There's no small amount of irony in the possibility that self-righteous TV host Bill O'Reilly, whose specialty is pointing out the stupidity and character failings of others, may have sexually harassed a female employee.
O'Reilly called the sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by his former associate producer Andrea Mackris last week an extortion attempt and "the single most evil thing" he has ever experienced. But, if he did the things he's accused of, he's even more boorish than I thought.
Mackris claims that after O'Reilly learned about her broken engagement in May 2002 he started offering advice about her social life, and that it escalated into prying into her sexual habits and describing his own extramarital sexcapades and fantasies - including the ones about what he'd like to do to her and her girlfriends. Mackris left Fox News earlier this year to work at CNN, but was wooed back to "The O'Reilly Factor" last summer, only, she says, after he promised to stop the sex talk.
But when she returned, it only got worse, she says: O'Reilly would invite her to dinner, where he'd go on at length about what he'd like to do to her sexually. He allegedly tried to engage her in phone sex, and described his sexual fantasies to her over the phone while masturbating.
Reading her complaint was like learning that Rush Limbaugh, another conservative blowhard who enjoys blasting liberals and assertive women, was hiding a drug addiction. While shocking, it's in keeping with O'Reilly's bullying on-air behavior.
If her charges are true, Mackris has made out a classic case of sexual harassment. Lynn Schafran, a Manhattan lawyer and vice president of Legal Momentum, which has been involved in a number of such cases, says she frequently hears complaints about similar behavior. Not only is it demoralizing to the victim, but it keeps her off guard, and she never knows what's going to happen next.
It begs the question to ask why Mackris came back to work for O'Reilly if she found his behavior so offensive. Her complaint indicates that she didn't like her job at CNN, and her new boss had been fired for engaging in sexual harassment. Besides, a woman has to work somewhere. People had the same criticism of Anita Hill, since she worked for her alleged harasser, Clarence Thomas, twice. Then, as in many sexual harassment cases now, the typical defense is that the woman was the aggressor or that she was neurotic and made the whole thing up.
The most damning part of Mackris' complaint is her description of O'Reilly's response when she cautioned him about coming on to female employees:
"If any woman ever breathed a word, I'll make her pay so dearly that she'll wish she'd never been born. I'll rake her through the mud, bring up things in her life and make her so miserable that she'll be destroyed. And nobody would believe her; it'd be her word against mine, and who are they going to believe? Me or some unstable woman making outrageous accusations?"
There it is again: the stereotype of the unstable woman.
Having seen and having personally experienced how O'Reilly treats his guests, it's not hard to believe he could have said this. There's the narcissism, the barely suppressed anger, the need to attack anyone who disagrees with him. He dubs his show the "no-spin zone," where no one can get away with half-baked arguments. But this means he invites people he disagrees with, interrupts them when they try to explain their position, tells them to shut up, and turns off their microphone if they persist.
O'Reilly is a Harvard graduate, and a Harvard education can be a dangerous thing for someone who's not brilliant because he winds up thinking he knows it all when, in fact, he doesn't. Because of the huge success of his show, O'Reilly's head is even bigger than most.
Even 13 years after the Anita Hill case, people still look on sexual harassment complaints with suspicion, and like her case this one is complicated by the alleged harasser's power and stature. But while O'Reilly likes to play God on his show, this lawsuit could give us a glimpse of his fallibility. On the same nights that he was bashing Democrats during his coverage of the Republican national convention, Mackris says he was calling and telling her what he'd like to do to her in the shower.
I'm dying to see how the master of the no-spin zone will handle this
© 2004 Newsday, Inc.