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O’Reilly Scandal Won’t Go Quietly

Oct 31, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The confidential settlement of sexual harassment charges lodged by former Fox News producer Andrea Mackris may end the immediate danger to Bill O’Reilly’s career, but it also makes him a big man walking on thin ice and an easy punch line for at least one generation of comedians.

That’s the consensus of experts in mass media, the management of scandal and the O’Reilly phenomenon, who say that the star of Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor” now must be careful to lead a personal life consistent with his judgmental and combative TV image.

“In his world, and our world, there is the line, in any reasonable sense, of two strikes and you’re out,” said Dick Wald, a former network news executive and a professor of media and society at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Having set a personal precedent by settling the Mackris case on Oct. 28 may actually have made Mr. O’Reilly more vulnerable to future attempts to cash in on allegations of indiscretions.

Less than 12 hours after the settlement, legal analysts were on the morning news shows offering their expert opinions of just how much money Mr. O’Reilly might have paid Ms. Mackris to settle.

On “Good Morning America,” Court TV anchor Lisa Bloom speculated, “This is probably a settlement between $5 million and $10 million.”

On “Today,” Dan Abrams, NBC’s chief legal correspondent and host of MSNBC’s “The Abrams Report” cited speculation of $3 million to $6 million, “not because it’s this type of case but because it was this case.”

“Anyone may question the motive of Andrea Mackris, but she clearly had something that could have done some serious damage to O’Reilly’s reputation and composure,” said George Rush, who writes a popular gossip column for the New York Daily News with his wife, Joanna Molloy.

However, all immediate signs-including Mr. O-Reilly’s ratings and sales of his latest book, “The O’Reilly Factor for Kids”-indicate that the Fox star’s fan club not only remained steadfast but actually may have grown while his alleged sexual fantasies were examined daily in detail by the mainstream media against which Mr. O’Reilly has so successfully raged.

His book of advice for children was No. 7 on The New York Times best seller list, after registering at No. 6 the previous weekend. The audience for “Factor,” the most-watched cable news show, grew 26 percent from already-heady third-quarter levels to an average of 3.02 million, according to Nielsen Media Research, after the he-said, she-said battle went public.

The settlement that absolved the principals of wrongdoing and that withdrew all claims and counterclaims will shut only the mouths of the principals.

Mr. O’Reilly used the Talking Point memo at the top of “The O’Reilly Factor” last Thursday to utter what he said would be his last word on the “brutal” episode that “has made me the object of media scorn from coast to coast.” The show was seen by more than 3.4 million viewers, according to data from Nielsen.

“Today lawyers issued a statement saying there was no wrongdoing in the case whatsoever by anyone. Obviously, the words `no wrongdoing’ are key,” Mr. O’Reilly said in a tone that seemed to imbue a negotiated statement with judicial resonance.

“It was brilliantly done,” said Robert Thompson, the director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

“On a personal note,” the Fox star said in his televised statement, “this matter has caused enormous pain; but I had to protect my family and I did. Some of the media hammered me relentlessly because, as you know, I am a huge target, as is Fox News. All I can say to you is please do not believe everything you hear and read.

“The good news is that `Factor’ viewers and listeners seem to have given me the benefit of any doubt when some in the media did not. You guys looked out for me, and I will never forget it. This brutal ordeal is now officially over, and I will never speak of it again,” Mr. O’Reilly concluded.

The deal was reached after more than a week of negotiations and less than a day before a hearing scheduled in a Long Island, N.Y., courtroom on Mr. O’Reilly’s demand that Ms. Mackris be forced to produce any tapes she might have made of telephone conversations during which, she claimed, he talked dirty to her.

Ms. Mackris accused Mr. O’Reilly, who is married and has two children, of sexual harassment in a suit filed Oct. 13. But in a pre-emptive suit filed just hours earlier, Mr. O’Reilly accused Ms. Mackris and her attorney, Benedict Morelli, of extortion and claimed the two were seeking as much as $60 million from him.

`Tremendous Pain’

The settled statement from Mr. O’Reilly’s attorney, Ron Green of Epstein Becker & Green, said: “The parties regret that this matter has caused tremendous pain, and they have agreed to settle. All cases and claims have been withdrawn and all parties have agreed there was no wrongdoing whatsoever by Mr. O’Reilly, Ms. Mackris or Ms. Mackris’ counsel, Benedict P. Morelli & Associates. We now withdraw any assertion that any extortion by Ms. Mackris, Mr. Morelli or Morelli & Associates occurred.

“Out of respect for their families and privacy, all parties and their representatives have agreed that all information relating to the cases shall remain confidential.”