Inside the Bill O'Reilly Advertiser Boycott

Activists are pushing brands to dump the Fox News star amid new sexual harassment revelations – and the outrage is growing

This week, 'The New York Times' published information about previously undisclosed sexual harassment suits against Bill O'Reilly. Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/Getty

It's been five days since The New York Times revived the conversation about what is, by all appearances, a systemic sexual harassment problem at Fox News.

This time, instead of its chairman and CEO, Roger Ailes, the story centers on Fox's most lucrative franchise, Bill O'Reilly, and the five previously undisclosed sexual harassment suits O'Reilly has settled with co-workers and guests of his show over the past 15 years. The settlements total more than $13 million, and while the earliest was struck in 2002, at least two were reached in the months since Ailes was forced out over similar accusations.

The suggestion that O'Reilly may be a vile, lecherous sleaze isn't exactly new. He was first publicly accused of sexual harassment by a former coworker in 2004. He settled that complaint, with former O'Reilly Factor producer Andrea Mackris, out of court for a reported $9 million. Mackris accused O'Reilly of lewd comments – detailing his sexual fantasies, advising her to buy a vibrator – and of threatening her if she came forward with her accusations.

Since the Times story, advertisers have steadily abandoned the O'Reilly Factor; a number of brands announced they were pulling ads even before activist groups were organized enough to call for a boycott of the show's sponsors. Mercedes-Benz was the first, calling the allegations against O'Reilly "disturbing" and adding that "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."

Historically, such boycotts have worked – on this day in 2011, an ongoing campaign successfully forced Glenn Beck off Fox News' airwaves for good. And, as the swift extraction of Ailes this summer proved – he was removed just 15 days after Gretchen Carlson filed suit – Fox is somewhat sensitive to such accusations.

But the O'Reilly situation is distinct from those prior firestorms for a few reasons. For one thing, the more than 300 advertisers who fled Beck likely felt comfortable with their decision because his ratings were drying up at the same time. (He lost a million viewers, or roughly a third of his audience, in about a year.)

O'Reilly remains Fox's biggest star, and in fact his show is the highest-rated news program on any network – that's been the case for 16 years, and it's more popular now than ever, averaging some 3.65 million viewers last quarter, per CNN.

Ailes' ouster, meanwhile, was aided by the fact that James and Lachlan Murdoch, sons of Rupert Murdoch and the heirs apparent of News Corp., were not big fans. It also helped that Carlson, a Fox star in her own right, meticulously chronicled her harassment for well over a year, and that other Fox stars – including, importantly, Megyn Kelly – backed up her claims with their own Ailes stories. (O'Reilly initially dismissed the accusations against Ailes; when the executive was ultimately forced out and the network settled with Carlson, he grew uncharacteristically circumspect, telling a reporter, "for once in my life, I'm going to keep my big mouth shut.")

Five days in, it's unclear whether Fox will feel the same pressure to respond to the uproar over O'Reilly, but that uproar does appear to be growing.

The activists who organized the hugely successful Women's March on Washington have been advocating a boycott online, encouraging their nearly 500,000 Twitter followers to share their stories of workplace harassment using #DropOReilly. (The hashtag had garnered some 39 million impressions in just two days, according to the analytics company Keyhole.)

The group Sleeping Giants, leaders of a months-long campaign targeting companies whose advertisements appear on Breitbart.com, launched an O'Reilly boycott Tuesday after fielding a torrent of requests on Twitter.

"As of this morning, people were just outright demanding it of us," a spokesman for the anonymous group of media professionals who manage the account tells Rolling Stone. They're now in the process of of assembling a list of O'Reilly Factor advertisers and a series of O'Reilly fact graphics that their 80,000 followers can tweet at sponsors of the show.

"We think it falls in line with what we've been doing with Breitbart, which is informing advertisers," he says. "Instead of just saying, 'Get off Bill O'Reilly's show,' we're trying to give them information ... about Bill O'Reilly's past." They plan to tweet out a few of the graphics a day. That strategy has worked for Sleeping Giants in its campaign against Breitbart – more than 1,750 companies whose ads had previously appeared on the far-right news site have now blocked it from their ad buys.

The list of advertisers distancing themselves from the O'Reilly Factor is adding up: As of Thursday afternoon, nearly 50 brands had bailed on the program. And that number will likely continue to grow as outside organizations continue pressuring companies – though it remains to be seen whether Sleeping Giants and the Women's March organizers can foment a level of outrage that could convince Fox to can its biggest star the way it did Beck and Ailes.

O'Reilly can, at the very least, say he enjoys the full confidence of the President of the United States – himself an accused and admitted serial harasser. "He is a good person," Trump told the The Times on Wednesday. "Personally, I think he shouldn't have settled. ... I don't think Bill did anything wrong."