Bill O'Reilly's downfall has led to plenty of schadenfreude in the media, but I'm not sure the right lessons will be learned out of this sad episode. First, I should mention that I appeared on O'Reilly's show dozens of times over the 15 years I was a Fox News Channel contributor, and he was always respectful and professional. Obviously, he wasn't always on such good behavior, as attested to by the many complaints of sexual harassment over which he and the network settled in the past number of years. But one thing became clear to me over the many years I was on FNC: Looks mattered. A lot. The emphasis on glamor and a certain look at FNC grew obsessively over time. And the standard applied exclusively to female on-air personalities.
I started doing television back in the early '80s, appearing regularly on cable and broadcast news as a guest, as a commentator and occasionally as a host on CNN's "Crossfire" and on FNC's old "Hannity & Colmes" show. Getting to the studio early enough for makeup was always important, but the dress code was strictly business back then -- a suit, preferably (so that technicians could attach a mic to the lapel), and solid colors that wouldn't make the cameras go haywire. Jewelry was always understated -- no dangling earrings that would move as you talked, nothing too big or clunky that might bump the mic. Hair was to be well-coiffed but not too long. And there were as many brunettes as blondes on-air.
I can't pinpoint exactly when things started to change, but they did -- and nowhere more so than at FNC. Short skirts and sleeveless dresses became de rigueur, as did 4-inch heels. Most of the on-air female personalities started looking as if they were headed to a bar, not a news station, many with a hint (or more) of cleavage showing and costume jewelry. Though physical attractiveness has always been a premium for television, beauty became a near requirement to make it as a host or even a regular commentator, especially on FNC. And although the audience for news shows trends toward seniors, the women who appear rarely top 50, and those who do had better look years younger.
FNC went Hollywood, with sex appeal as important as substance for the women who would appear on-air. That isn't to suggest that the women aren't smart; they are. But FNC cares less about their law degrees and subject expertise than it does about their looks. So why are we surprised that this emphasis on beauty and sexuality on-air carries over to the culture of the workplace? We expect these women to look like Barbie dolls in front of the camera and then are shocked when the men who hire and supervise them behave like randy teenagers. The whole culture of the place reeks of sexual exploitation.
Until we see a change on-air, I'm not sure the network can get control of what happens off the air. Insisting women be eye candy for viewers sends a powerful message in the newsroom, to both the men and the women who work there. It's no accident that the two most powerful men at the network have been brought down by sexual harassment scandals. FNC has been selling female sex appeal, as well as news, for years now, with dozens of beautiful women in cocktail dresses helping drive ratings. Maybe if it starts toning it down a bit, zero tolerance on sexual harassment will have a chance at succeeding. But women need to be part of the solution, too. Just say "no" to those skin-tight dresses. Maybe insist that you're more interested in exposing your intellect than you are your thighs and see what happens. It may be unfair, but women can't have it both ways. We can't use our looks to succeed and then be surprised when we're treated like sex objects.