Fox News’ top-rated host Bill O’Reilly made an unusual call to The New York Times in 2015, after a reporter had questioned his Falklands War coverage. When he got Emily Steel on the line, he delivered a personal message: “I am coming after you with everything I have. You can take that as a threat.”
That was the first time Steel ever spoke with O’Reilly, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Steel, a business reporter at the Times, has developed a tenuous relationship with O’Reilly, who reigned over the highest-rated cable news show for 16 years. In the years since that phone call, her reporting has exposed O’Reilly’s history of sexual harassment and settlements, which led to his ousting from Fox News in April 2017.
“Settlements were the trail that showed this history of harassment,” Steel said Feb. 26 at Duke University, where she gave the 2018 James D. Ewing Lecture on Ethics in Journalism. “We started to notice there was a real pattern. There wasn’t just one case, but there were a number of other cases — and a number of women.”
Steel spoke to an audience predominantly composed of undergraduate women. The event, titled “The Reckoning,” was moderated by Bill Adair, the director of the DeWitt Wallace Center and Knight professor of the practice of journalism and public policy.
Before joining the Times, Steel worked at The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times. She graduated in 2006 from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she was a top editor of The Daily Tar Heel.
Steel, 33, began her investigation of O’Reilly by reexamining a settlement from 2004 between the cable news star and a former producer, Andrea Mackris.
“At the time we thought it was just Fox News, not the entire world.”
Though settlements had long been used to silence women and keep information out of public view, Steel said she hoped to use the legal documents to the opposite effect — exposing O’Reilly, Fox News and 21st Century Fox for an ongoing coverup of internal harassment and misconduct.
“There weren’t that many stories like this before,” Steel said, admitting that it was difficult to conduct an extensive sexual harassment investigation without examples on which to base her reporting.
Steel looked for insight and inspiration from Spotlight, a 2015 film portraying The Boston Globe’s probe of the pervasive sexual abuse of children by local Catholic priests.
“I’m not embarrassed to admit that I watched Rachel McAdams’ character very closely,” Steel said. “[McAdams’ character Sacha Pfeiffer] said, ‘The words and details here are really important. We need to know what happened.’ I actually used those lines in my reporting.”
Throughout the investigation, Steel spoke with more than 60 sources on and off the record. She used IMDb to identify female guests on O’Reilly’s show — and then made phone calls, sent emails and wrote handwritten letters to see if they would speak publicly about some of their experiences with sexual harassment.
But the reporting was hard. Although many victims would speak with her about O’Reilly’s disturbing actions, they were legally barred from going public with their stories.
Persistent, Steel flew to Los Angeles to speak with one of O’Reilly’s victims, Wendy Walsh, who had been a regular guest on his show. Walsh had not been involved in a settlement and could speak publicly — but she was reluctant to tell her story to the masses.
Steel inconspicuously joined one of Walsh’s Pilates classes in order to speak with her face to face. After class, Steel explained the impact Walsh could have by telling her story and exposing O’Reilly, when so many women couldn’t.
Walsh decided to go on the record. “I still get goosebumps just thinking about it,” Steel said.
Walsh was ultimately named one of TIME Magazine’s “Silence Breakers” in the Person of The Year 2017 issue.
“I could relate to her position in the world,” Steel said, speaking to the importance of female reporters covering issues of sexual misconduct. “While reporting this, I thought a lot about what it would mean if something like this were to happen to me as it has to these young women.”
After a nine-month investigation, Steel’s exposé, co-written with Michael S. Schmidt, was published on April 1, 2017 — the day before she turned 33. The article revealed O’Reilly had been involved in five settlements for sexual harassment that totaled $13 million. And management at Fox News had been aware of it all.
O’Reilly was ousted from Fox News by the end of the month.
“At the time we thought it was just Fox News, not the entire world,” Steel said. “This was a year before the #MeToo movement. Nobody was talking about this.”
Steel said reporters were not looking critically at the way they covered sexual harassment, assault and misconduct at the time. She said the media had often sensationalized victims’ stories in a way that was like “slut-shaming.”
“I don’t think people listened to women’s stories in the same way [as they do now],” Steel said, encouraged that the media have recently worked to address the predatory environment and power imbalances women face in the workplace.
“This is an interesting time in the media business,” Steel said. “But my job as a journalist is still to dig up this information and report the facts.”