In stepping up as something of a “character witness” for Bill O’Reilly in the Fox News host’s churning sex harassment scandal, the president of the United States has done no favors—for O’Reilly, for himself, or most especially for the rest of the country.
The defense of O’Reilly by Donald J. Trump in a Wednesday interview with The New York Times serves as a reminder of the president’s own earlier admission of sexist behavior (“you can do anything to women”) in that viral 2005 open-mic banter with former “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush. It also reminds of the insulting attempts by Trump’s apologists to minimize the raw and offensive comments made by Mr. Trump as mere “locker room talk,” which, in turn, endorses such talk among young men in the portable locker rooms of every space they will dominate.
As a result, this new O’Reilly defense calls into question the assertions by Trump’s Stepford surrogates that he has changed his admittedly sexist attitudes of the past, making him now a rather poor character witness on this issue.
Even worse, though, by stating that “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong,” Trump has suggested something more than an unsupported belief in O’Reilly’s good moral character. In a broader and a more subtle way, questioning the merits of particular claims without any knowledge of the evidence, suggests he is questioning the merits of sex harassment itself as a legitimate basis for a claim. In effect, then, he has become the enabler-in-chief with the same kind of wink-and-nod-of-a-cue that arguably has sent permissive messages of racial, ethnic and religious intolerance to the people who know how to decipher the code. As suggested by civil rights attorney Lisa Bloom, Trump now has made “the entire country a hostile work environment.”
In response, though, the intervention by Trump, together with the steady withdrawal of advertising support for “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox during what is (let us not forget) National Sexual Assault and Prevention Month has created a perfect storm of a moment to consider the requirements of political, social and moral leadership—among elected officials who implement and enforce public policy, among employers who must create workplaces that are free of hostility and offensive behavior, and among the media, who have an obligation to enlighten the public on such vital matters.
What is the message sent to supervisors and managers when political leaders give what appear to be backslapping, fist-bumping “attaboys” to alleged offenders, or when media organizations cloak allegations of misdeeds of top-grossing talent in confidential settlements?
Clearly, after two generations of enforcement of sex harassment policies, there still is a need for enlightened dialogue as we see continued problems in work, learning and public spaces. Not only is there still a need to understand the enduring harm sex harassment can cause its victims—from professional performance to physical and mental health—there also is a need to understand the true nature of this problem.
Sex harassment is about power more than lust. Not just the power to impose sexual favor as a term or condition of a professional relationship or advancement, but also the power to determine what a victim should even consider to be offensive. Even though men and women can be subject to abusive behavior in professional relationships, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports less than 17 percent of the 2016 claims were filed with the agency by men. So we are looking at a problem that overwhelming affects women.
In fact, the president’s comment in support of O’Reilly came in response to a question about a report days earlier by The New York Times that O’Reilly and Fox had paid $13 million in settlement of sex harassment claims by five women. If nothing else, this revelation would suggest a pattern of behavior toward women in a male-dominated environment, which Trump in effect has dismissed.
What’s more, he has suggested that women victimized in the workplace should just get over it, get another job.
He said as much, just last year, in a similar defense of ousted Fox chief Roger Ailes. Trump told USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers that if his own daughter, Ivanka, were sexually harassed, “I would like to think she would find another career or find another company if that was the case.” So the burden is on the woman, who is twice victimized by the denial of any recourse.
Although the president’s remarks have added insult to injury, silence or inaction also can speak volumes. That is especially true in the case of a media organization like Fox, that can sweep allegations under the rug of confidential settlements, renew the contract of an alleged offender and never speak to our ongoing societal problem.
Setting the agenda for public discussion—telling us what is important to consider—is a fundamental role for the media. Silence on a particular issue, then, suggests the issue is not important.
How might the opinion of a president translate into policy initiatives and enforcement by his administration? How might a Fox audience frame a position on policy initiatives without “fair and balanced” information?
At least, business interests now are speaking out and putting their money where their ideals are. Mercedes-Benz was among the 52 (and rising) companies withdrawing advertising support for “The O’Reilly Factor” this week. Donna Boland, the company’s manager of corporate communications made a statement about O’Reilly to CNN Money on the way out. “The allegations are disturbing and, given the importance of women in every aspect of our business, we don't feel this is a good environment in which to advertise our products right now.”
A definitive statement that resonates on the bottom line. Now that’s power.