The highest rated cable talk show or a new term for sexual harassment and a further loss of media credibility?
Scott Sobel, M.A. Media Psychology, Senior Strategy and Communications Executive, Kglobal
Note: This article was updated 4/4/2017 at 1:45 PM ET.
The American public’s collective head is spinning as we wonder if we are in a real-life and sick version of the old game show, Who Do You Trust? We are barely into the first trimester of 2017. We are already neck-deep in political scandals and now there’s yet another public disgrace to gawk at.
This time, allegations against Fox host Bill O’Reilly are the fodder for a Sunday section feature story in the New York Times. It’s a follow-up to the he-said-she-said drama that ended in the dismissal of former Fox head Roger Ailes for similar charges.
To clarify, The New York Times notes that a total of five women were found to have received payments, totaling about $13 million, for agreeing not to pursue litigation or speak publicly about their accusations. Of the five settlements, two were previously uncovered and reported on, one in 2004 and the other late last year. For his part O’Reilly denies the allegations in each instance.
There are sooooo many questions to be answered. The psychology of studying the impact of the media, especially the news media and politics covered by the media, was never simple. Now the implications of media crises of credibility may have drastic implications for how we do business, react politically, manage relationships and how we, as communicators, remain credible.
How will the media audience react to the latest attack against credibility? Will the blurred lines between truth and fantasy, between truth and fake news or alternative facts, blur even more? What consequence do media icons suffer when they are caught in lies and/or hypocrisy? And do they suffer just as much just from allegations of wrongdoing?
There are also a growing number of examples of confusing credibility. In the past, these examples were the exception. No longer, remember that NBC News’ Brian Williams lost prestige and his job as the network’s primary anchor when he was caught in a lie about story coverage, but he is still on the air and has arguably fought his way back to prominence on the cable side of the business.
Ailes lost his lofty position but reportedly walked away with a fortune after his workplace sexual harassment case settled. The Times and other media outlets report the most recent allegations against O’Reilly were not the first ones he dealt with and the scope of the liability was even factored into his new employment contract. Bill O’Reilly is still a very rich, employed and a best-selling author, a media mogul.
In years gone by we grew up trusting celebrities like Bill Cosby. We minimalized stories about game shows TV hosts, casino owners and beauty pageant owners harassing employees as just funny “casting couch” episodes … until those allegations were leveled against the 43rd president of the United States, and now the current resident of the White House. Not so funny anymore.
A Politico blog on the Times story gives O’Reilly room to respond.
“I’m vulnerable to lawsuits from individuals who want me to pay them to avoid negative publicity. In my more than 20 years at Fox News Channel, no one has ever filed a complaint about me with the Human Resources Department, even on the anonymous hotline.”
An old PR adage warns, if you’re explaining, you’re losing. But an explanation is somewhat better than a “no comment.” Getting ahead of a bad story and the positive repetition of irrefutable information and trusted, objective sources testifying for your side, are still the best remedies for a sick reputation. Our print and digital media are glutted with actions and reactions. Regardless of how crises are handled, is it possible all of this punching and counterpunching result in desensitizing us as a media-rich society?
Are we indeed becoming a society numb to this violence against the truth, like some psychologists and sociologists claim certain individuals become desensitized to real violence when they play too many horrifically violent or sexually explicit video games.
We are all shaken to our core by these current attacks on the true north of our moral compass. And, if we are not shaken, we should be.
Just who can we trust?