It seemed to begin with the luxury automobile companies: Mercedes Benz, Hyundai, BMW. Soon came Lexus, Subaru. Infiniti, Mitsubishi and Jaguar.
As the week went on, it turned into a numbers game. It was like watching a stock collapse on the big board. The velocity of prestigious advertisers reported fleeing Bill O'Reilly's nightly news hour continually increased to speeds seldom seen before: T. Rowe Price, Allstate, Glaxo Smith Kline, Advil, Jenny Craig, Orkin, H&R Block, Bristol-Myers, Geico.
It didn't completely matter what people were selling. It was a prestigious list of advertisers and they were taking a break from selling their wares on O'Reilly's show.
A look at Thursday's advertisers on O'Reilly's show turned up William Devane advising viewers to get into the Gold Coin Market, as well as a fellow who had invented a "Ring Video Doorbell." It began to look like the greatest episode ever of "Mad Men" that we were seeing.
By Friday, the number of fleeing advertisers had bloomed into 52 according to Deadline.com.
Given the New York Times' big front page story the previous Saturday, it was understandable. The Times reported that sexual harassment lawsuits against O'Reilly had been settled with a total of $13 million paid to five women.
We are living in a numbers universe. It's how a lot of people tell stories now--especially those involving questionable sexual behavior. It was the sheer number of Bill Cosby accusers that transformed him from one of the pillars of show business in modern times into an upcoming defendant in a sexual misconduct trial and a much-perceived disgrace. Because of the sheer quantity of stories, Cosby is now generally thought to be a man who drugs and sexually assaults women.
The accusations against O'Reilly weren't as lurid or plentiful but a couple of them were lurid enough. What elevated them above the level of "accusations" was that ratio: $13 million in payouts to five women by him and Fox News.
No matter how much we were told that it's standard operating procedure for accused offenders to settle, just to make all those "nuisance complaints" disappear, our common sense couldn't help but tell us that O'Reilly and Fox News define the word "nuisance" differently from the rest of us. We know now that he is not a man universally known for his courtliness.
By week's end, people were seriously wondering aloud whether that prestigious advertiser exodus would force Fox to abandon its single most successful "property," just as Rupert Murdoch and his sons finally had to jettison Roger Ailes, whose dark genius invented the Fox News juggernaut in the first place.
I tend to doubt it. A marked status change in the kind of advertisers who will join O'Reilly won't necessarily affect that precious commodity, the "numbers" i.e. the amount of advertising money earned.
O'Reilly is a fascinating figure. The comic absurdity of his bullying and bloviating personality, unlike Cosby's, made him a natural to suspect of some kind of misconduct.
Gabriel Sherman's definitive book about Ailes and Fox News "The Loudest Voice in the Room" describes O'Reilly's rise from a "journeyman well past his sell-by date. His career began in Scranton, Pennsylvania and (he) climbed the affiliate ladder: Dallas, Denver, Portland. In 1982, he was called up to the bigs, landing a job at CBS News covering the Falklands War. In 1986, he switched to ABC News. He declared to ABC staffers that he had the talent to sit behind the anchor desk. He would say he should 'have Peter Jennings' job.' Emily Rooney worked with O'Reilly and recalled 'there was no doubt he had talent.'...."
"But," says Sherman, "O'Reilly burned hot. He harbored petty slights and made a habit of self-destructing. In one five-year period, he blew through four different television stations. 'He was always in trouble with management.' Ailes said."
He anchored "Inside Edition" beginning in 1989 and, in Sherman's words, it was in tabloid TV that he was "able to incubate the bullying Irish street cop delivery he would later master at Fox News. ... Like any skilled actor, he subtly calibrated his delivery to engage the full range of his audiences' emotions."
Even though O'Reilly's father was an accountant in Manhattan, says Sherman "he presented himself as a scrappy son of Levittown, Long Island." (O'Reilly went to Harvard too.)
It is Sherman's reading of O'Reilly's essence that "class antagonism formed the foundation of O'Reilly's carefully honed public image. At prep school, he was sneered at by the WASPs from Long Island's wealthy North Shore. At Marist College, then an all-male liberal arts college ... O'Reilly hung with an Irish and Italian crowd that tried to crash parties at Vassar on the fancy side of town (Poughkeepsie). ... 'I could feel those rich girls and their Ivy League dates' " looking down on him, he recalled in Sherman's book.
If that sounds like a man more than ably equipped to handle the marked status change of advertisers from BMW and Mercedes Benz to gold coins and security doorbells, it doesn't augur well for change in O'Reilly's kingdom. Income is income, no matter where it comes from.
Nor, frankly, does another consideration which still remains to be sufficiently understood about sexual morality.
In terms of sexual depredations, we are living in an era where there has been a total sea change in our understandings of how men and women ought to proceed with coupling,
Until 40 years ago, sex was considered a virtual entitlement among successful males, especially in those places where the quantity of females was large: Hollywood studios, Washington political staffs, network television, journalism, comedy clubs, athletic teams, rock concerts. Our time's most famous politician has famously bragged about all that such men can do with impunity. "Money for nothing/and chicks for free" is how Dire Straits joked about the rock and roll life.
What people now disgustedly point to as Fox News' "culture" of sexual abuse may be only the tip of a large iceberg of such behavior that lay in the water of ALL TV news.
And rock and roll. And sports. And comedy. And Hollywood.
If the shame of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but ever vanishes, I wonder if a lawyer's round-up of ALL male miscreants with ugly sexual entitlement problems wouldn't, in fact, turn a good part of the world upside down and net lawsuit payments equal to the gross national product of Argentina.
What if, unlike O'Reilly, who is easily imagined a bully in all aspects of life, sexual miscreants abounded who are, in manner, as mild and sweetly behaved as choirboys?
I'm just not imaginative enough to conceive of a world entirely without slippery slopes on every side.