STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In one sense, the latest allegations of sexual harassment against men in positions of power are nothing new. The LA Times printed allegations against a screenwriter that somewhat resembled those against Harvey Weinstein. The New York Times reported one more sexual harassment settlement by Bill O'Reilly, who had already been forced out of Fox News. In each case, what is new is a very large number. Screenwriter James Toback is accused by 38 women. Bill O'Reilly was said to have paid $32 million to settle a single sexual harassment claim. NPR's David Folkenflik joins us from New York City to talk this through. Good morning, David.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Let's start with Bill O'Reilly, a figure you've covered for many years. What does this latest story of the latest settlement add to what you knew about him?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, first 32 million bucks - 32 million bucks, Steve. You don't settle that - make a settlement for sexual harassment unless you are trying desperately to stop the public from learning what's been alleged. This was a complainant that we hadn't known about until The New York Times reported it this weekend. Lis Wiehl is a longtime legal analyst for the network, Harvard law graduate. And she drafted a lawsuit, according to The Times, and confirmed by 21st Century Fox, the parent family of Fox News - parent company of Fox News - saying that O'Reilly had sexually harassed her severely for years, that he had sent her a lot of scabrous, salacious material that she hadn't wanted, including gay pornography, and that there was non-consensual sex involved in their interactions.
Now, enigmatically, that wasn't spelled out in the draft of the lawsuit. But suffice it to say, within weeks, Bill O'Reilly had agreed to pay over several years the sum of $32 million. And she agreed to release him from any claims, saying, well, she received certain kinds of material as his lawyer periodically over the years.
INSKEEP: And O'Reilly, we should note, has been saying all along when there have been other stories of other settlements that he didn't do any of this stuff. He just made the payments to avoid embarrassing stories being told where his children might find out about them. But the $32 million is what raises - would you pay $32 million if you are innocent? But there's more to this story than just the $32 million settlement. This is a guy who was forced out of Fox News. But the order of events is what raises questions here, right?
FOLKENFLIK: That's right. I think it's worth, as you say, noting that he's given blanket denials in this case, as well, but not getting into the specifics. In this case, he settled this issue. And 21st Century Fox - the Murdoch family controls Fox News - acknowledge now that they were aware of this settlement. They say they didn't know how much money was involved, but they knew of the complaint the nature of the complaint, including the term non-consensual sex, which has some very disturbing implications - but that they agreed to sign him to a big, new contract with a significant raise, being paid something like $25 million a year. They also included some language giving them an out clause if other harassment charges were to arise.
But that wasn't what precluded them from deciding to fire him - to hire him. He had, of course, been, on a number of previous occasions, accused of sexual harassment. He had, in fact, in five - four - previous cases prior to Lis Wiel, paid women to settle their allegations of harassment. But only in April, when the general counsel, the chief lawyer for the parent company, said that federal prosecutors investigating Fox for actions connected to their sexual harassment scandal going back to the ouster of Fox News - former Fox News chairman, the late Roger Ailes in July of 2016. When they realized federal prosecutors would have to learn of this settlement, at that time, they decided he was expendable. So it was only when this was going to be disclosed, not when they learned of this harassment allegation, that they decided that Bill O'Reilly could no longer be employed by the network.
INSKEEP: Does Fox News deserve any credit for trying to change its culture, given that they did eventually fire Bill O'Reilly, and they did oust Roger Ailes before him?
FOLKENFLIK: I think this deeply undercut such claims. You know, they have claimed that they did sweep away a raft of executives who had been linked to Roger Ailes, including some other figures who had been accused of either enabling Ailes or certain figures including the host and star Eric Bolling, accused of sexual harassment himself. I think the fact that they were perfectly happy to give Bill O'Reilly a contract extension to keep him onboard - they even say in their statement this weekend, anyone would have done this because of what a figure he was, meaning what kind of ratings he got for the network.
That undercuts the idea that the values of setting a new tone was there. They weren't giving Bill O'Reilly a second chance. They were giving him at least a sixth chance. And I think that's deeply wounding, particularly at a moment where they're getting deep scrutiny in Britain for a $15 billion takeover, which, in some ways, was the chief audience at which the Murdochs were aiming their actions.
INSKEEP: So these stories are coming at us so quickly, it's a little hard to keep them straight. The Bill O'Reilly revelations come at approximately the same time as the Los Angeles Times reported that 38 different women accused James Toback, a Hollywood screenwriter who's been around for many, many years, of approaching them in different ways and offering help with their careers in exchange for various favors that we shouldn't describe in too much detail here. What does that story tell you about Hollywood and about the media industry more broadly?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, a couple of things. First, I'd say, you know, the LA Times interviewed more than three dozen women at length and talked to their friends and family to get contemporaneous confirmation of what happened. And this guy was very direct. He went up and said, I can help you. We can make it happen. It was almost as though it was a cliched version. What he then forced the women to endure or submit to was pretty reprehensible by any standard.
The second thing is that, you know, this was kind of a twilight news reporting about this. Spy magazine wrote about James Toback in 1989. Gawker followed up about a decade ago, you know, and reported, said this guy's doing disgusting things to women. But it wasn't reported in the kind of way that pierced the mainstream media. And I think now we may be seeing mainstream news organizations saying, you know, were we too easy to slough this off? Was this too hard to get? You know it turns out this is relevant and affected many women and their relationship with an industry they aspire to join.
INSKEEP: David, always a pleasure talking with you.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
INSKEEP: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.