, including that Mr. O’Reilly could be dismissed if the company was made aware of other allegations or if additional relevant information was obtained in a company investigation. The company subsequently acted based on the terms of this contract.”
And O’Reilly isn’t the only high-profile (alleged) predator to benefit from an agreement like this. Harvey Weinstein also had a get-out-of-jail-free clause in his contract with The Weinstein Company. According to a report from TMZ (so, grain of salt), Weinstein’s contract as of 2015 allowed him to keep his job even if accused of sexual harassment – so long as he paid out. If Weinstein “treated someone improperly in violation of the company’s Code of Conduct,” he had to reimburse the company for anything awarded to his victims and pay the company fines of “$250,000 for the first such instance, $500,000 for the second such instance, $750,000 for the third such instance, and $1,000,000 for each additional instance.” Once he did so, the company would be satisfied that he’d provided a “cure.”
And again, the question arises:
How do you even start to write a contract that allows for four or more sexual harassment settlements?
Now, it’s true that most of Fox News’ problems are only being confessed so that the UK doesn’t block Fox’s purchase of Sky News, and that Fox has a vested interest in making itself look reformed here. Personally, I’m suspicious about how much they’ve really changed their culture, and whether the changes will have lasting effect. As Steven Barnett, a communications professor at the University of Westminster, said to Bloomberg: “It speaks volumes about the nature of a company if you can pile up multiple accusations and be protected by such a clause.”
But I do think this testimony provides a great example of what not to do on an institutional level, if you care about preventing sexual harassment. It also illustrates what we mean by systemic and institutional sexism. Someone had to write these contracts. Multiple executives had to sign off on them. And everyone looked at these terms, and what they suggested about the behavior of the men they were written for, and signed them anyways.
Yes, Weinstein and O’Reilly are particularly bad people, and their failings are their own. But these contracts exemplify the ways that entire systems – systems which should provide a check to toxic behavior – are instead constructed to enable and hide that behavior.
As with its political coverage, Fox News always provides the example of what not to do.
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