Who’s Really Looking Out for You? Peter Hart unspins Bill O’Reilly (Part II): An original transcript from theExperiment

O’Reilly complained, “Bill Moyers attacked me in a speech… He called me a warmonger because I was calling for an attack on the Taliban government in Afghanistan.” But O’Reilly didn’t call for an attack on the Taliban government. He called for the US to “bomb the Afhgan infrastructure to rubble. The airports, power plants, water facilities, and the roads. The people of any country are ultimately responsible for the government they have. We should not target civilians, but if they don’t rise up against this government, they starve.” O’Reilly moved on to Iraq and said, “Their infrastructure must be destroyed and the population made to endure yet another round of intense pain.” He closed with a warning to Libya, saying that the US should destroy Libya’s airports and mine its harbors, and said, rather ominously, “Let them eat sand.” Now, the words of a warmonger? I think you can come to your own conclusion.

2004.01.17

[Peter Hart is a co-host and producer of Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting’s radio show CounterSpin. He also handles administrative duties and coordinates FAIR’s media activism work. He was a member of the Paper Tiger Television collective in New York City for a number of years. The following remarks are from his presentation of 2003.10.21, in New York City.]

O’Reilly was in a debate about church/state separation and he found what was I think a pretty compelling argument on his side, and this was supposedly a prayer that Thomas Jefferson wrote called A Prayer for Peace, that he wrote and delivered. The only problem with the evidence is that there’s no definitive proof that Jefferson ever spoke those words, or wrote that prayer, or even said it. And that’s according to the Jefferson library. He does a very similar thing in his new book and he cites James Madison saying, “We have staked the future of the country upon the capacity of each and all us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, and sustain ourselves according to the ten commandments of God.” That’s an infamous one, it’s actually—not to plug FAIR’s old book, but—Rush Limbaugh used the same bogus information in one of his broadcasts as well. It’s not true, no one can find Madison ever writing that, but nonetheless, it’s great evidence for O’Reilly’s point. And so we try to run through a number of examples like that and there’s no shortage of them.

“Hillary Clinton doesn’t make a good Senator from New York because she’s never been to Rochester,” says O’Reilly in a speech. Clinton had been to Rochester seven times when he said that, including one of the visits to open her Rochester office. When O’Reilly was also on a bit of a tear about Clinton not attending any September 11 memorial services, she had attended at least two up to the point that O’Reilly was claiming that she had attended none. Then he sort of changed his argument about her.

During the height of impeachment, O’Reilly seemed to kind of waffle on the idea, but in the end he came out in support of the impeachment of the President. And he found some novel evidence, he said the white house spokesperson Joe Lockhart came out and said that Clinton was not going to accept censure from the senate. And O’Reilly said, “Well he’s turned it around, he’s flip flopped, and now my vote is for removal of the President.” The only problem was that that was the opposite of what Lockhart had said. Lockhart said that day that the president would still accept censure from the Senate, as he had said all along, and every reporter—including the reporters from Fox—were reporting it this way. O’Reilly just somehow saw something that didn’t happen.

At one point, when he was making an argument about the constitution, he added a word to it in order to make the text of the constitution fit his argument—which he actually did twice. When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional—saying it in schools and forcing schoolchildren to say it—O’Reilly was upset at the court and he said, “The reason they’re even sitting there is because they were appointed by liberal politicians. Conservative politicians would never appoint pinheads sitting on the Ninth Circuit.” The judge who wrote that opinion was nominated by the notorious liberal Richard Nixon.

This is the kind of thing that you can catch from time to time. Sometimes the errors I think are so blatant that you can only assume that no one ever decided to check any of this. O’Reilly was complaining about NPR, this was pre-terry gross. He said, “I’ve never heard a right-wing person on NPR anywhere. You never hear a pro-life person on NPR, you never hear an anti-global warming person on NPR. They don’t get on there.” All of those things are false, and they’re really easy to check, so it’s kind of a strange comment to make. O’Reilly does watch a lot of the rest of the media, including some that he doesn’t actually watch. He was doing a piece on Al Jazeera and he said, “25 years Saddam had been committing atrocities, Al Jazeera didn’t report on them. They didn’t report on the mow downs after the ‘91 war, they didn’t report on the gassing of the Kurds in the 1980s.” O’Reilly’s guest helpfully pointed out that Al Jazeera was founded in 1996, which would have made it almost impossible for them to do any of those things.

There are also occasions where O’Reilly seems to have statistics and numbers, and what not, to back up his opinions. That’s usually when you should probably be most skeptical of what he’s saying. He actually had a bit of a run-in with the head of NOW [National Organization for Women] over welfare mothers. He claimed to Kim Gandy that 58 percent of single mom homes are on welfare. Now, Kim Gandy’s a very intelligent woman, so she said, “I don’t think that’s true.” And O’Reilly said, “Absolutely, it’s true. It’s right from the government, look it up.” Well, the next night O’Reilly came on and said, “52 percent of families receiving public assistance are headed by a single mother,” which sounds like he’s almost on to it, except for the fact that that’s the inverse of the statistic he gave the first night. The third night he came back on and said, “14 percent of single mothers receive federal benefits,” but he did add, “It’s really hard to get a stat to say how many single moms get government assistance.” Which is true. Which is why you shouldn’t give them out when you don’t what they are.

We do a little bit in the book [The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003)] about consistency and here’s just one example: this is a guy who claims to be against boycotts, but then leads a boycott against a rapper who got a Pepsi endorsement deal, and then claimed it wasn’t a boycott. We try to explain that in the book, but it’s difficult to follow the logic that he was laying out there.

And this one was about bombing Iraq: Both sides of the debate—O’Reilly said that, “Both sides are saying God is on their side. Those who favor peace point to the pope calling the war immoral. Those who favor the removal of an evil man say they’re protecting lives. In this case I think both sides are wrong. Nobody knows for sure what the absolute right thing to do is. We can only have opinions, thus it’s intellectually dishonest to be claiming God is on your side when only god knows for sure what the right thing to do is.” That’s a perfectly reasonable thing to say. Three months prior to that, O’Reilly in the heat of an argument: “I’m telling you, I’m telling you, President Bush is doing just what Jesus would have done.”

The No Warmongers Zone

O’Reilly’s not always consistent and I think that’s clear. But he is very sensitive about how he’s being treated by the rest of the media. He complained a couple months ago that the Orange County Register dropped his column because he was too pro-war. Now, if you know the Orange County Register, it’s a paper in California that’s a very conservative paper, so it would be odd for them to drop a pro-war columnist. And because of the stink, one of the editors actually had to write a column and explain that they hadn’t been running Bill O’Reilly’s column for five months. This was before the debate over the war started, so it wasn’t likely that they dropped his column because he was pro-war. She actually said they just didn’t think it was very good. Which, if you’ve read his book, you might know that you could come to that conclusion—that maybe you didn’t want to read that once a week.

O’Reilly did also lash out, and tends to lash out, at his critics. This was one that he did last November: The subject of the criticism was Bill Moyers, and O’Reilly said, “Bill Moyers attacked me in a speech in Albany, New York. He called me a warmonger because I was calling for an attack on the Taliban government in Afghanistan.” Now, Bill Moyers, because he could do this, bought an advertisement in the New York Daily News to explain that he never called Bill O’Reilly a warmonger, though to my mind, if he had, it wouldn’t have been far off the point. O’Reilly didn’t call for an attack on the Taliban government, that wasn’t part of his plan. He called for the United States, and these are all his words, to “bomb the Afhgan infrastructure to rubble. The airports, power plants, water facilities, and the roads. The people of any country are ultimately responsible for the government they have. We should not target civilians, but if they don’t rise up against this government, they starve.” O’Reilly moved on to Iraq and said, “Their infrastructure must be destroyed and the population made to endure yet another round of intense pain.” He closed with a warning to Libya, saying that the United States should destroy Libya’s airports and mine its harbors, and said, rather ominously, “Let them eat sand.” Now, the words of a warmonger? I think you can come to your own conclusion about that.

The interesting thing about this was that a couple weeks after that, Phil Donahue was a guest on the O’Reilly Factor and he asked him about this, and why he would call for slaughtering civilians, and O’Reilly denied that he ever threatened civilians at all. He said, “I never said bomb a civilian. I would bomb military targets. I’m not talking about civilians.” Which only leads you to the conclusion that when he said that he hoped the Libyans would be forced to eat sand he was referring only to their soldiers.

We close the book on a chapter about Iraq because a lot of this I think is still relevant to understanding the media right now, and I think to understanding Bill O’Reilly. His coverage, if you want to call it that, of Iraq sort of combined factual errors and inconsistencies and some of the attacks on disagreeable folks that really mark his show. If you think, for example, where people got this idea that Saddam Hussein was involved in September 11th. You know, who was saying that? O’Reilly said that on September 14th, 2001. He said that, “Saddam Hussein I believe is involved with this. I believe you’re going to find out that money from Iraq flowed in and helped this happen.” No word yet on how that investigation is going.

O’Reilly, on a core question about the war, about whether or not Saddam Hussein had Weapons of mass destruction, O’Reilly was remarkably flexible. He said in December, 2002, that you couldn’t know for sure that Iraq had smallpox or anthrax or nuclear weapons or chemical weapons. He said, ” I cannot say that as a journalist, or as an American.” Now that’s I think actually the proper attitude to have at that point, but two months later either stopped being a journalist or an American and was going on saying, “We know this guy has anthrax, we know he has VX gas.” To make things more confusing, a month after that he went on Good Morning America and said, “Nobody knows for sure. We don’t know what Saddam Hussein has.” So, you know, you sort of follow the bouncing ball.

He had I think a pretty outrageous attitude toward people who disagreed with him. This was one commentary he did one night:

“Once the war against Saddam begins we expect every American to support our military, and if they can’t do that, to shut up. Americans, and indeed our allies, who actively work against our military once the war is underway, will be considered enemies of the state by me. Just fair warning to you Barbara Streisand and others who see the world as you do.”

And O’Reilly, you know, at least wanted to find a compelling rationale for going to war, and he arrived at one. He said that the Gulf War treaty that ended the war in ’91 actually gave the United States license to reinvade and re-attack the country. It’s not true, that’s not what the treaty actually says. But when O’Reilly was challenged on this by one of his guests, former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, O’Reilly said, “Well, you can disagree. We’ll let the audience decide.” Which I think is a fascinating way to behave as a reporter.

O’Reilly didn’t have much to say about the media coverage. He, like other conservatives, thought the media were too tough and too critical and too negative about how the war was going. But he did identify one exception. This was in the New York Times, a reporter named Judith Miller in April of 2003. He said, “It’s important to note that reporter Judith Miller of the New York Times does believe the weapons are there. She spelled out the weapons yesterday.” Now, if you remember that piece, she actually didn’t spell out any weapons. She alleged, based on second-hand information, which she wasn’t allowed to verify, that an Iraqi scientist had located some chemical precursors. Not weapons, but precursors. He knew where they were buried, and the source in the story, if you actually read Judith Miller’s piece, actually claimed that they had destroyed the weapons prior to the war. So O’Reilly’s example of commendable journalism he managed to misread, and also praise, ahead of any evidence. And I think as the story has come out now, we know that that piece sort of stands as one of the worst jobs of reporting during the war.

The No Skepticism Zone

I think, in the end, it’s important to know what someone like Bill O’Reilly means in the scheme of the mainstream media. I think he has a certain amount of importance beyond Fox News Channel, and that’s important to identify. We live with a commercial media system, and when you’re talking about cable news you’re talking about dividing up a very small section of an audience. Even the local news in New York I’m sure can match or beat O’Reilly’s ratings. We’re talking about a pretty small national audience, but advertisers have identified some segment of this audience as being desirable. And because of the way the media system works, programmers—cable channels—need to replicate that. Which is why MSNBC might go hire an out-and-out bigot to host a weekend show, in the hopes that he would attract an audience that they could sell products to. Which is why MSNBC has hired Joe Scarborough to host a show every night. And Scarborough apparently willingly allows himself to be called Little O’Reilly. Which I think is bizarre behavior, but this is how corporate media and commercial media work. The idea is to find a model that works, to find programming that works, and replicate it. And I think in the end it sort of distorts our idea of what media and journalism can be.

O’Reilly, a couple weeks ago, told Tim Russert that Fox News Channel really won the war in Iraq. He said, “Fox News Channel was lucky because we were less skeptical of the war and the war went very well. So we won.” That’s a remarkable position to have if you also claim at the same time to be a journalist, and I think it does do damage to the idea of what journalism is supposed to be.

In the end, part of what we do at FAIR, whether it’s this book or whether it’s our magazine or our radio show, is to be very aware of what mainstream media is doing, but at the same time to try to imagine a world and a media system that would be different, that might respond to the needs of citizens better than the one we have now. And it’s not an easy task to try to imagine how you can get there. You can probably imagine how you could improve media, but it’s hard to imagine how to go about and actually do that. So I think it’s a long shot, but it’s what we have. It’s hard to imagine how to make things better, but it’s also hard to imagine how things can get much worse than this.

Thanks, and that’s all I’ve got.

Author: Peter Hart

News Service: theExperiment

URL: http://theexperiment.org/articles.php?news_id=1997