Bill O'Reilly (Reuters/Lisa Miller)

I took Fox News' sexual harassment class

I worked for Bill O'Reilly during the "falafel" days. His staff landed in the most awkward diversity training ever


Joe Muto
June 4, 2013 3:45PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "An Atheist in the FOXhole". Salon published an earlier excerpt, about how Fox News works, here.

 

On a list of days that will live in infamy, October 13, 2004, is, for most people in the outside world, probably pretty close to the bottom. If we consider dates like December 7, 1941, November 22, 1963, and September 11, 2001, to be at the top of the Infamy List, then 10/13/04 would have to fall somewhere between March 6, 1969 (Major League Baseball introduces the Designated Hitter rule), and May 19, 1999 (George Lucas releases the first Star Wars prequel).

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But that was just for the outside world.

In the insular, gossipy microcosm that was Fox News, the day that saw the release of a salacious sexual harassment lawsuit against Bill O’Reilly—our biggest star and most fearsome newsroom presence— had the same effect as Lee Harvey Oswald flying a Japanese Zero into the World Trade Center.

I was still in my early green days then, doing videotape for the afternoon and evening cut-ins. I showed up to work like normal at three p.m. and grabbed a desk next to the rest of the team. As I was logging in, I noticed that something was amiss in the newsroom. It was quieter than usual. Instead of the sound of workers talking on phones or shouting questions to colleagues seated across the room, people were huddled in small groups around desks, talking in muted tones, occasionally stifling giggles or gasping, and periodically looking around nervously. It reminded me of a bunch of schoolkids furtively attempting to share a hilarious passed note but not wanting to get caught by the teacher. All the small groups appeared to be looking at the same website, because the same bright orange background appeared on all the monitors.

“What’s going on?” I asked Barry, a cut-in writer I was friendly with who was occupying the desk next to mine. He was, I noticed, also reading the orange website as intently as the rest of the newsroom. “What’s everybody looking at?”

“Oh, my God. You haven’t heard?” Barry said, minimizing his browser window and turning to me with a gleeful look. “Go to The Smoking Gun. Right now. Immediately.”

The Smoking Gun is a website that posts government documents, lawsuits, mug shots—anything in the public record that might be entertaining. I’d actually looked at the site a few weeks prior, laughing at the section featuring leaked concert “riders”—backstage demands that musicians inserted into contracts with promoters. (My favorite: macho conserva-rocker Ted Nugent’s 2002 request for tropical-fruit-flavored Slim-Fast in his dressing room.)

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But a secretly effete rock star’s beverage preference was not the topic du jour at TSG that day.

O'Reilly Hit With Sex Harass Suit, the site’s headline screamed.

The story went like this: An associate producer named Andrea Mackris had accused O’Reilly of sexual harassment and asked for sixty million dollars from him and Fox to keep quiet about it. (The sixty-million-dollar figure was the amount of revenue Mackris and her lawyers estimated "The Factor" brought in for Fox each year.) O’Reilly and the network reportedly negotiated quietly at first but then balked, and sued Mackris for extortion. She countersued for harassment, and filed a salacious twenty-two-page lawsuit that The Smoking Gun posted, and that two-thirds of the employees in the newsroom currently had their noses buried in.

“This is some pretty racy shit,” Barry said.

And so it was. I’ll spare you most of the horrific details since I’m not a sadist (and since this is 2013 and you all have access to Google if you want to see the damn thing for yourselves), but the gist of it is: Mackris claimed that, over the course of several dinners and phone calls, Bill repeatedly made suggestive remarks, tried to convince her to buy herself sex toys, and on at least three occasions called her while he was pleasuring himself. The lawsuit never says so explicitly, but Mackris apparently had audio recordings of some of the phone calls, because at some points, it quotes O’Reilly verbatim and at length.

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One of these word-for-word passages features Bill monologuing a fantasy of showering in a hotel on a tropical island with the producer. He repeatedly mentions his desire to scrub her down with “one of those mitts, one of those loofah mitts.”

Let me interject at this point and defend my former boss on one point.

I’m not sure if his scenario qualifies as erotic, per se—though if getting a soapy caress from a volatile middle-aged millionaire floats your boat, this is pretty much the pinnacle. What it is, however, is extremely hygienic, and also practical in its use of specific props likely to be on hand. This was clearly a well-thought-out fantasy, showing a lot of planning and dedication. (As I would later learn working for him, Bill’s a detail-oriented guy. The lawsuit doesn’t say so, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a specific make and model of loofah in mind.)

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Unfortunately for Bill—and fortuitously for late-night comedians and Keith Olbermann—soon enough, the thread of his tropical fantasy gets away from him, and he temporarily forgets the name of his ersatz sex toy, confusing it with a word for a delicious Middle Eastern food made from fried chickpeas.

And that’s how the entire Fox News organization and the world at large discovered that the number one host in cable news had allegedly told one of his producers that he wanted to massage her lady parts with a “falafel.”

I had just finished the falafel section of the lawsuit, and my jaw must have been hanging open, because Barry sounded panicked when he quietly hissed at me: “Dude!”

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I turned to him and saw that his monitor was no longer displaying The Smoking Gun. No one’s was. A hush had fallen over the newsroom, the chat groups had evaporated, and everyone was back at their own seat with their heads buried in their screens, suddenly very interested in whatever duty they had been shirking in favor of gossip. I looked around, puzzled. Barry caught my eye and gestured with his head toward the newsroom entrance.

It was O’Reilly.

He stood framed in the doorway, tall and stone-faced, surveying the room like some sort of cable news golem, seemingly daring anyone to make a peep.

No one did.

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He pushed into the room, walking briskly down the main aisle toward the "Factor" pod, as producers unlucky enough to have a desk in his direct path ducked their heads even farther, trying to make themselves invisible.

He came within twenty feet of my desk. I risked a peek out of the corner of my eye as he blew past. I had misjudged his countenance from a distance. It wasn’t the impassive stone face that I had originally thought. It was a clenched jaw and a mask of pure, unadulterated fury.

Just fucking try me, his face said. Make my fucking day.

* * *

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The fallout was swift and severe. Bill usually started every show with a segment called the Talking Points Memo, an editorial monologue about five minutes long. Normally he’d spend it commenting on some political issue, giving his opinion while his words appeared, bullet-pointed and paraphrased, in a graphics box floating next to his head.

The Talking Points segment that night, a few hours after the charges broke, was anything but business as usual. Bill vaguely referred to the allegations, saying, “This is the single most evil thing I have ever experienced, and I’ve seen a lot.” But where Bill was vague, the late-night comedians were happy to be much, much more specific, as I discovered that weekend going through the shows for my "Fox & Friends" duty.

Conan O’Brien may have been the most merciless, doing a recurring bit where a Bill sound-alike called into the show to chat and ended up soliciting Conan for sex. Tina Fey, who was still behind the Weekend Update desk on "Saturday Night Live" at the time, was also brutal, uncorking a fast and furious monologue that mixed righteous feminist anger with penis size speculation, entitled “Don’t Forget Bill O’Reilly Is Disgusting.” Even the normally bland Jay Leno got in on the action, cracking a joke about a “fair and balanced” set of breasts.

Reaction among the newsroom staffers was surprisingly gleeful. Schadenfreude reigned, as most people agreed that Bill had it coming. I hadn’t been around long enough at that point to have had any significant run-ins with him, but there was no shortage of producers, video editors, makeup ladies, and security guards he had rubbed the wrong way over the years; some of these folks were now positively crowing, filling the air with speculation about O’Reilly’s future. Interestingly, not one person I spoke to thought Fox would go so far as to pull him off the air. He was just too valuable. If one lowly producer had to endure his masturbatory phone calls on a regular basis, that was the price the suits on the second floor were willing to pay for the five million viewers and countless ad dollars he brought in every night.

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And as if to underscore this, O’Reilly’s ratings spiked by 30 percent during the crisis, even though—aside from the initial Talking Points Memo—he wasn’t saying a single word about the lawsuit. (“His ratings are going up faster than his dick,” Barry cracked after we saw the first round of post-lawsuit numbers.)

In the midst of all this, Bill disappeared entirely from the newsroom. He had habitually made one or two appearances per day in the subterranean space. But following his day-of, glare-filled excursion when we almost made eye contact, he hadn’t returned even once, reportedly sequestering himself all day in his seventeenth-floor office with the door closed, emerging only to tape the show in his ground-floor studio.

Rumors flew. Everyone had a theory, none of them fueled by anything other than wild speculation and hearsay. Even the O’Reilly staffers, when buttonholed by information-starved staffers on other shows, protested that they were as much in the dark as everyone else. The tabloids had a field day, with the News Corp.–owned New York Post floating innuendo about the accuser, and the liberal-leaning Daily News breathlessly reporting the more salacious O’Reilly-damaging details.

Then, just as suddenly as it began, it was over.

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A little more than two weeks after Mackris filed the lawsuit, she settled with O’Reilly and Fox out of court. He announced it on the show that night, again during his Talking Points segment. The statement was a carefully worded masterpiece of blame diversion, complete with complaints of being the target of “media scorn from coast to coast,” and claims that the reason for all the scrutiny was dislike of him and Fox News. He recited the meticulously lawyered phrase “There was no wrongdoing in the case whatsoever by anyone.” He cast doubt on the most salacious tidbits without directly addressing them: “All I can say to you is please do not believe everything you hear and read.” And finally, he attempted to close the books on the topic: “This brutal ordeal is now officially over, and I will never speak of it again.”

No one in the newsroom had any such inclination toward dropping the subject, however; it was all we could talk about for the next week.

“The Washington Post is saying that Mackris got at least two million dollars in the deal,” I announced to my cut-ins team the day after the news of the settlement broke, reading off the paper’s website.

“I heard she got four million dollars,” my producer, Angie, said. “One of the tech guys swears he bumped into her at a bar downtown last night, and she was wasted. She was apparently celebrating because she’s rich now and doesn’t have to work here anymore.”

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Lenny, the former National Enquirer writer, shook his head. “I heard it was even more. My buddy at the Post said he’s hearing it was six or even eight mil. And that O’Reilly refused to pay it out of his own pocket. Ailes agreed to pick up the tab to keep him happy.”

Angie grimaced. “I’ll remember that at my next review when they tell me money is too tight for a raise.” She deepened her voice, launching into a surprisingly accurate impression of Nelson Howe, our fastidious news director: “ ‘Well, Angie, we’d love to give you that whopping three percent raise this year, but we had to pay for O’Reilly to get his rocks off over the phone with one of his employees. I’m sure you understand.’”

The speculated money shortage never materialized. But the company-wide consequences were still annoying enough to garner a round of I-told-you-sos from the peanut gallery that had blasted O’Reilly from the beginning of the scandal. A few weeks after everything had settled down, we got a mass e-mail from human resources about mandatory sexual-harassment and diversity-sensitivity classes.

Lenny, who by that point had been switched from the evening shift into full-time on the overnights, did not take the news well. “What is this horseshit?” he griped after reading the e-mail. “I start work at goddamn eleven at night, and they want me to come in at two in the fucking afternoon for a sensitivity class? I’m still asleep then, for chrissakes!”

“Maybe they’ll let you have an exemption because of your schedule,” I said. “I don’t think you really need the classes anyway.”

“Nah, I know this place. They’ll make me come in, and they probably won’t even pay me for the hours, the cheap bastards.” He gestured in frustration in the direction of the executive offices, two floors over our heads. “And all this because fucking O’Reilly can’t stop polishing his knob over the hired help. Pathetic.”

Personally, I was delighted to attend the harassment class. The company did, in fact, pay for the time, so that was three hours of overtime I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I chose one of the available slots that allowed me to take the three-hour class, then hang around—still on the clock—for an extra hour and a half before my actual shift started.

I showed up for the session on a Tuesday afternoon in a nondescript conference room on the third floor only to find a feeding frenzy under way. There was a snack table at one end of the room set up with sodas, cookies, chips, and candy. The twenty or so attendees who had arrived before me, unaccustomed to such displays of culinary generosity from our stingy employer, were in the process of mobbing it, piling food onto flimsy paper plates with abandon. Never one to pass up a free meal myself, I elbowed my way up to the table, grabbing a lukewarm Diet Coke and a handful of pretzels.

Snack in hand, I turned to the large table, looking for a friendly face to sit with, figuring that the three hours would go faster if I had someone next to me to whom I could safely make snide remarks. (Normally, I’d have no reservation making sarcastic asides to a stranger, but I figured that a sexual harassment seminar was no place to try my luck with a potentially unreceptive audience.) I recognized a few people from the newsroom, but, disappointingly, I didn’t see any friends. Cutting my losses, I picked a seat next to a long-haired, Ramones T-shirt–wearing tech guy, assuming he’d be the best partner in crime.

He grinned at me as I lowered myself into the seat next to him. “Not too bad so far, is it?” he asked, with a mouthful of Pringles. “Free food, right?”

Before I could answer him, one of our second-tier anchorwomen sat in the vacant chair on my other side. She smiled and nodded at us. “Hey, guys.”

I decided it was best to keep my mouth shut for the duration of the class.

Without my ability to be a wiseass during the session, the three hours dragged on. To their credit, the man and woman leading it— lawyers who apparently specialized in schooling office drones on workplace conduct—were affable, and copped an apologetic, we’re on your side attitude about the whole thing: We know this is all nonsense, but please bear with us and we’ll all get out of here eventually.

They explained the criteria of what does and does not constitute harassment, criteria that I discovered are surprisingly vague. Obviously, if your boss says, “Sleep with me or you won’t get that promotion,” that’s a textbook case. Open and shut. But anything shy of that depends a lot on interpretation, intent, and circumstance. The lawyers introduced us to the concept of “hostile workplace,” meaning that an employer could be held responsible if an employee felt the office atmosphere was pervasively offensive but the managers refused to do anything about it. (By that standard, I probably could have scraped together a case after my first two weeks of listening to the banter in the control room.)

After about an hour of lecturing from the lawyer duo, we broke off into small groups, and were given worksheets to read and discuss among ourselves. The sheets had several poorly written and far-fetched playing scenarios for us to evaluate:

Susan is a production assistant. Her supervisor, Derek, a senior producer, approaches her one day and tells her that the rest of the staff is going to a strip club after work to unwind. Susan feels uncomfortable, but she decides to go anyway, because she worries she won’t get a promotion if she refuses.

My small group agreed that the scenario was unrealistic, not because there were no senior producers pervy enough to bring their team to a titty bar—there certainly were plenty of those—but because any news staff worth its salt would balk at after-work drinks that were as pricey as a strip club’s yet didn’t include a selection of free hot appetizers.

My group was heatedly debating the relative merits of chicken wings versus pigs-in-blankets on bar happy-hour steam table buffets, when the lawyers signaled that the group discussion time was over and that we’d be doing a Q&A to end the session.

“We just want to see if anyone else has any situations, hypothetical or otherwise, that they need clarification on,” the female lawyer said.

To my left, the anchorwoman’s hand shot up. “Yeah, I’m wondering ... uhhh, hypothetically ... if your boss tells you that you have to wear short skirts instead of pants on the air because they want viewers to see your legs more, does that count as harassment?”

When the class’s round of nervous laughter died down, the anchor persisted: “No, seriously, though. I’m not saying anyone said that to me, but if they had ... ?” She trailed off.

“As a matter of fact,” the male lawyer said, “they can ask you to wear whatever they want. The law says that since your on-air appearance is basically their ‘product,’ they can control how you dress.” He cleared his throat. “There’s a lot of legalese that I won’t get into, but long story short, they can pretty much ask you to wear anything.”

“So if they want me to do the news wearing a bikini ... ?”

“Yup.” He nodded. “Theoretically, they could ask you to do it naked.”

The anchor sighed, then broke into a smile of resignation. “Couldn’t hurt the ratings, I guess.”

* * *

I went to the sensitivity class three more times during my career at Fox. If the program ever differed from that first session, I wasn’t able to tell. It seemed like the same lessons, the same information, the same outlandish hypothetical scenarios each time. It was as if someone in the Fox legal department decided that, to inoculate the company from lawsuits, we all needed to renew our training every two years or so, like some bizarre sexual harassment DMV. And just like getting a driver’s license, the class was interesting the first time—due to the novelty more than anything else—and a huge pain in the ass on every subsequent occasion.

Making matters worse, by my third go-round through the training in 2007, I was working for "The O’Reilly Factor." At the beginning of the class, the lawyers had us go around the room, giving our names and our positions. When I announced who I worked for, I could hear some grumbling coming from the back of the room.

It’s your boss’s fault we’re stuck in here again.

The taint of Bill’s alleged transgressions clung to his staff, sticky and thick like hummus spread on a pita. The lawsuit was still fresh enough in everybody’s mind in 2007 that it was the first thing I was asked about by multiple people when I told them I was taking the "Factor" job.

“What are you going to do,” Camie asked me about two weeks before I started, “if he calls you late at night?”

I laughed. “Do you know how much money Mackris got? For that kind of cash, he can talk dirty to me all he wants.”

She wrinkled her nose in disgust. “Ewww.”

“Hell,” I continued. “For that kind of money I might take a cab to his hotel room and finish him off myself.”

Camie punched my arm with surprising strength. “You’re disgusting!”

The "Factor" old-timers, those who had been working on the show when it all went down, were a lot less willing to joke about it than I was; most of them were reluctant to even talk about it. I got the impression that it had been a very unpleasant couple of weeks for everyone involved.

“There were closed-door meetings every day,” one of them told me. “And Bill was in a horrible mood the entire time. We were all walking on eggshells.”

And there was at least one long-term effect on the staff that I personally found debilitating—we were severely hindered from eating the Middle Eastern entrée that shall not be named.

The radio "Factor" crew would sometimes order lunch from a great little Israeli place near the office. The owner was incredibly surly (and, according to some online reviews, mentally insane) and some days when he answered the phone, he’d just flat-out refuse to make a delivery for no apparent reason. But the matzoh ball soup was so good that we gladly took his abuse.

One time during a commercial break, we were calling out our meal choices to Eric, who was writing them down in preparation to phone in our order. (We figured that Eric, who was fluent in Hebrew, had the best chance of coaxing the reticent restaurateur into cooperating on days when he was being difficult.) I was studying the menu, not paying attention to the goings-on in the studio, when I found the dish I wanted.

“Eric, put me down for the combination plate with hummus, Israeli salad, and falaf—”

“MUTO!” Sam said, sharply cutting me off. “Let me see that menu real quick!”

I looked up to see panic written on Sam’s face. I followed his gaze and saw the door between the control room and the studio swinging shut. Bill, normally safe behind soundproof glass, had been hanging out in our half of the studio, chatting with Stan.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

Sam shook his head. “Dude, you don’t even know. You almost said the F-word in front of Bill.”

“The F-word?” I asked, incredulous. “You mean falafel?”

“Jesus!” Sam yelled, throwing up his hands in despair. “Quit it! Stan, tell him to quit it.”

Stan looked up from the e-mail he was writing. “Muto, you should probably listen to Martinez.”

“How the hell am I supposed to order lunch, Stan?”

Stan smiled. “Order something else. Or find something else to call it.”

“Like what?”

“Eric, put Muto down for some fried chickpea patties,” Stan called out. He paused for a second. “Me, too, actually. Fried chickpea patties on a pita. Extra hot sauce.”

Reprinted by arrangement with Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from "An Atheist in the FOXhole" by Joe Muto. Copyright © 2013 by Joseph Muto. last week Salon published another excerpt, about how Roger Ailes controls the coverage, here.">here.


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