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East Lyme high school grad breaks Bill O'Reilly story

East Lyme — It was a reporter with local roots who recently broke the story about settlements involving alleged sexual harassment by Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly.

Emily Steel, a 2002 graduate of East Lyme High School who writes about the media business for The New York Times and has also worked for The Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, reported the story with colleague Michael S. Schmidt.

After the the ouster of Fox News chief Roger Ailes, her editor called a meeting and suggested looking into the 2004 case of Andrea Mackris, then a producer at Fox News. Mackris' lawyers went to the Fox News Network with complaints that O'Reilly had sexually harassed her. Then the network and O'Reilly sued Mackris alleging extortion, according to Steel. Mackris then sued alleging sexual harassment. 

Steel said they set out to recreate what had happened with the hindsight of what they knew about the network. By following the facts, they tried to learn how the network handled the case and how it treated Mackris. 

The more they dug, the more they uncovered the names of other women.

"We talked to dozens and dozens of people, and we reviewed more than 100 pages of documents," Steel said. "It was a very difficult story to report."

Ultimately, they found that during the course of O'Reilly's tenure at Fox News, there were five women — including Mackris — who had received settlements from him or the company alleging he had sexually harassed them or displayed other inappropriate behavior, she said. The settlements totaled about $13 million.

When Steel's story broke on April 1, it set off a "fire on social media," an advertising boycott, protests, and an airplane that flew across New York City trailing a banner that demanded O'Reilly's ouster, she said.

Steel has since made appearances on CNN and other networks. She has also been the subject of articles that note O'Reilly once threatened Steel in 2015 while she was writing a story on a controversy surrounding O'Reilly's reporting of the Falklands war. When she called him for a comment, he told her that the reporting so far had been fair, but if he found that it wasn't, he would come after her with everything he had, Steel said. Steel said that story has nothing to do with the story on sexual harassment allegations and was published years earlier.

Some media outlets have dubbed her as the reporter who got O'Reilly dismissed.

She doesn't see it that way.

"I think that it was up to the company and the Murdochs to make that decision," she said. "What I do think that happened is our story showed the history that had been hidden and covered up."

Path to journalism

Steel, a graduate of the University of North Carolina, joined the New York Times in 2014, after working at the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal.  

When Steel was 10 years old and living in Lincoln, Neb., she told her parents she wanted to be a meteorologist. But when she visited a local TV station, she became more interested in the work of the reporters who were asking questions and writing stories.

“Ever since then, I wanted to be a journalist,” she said.

Her family moved to East Lyme when Steel was 12 years old. During high school, she worked at The Viking Saga, East Lyme High School’s student newspaper.

Steel was a high school senior and co-editor of the paper when the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred, and she remembered everybody feeling depressed and questioning what was there to still be grateful about.

She wrote a column about all the things people could still feel grateful and joyful about. She was working one day during a school holiday when a janitor told her how much the column meant to him and that he had cut it out and put it on his wall. That interaction reaffirmed her decision to pursue journalism.

“That was so special and powerful and underscored how much words matter and how words can shape the world and our understanding of the world and who we are in the world,” she said.

Jeff Beale, an English/journalism teacher and the newspaper adviser at East Lyme High School, said he and his students listened to a podcast of Steel describing her reporting, which he said provided a great lesson.

"It was just great to see how thorough she was all the time and the effort that went into researching the piece and making sure every last detail was accurate," he said.

Rose Ann Hardy, an East Lyme High School teacher who taught Steel in Advanced Placement History and also serves as a town selectwoman, said Steel was a clear writer and an earnest student who was committed to doing her best.

"She was willing to really work hard to achieve her goals," Hardy said.

Steel said she remembers learning about Ida Tarbell, one of the pioneering women of investigative journalism, in Hardy's class.

She said the school empowered students to learn and be passionate and "be a force in the world."

“I just remember walking through the hallways on the day The Viking Saga was published and passing the newspaper out to the students," she said. "There was just a sense of you can do anything you set your mind to.”

Another East Lyme High School graduate, Sapna Maheshwari, also writes for the New York Times.

Cate Steel, Emily's mother, said that all of the community, from teachers to her ballet instructor, Lise Reardon, to neighbors, had a role in shaping her daughter into who she is today.

"She's very inquisitive and she always wants to get to the truth. She's a voracious reader," she said. "She just has a really nice manner and she just listens with her heart and people just open up to her and tell her their story."

After the O'Reilly story broke, many of Steel's classmates from middle school and high school reached out to her to compliment her on her reporting.

Steel said the response has been a little overwhelming and she likes to let the story "speak for itself," but she feels grateful that she is working as a journalist, her dream career. 

Steel, who studied ballet with Eastern Connecticut Ballet, said she recently went to the New York City Ballet and started tearing up a little thinking about how special it is that the ballerinas, who have spent so many years in the studio and worked so hard for hours and hours, get to perform. 

"I’ve just been thinking a lot about how lucky and grateful I am to be able to be a journalist and to write these stories," she said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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