Know Your Right Wingers
SOURCE: August Pollak
Bill O’Reilly, that master of Fox News punditry, long ago put a signature spin on his commentary—proudly claiming to dwell in a realm free of spin, the magical "no-spin zone." And since 1996, America has had to endure the scourge that is his show, The O’Reilly Factor. Spinster O’Reilly has spent nearly ten years playing the part of impartial media correspondent, reassuring Americans that he is a centrist independent. The problem is, while Bil may claim to be independent and impartial, his views skew way to the right. So pair a guy who refuses to even entertain opinions that differ from his own (O’Reilly’s a fan of cutting a guest’s mike when the guest offends him) with uber-conservative commentary, and what do you get? Little more than a megaphone for insensitive, combative, conservative drivel.
Let’s be honest about what The O’Reilly Factor truly is: a right-wing spin zone.
Perhaps the most egregious recent example of Bill O’Reilly’s heartless punditry is his tasteless attack on Cindy Sheehan. Sheehan, the mother of an American soldier killed in Iraq, garnered national media attention when she protested outside President Bush’s Crawford, Texas ranch in an attempt to get a meeting with the President. O’Reilly accused Sheehan of being " in bed with the radical left," including – believe it or not – those dastardly "9-11 families." He went on to claim that Sheehan had changed her story and her feelings toward President Bush in order to create a more compelling news hook. All this from a man who purports to support the troops – but only when their families don’t turn their "private, personal pain into a public circus" – in other words, when they don’t share their grief in an attempt to prevent other families from having to suffer similar loss.
William James O’Reilly, Jr., was born on September 10, 1949, in New York City. His father was an oil company accountant and his mother was a homemaker. While O’Reilly was born in Manhattan, he grew up on Long Island in Levittown—or was it Westbury? So begins O’Reilly’s spin. His story? According to Bill, he was a child of humble beginnings, having grown up in modest Levittown, NY, a working-class suburb on Long Island. It doesn’t take much to debunk O’Reilly’s hard-knock yarn, only a report from his mother, who says that he was in fact raised in Westbury, a much more affluent suburb a few miles away. O’Reilly, quick on the uptake, asserted that the confusion lay in mere semantics, and that he was born in the Westbury section of Levittown. Nice answer, Bill, but unfortunately there’s no such place. It’s like saying you grew up in the Manhattan section of the Bronx.
At least he’s got a modest education to fall back on – or so he maintains in the constant woe-is-me retrospectives that made up his book The O’Reilly Factor, which was published in 2000, as well as a good chunk of his show. Spin on, Bill. From his"deprived" beginnings on Long Island, O’Reilly went to a private high school, after which he attended the private Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, graduating with a B.A. in history in 1971, spending his junior year studying at Queen Mary College, University of London. O’Reilly then went to Miami to teach English and history at Monsignor Pace High School, a suburban parochial school. And all on his father’s modest salary of $35,000 a year, which O’Reilly constantly refers to as an example of how his family had to scrimp and save to get by. This may be true, but when his dad retired in 1978, $35,000 was a good living. In fact, that’s worth roughly $92,000 adjusted for inflation. So O’Reilly may not have been rich, but he wasn’t a member of the proletariat either.
O’Reilly made his entrée into the wide world of spin when he enrolled in Boston University’s broadcast journalism program, receiving a Master of Science degree in 1976. O’Reilly’s career began with writing for several local newspapers and alternative weeklies (yes, alt-weeklies). After a journalism internship at the Miami Herald, it was off to WNEP-TV in Scranton, Pennsylvania. O’Reilly then went to Dallas, Texas, to work for WFAA-TV, where he won the Dallas Press Club Award. At KMGH-TV in Denver, Colorado, O’Reilly won his first Emmy and was launched into the world of big-headed stardom.
His career took an important turn in 1980 when he began working for WCBS-TV in New York. After winning a second Emmy for his investigation of city corruption, he was promoted to CBS news correspondent. After a three-year stint as a correspondent for ABC World News Tonight from 1986-1989, O’Reilly took a job as correspondent for the tabloid Inside Edition. He quickly moved up to anchor, and so began his glamorous career in "infotainment."
O’Reilly defended his turn to tabloid journalism the way he defends all of his questionable behavior – by lying about it. This time, O’Reilly claimed that his work for Inside Edition was legitimate because the show had won the distinguished Peabody Award. Eventually, O’Reilly (who later said the show had won multiple awards) was called out by none other than Al Franken, who noted that the show had never won a single Peabody, let alone many. Despite a valiant attempt at backpedaling, O’Reilly’s spin had been caught on tape and the media wasn’t afraid to expose it. Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and The Washington Post report that Inside Edition won a Polk Award (not a Peabody), and it was for reporting done after O’Reilly left the show.
After years with Inside Edition, O’Reilly decided to try his hand at writing. Then, following the publication of his novel, Those Who Trespass: A Novel of Murder and Television(1998)—which included some rather off-putting pseudo-pornography—he enrolled in Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he received a Master’s degree in Public Administration (MPA) in 1996. Then FOX came a-knocking. Roger Ailes tapped O’Reilly to host The O’Reilly Report on the then-new FOX News Channel. O’Reilly’s crude style, abuse of his guests, and misinformation caught on so well with right-wingers that in 1998 The O’Reilly Report was renamed The O’Reilly Factor and moved to an even better timeslot so O’Reilly could spread his tripe more widely.
So what’s so bad about The O’Reilly Factor? Well, for starters, there is the alarming hypocrisy of one of the right wing’s foremost talking heads claiming himself as a spin-free neutral journalist when, in fact, crying "spin" is how he fends off what the rest of us might call "fact." In June 2004, O’Reilly opened his show by criticizing The New York Times and other newspapers for running misleading headlines that implied there was no link between Iraq and al Qaeda. He then followed with a clip of 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean saying: "There is no evidence that we can find whatsoever that Iraq or Saddam Hussein participated in any way in attacks on the United States – in other words, on 9/11. What we do say, however, is there were contacts between Iraq and Saddam Hussein, excuse me, al-Qaeda." O’Reilly frantically stopped the clip, explaining it was the wrong sound bite, and proceeded to paraphrase the last part of the clip, but ignored the part that did not mesh with his criticism of the Times. Georgetown law professor David Cole, who had been invited to give commentary, was listening on the line from Washington, and was shocked that O’Reilly had brazenly cut a sound bite that directly contradicted his thesis. When Cole challenged him on it, O’Reilly exploded, calling Cole an S.O.B. and declaring he would never be invited back.
O’Reilly decries any opinion that conflicts with his own as hateful liberal spin. Moreover, it’s almost always liberals or moderates who get hammered on his show. (Check out his phrasing of his lead story in 2000: "Is Al Gore running for president on a quasi-socialistic platform – in this case, socialism being defined as work and production being supervised by the government?") In reality, O’Reilly is just another foot soldier in the FOX News Channel’s assault on fair and balanced media in this country.
Not unlike the station for which he works, O’Reilly has tried to deceive the public about his political affiliation, but both his political history and his political views clarify his proclivity for partisan politics. Despite his claims to have always been an independent and a centrist, when someone dug up his voter registration, on which the Republican box was clearly checked, O’Reilly eventually admitted that he was registered as a Republican, but claimed that this was due to a clerical error (Talk of the Nation, 9/2/2003). Take a look at O’Reilly’s registration form – it’s pretty clear which box is checked, but who knows? Maybe an election official checked it for him.
O’Reilly has been a strong and vocal supporter of the war on terror and the war in Iraq. So much so that he was willing to stand firmly behind the administration’s insistence upon the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. He was so certain that on Good Morning America he said, "If the Americans go in and overthrow Saddam Hussein and it’s clean, he has nothing, I will apologize to the nation, and I will not trust the Bush Administration again." He confirmed this on July 9, 2003, on Factor. Finally, in 2004, the apology came—grudgingly. Returning to Good Morning America, O’Reilly shuffled his feet and looked at his toes and told the American people he was sorry, half-heartedly acknowledging, "Well, my analysis was wrong and I’m sorry. I was wrong. I’m not pleased about it at all… I think all Americans should be concerned about this, for their families and themselves, that our intelligence isn’t as good as it should be," he said. Though there was certainly no follow-through on his promise "never to trust the Bush administration again," he admitted that he had become "much more skeptical about the Bush administration." Of course, in typical O’Reilly fashion, he couldn’t let it die with that, adding, "What do you want me to do, go over and kiss the camera?" The day after his act of contrition, O’Reilly was back at it, telling his FOX audience that the controversy was cooked up by the "left-wing press" who "used my words to hammer the president." He reminded his audience that the liberal media "has made dozens of mistakes itself and continues to deny that the world is a better place because Saddam is gone."
A different call for an O’Reilly apology has so far gone unheeded. Students at Brown University have passed a resolution calling on O’Reilly to apologize after airing an exposé of "Sex Power God," which is an annual party held by the student group Queer Alliance on the Rhode Island campus. The party, from which approximately 20 people were hospitalized, was infiltrated by a Factor correspondent with a video camera, and drew the conservative pundit’s self-righteous wrath. O’Reilly spent a full hour condemning the party and its sponsors on his radio broadcast. "You would have been safer in Baghdad than on the campus of Brown University,” he said. O’Reilly also claimed the root of the problem to be that the “pinheads up at Brown, they are a very liberal administration.”
O’Reilly distorted the truth to support his case against Brown administrators and students. He reported that the party was thrown with “direct university funding,” for example, even though all of the money for the event was raised privately. (The students did make use of one university projector.) What upset students most, however, was that O’Reilly aired the footage of the festivities on national television without blurring the faces of the students, who, they contended, were entitled to a measure of privacy when socializing with their peers.
On December 8, 2005, O’Reilly had the honor of receiving both of Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World” nominations. For the runner-up slot, O’Reilly won for reminding his audience that he "didn’t put Abu Ghraib pictures on this broadcast.” And was “the only television journalist not to do so." And the gem that sealed up the win? O’Reilly’s utter hysteria over the liberal war on Christmas, led by the "anti-Christian forces in this country" trying to "diminish and denigrate the holiday.” The distinction of “Worst Person in the World” was officially awarded for O’Reilly’s promise to "use all the power that I have on radio and television to bring horror into the world of people who are trying to do that."
In fact, O’Reilly’s spent much of December 2005 fighting the good fight against those destroyers of Christmas. On the December 2 broadcast of The Radio Factor, O’Reilly lashed out at Jon Stewart for the Daily Show’s “recent” attack on Christmas. Claiming the clip in question had aired the night before, he used it as just one more example of the left’s full fledged assault on the holiday. The only problem, which Jon Stewart subtly pointed out a few nights later, was that the clip had run a full year earlier. His evidence? Samantha Bee, the correspondent featured in the clip, is now eight months pregnant, which she plainly is not in the clip.
As O’Reilly has gotten older, he’s also gotten more paranoid. In September 2006, he released Culture Warrior, a book that sought to expose what O’Reilly sees as the most important, divisive conflict impacting America today. No it isn’t Iraq or the war on terror. It’s the culture war that O’Reilly is worried about. “On the one side of the battlefield are the armies of the traditionalists like me,” he writes near the beginning of the book, “people who believe the United States was well founded and has done enormous good for the world. On the other side are the committed forces of the secular-progressive movement that want to change America dramatically: mold it in the image of Western Europe.” What follows is a bizarre, rambling account of how the S-P movement is seeking to undermine traditional America—an account in which O’Reilly completely fails to coherently define this mysterious movement, let alone explain its motives.
The result, like much of O’Reilly’s previous cultural “analysis,” is a hodgepodge of railing against “elitists,” unconvincing claims of left-wing media bias, and a healthy dose of his usual Hollywood-bashing. O’Reilly gives the unconvinced reader very little reason to take him seriously. As one reviewer put it: “No matter what this apostle of mediocrity and banality says, sparkling water and George Clooney are not menaces to the American way of life.” (Read the Campus Progress review of Culture Warrior here.)
Even as he’s carried on his futile struggle to hide his partisanship, O’Reilly has become increasingly open with his less-than-tolerant views on homosexuality, and often utilizes bizarre analogies to drive his “points” home. If children didn’t suffer from having nontraditional parents (that is, from being raised by gay parents), he once argued, then “wouldn’t nature then make it that anybody could get pregnant by eating a cupcake?” More recently, he expressed outrage over the San Diego Padres’ decision to host a gay pride night and a hat giveaway for kids during the same game. It was “insane,” he fumed, for the Padres to “cluster” gays and kids together thus allowing for a situation in which “thousands of gay adults showed up and commingled with straight families.”
And, speaking of insane, he became truly irked by an L.A. Times article criticizing immigration laws that prevent U.S. citizens in same-sex relationships from sponsoring their partners for a green cards. He responded to on his radio show by invoking terrifying images of a world in which “people in love with three women” can sponsor them all for citizenship, and in which straight men can say “Hey, I’m gay. You gotta let in Lenny, my friend over here.” Oh, and he also recently spoke out about the dangers of lesbian gangs. For someone who claims that gay marriage is “not a big issue” to him, O’Reilly sure seems preoccupied with the topic of homosexuality.
Here is just a sampling of some of our favorite examples of O’Reilly’s misinformation, spin, and genuine insensitivity (all quotes from The O’Reilly Factor are from FOX News transcripts):
On the War on Terror
"The Bush administration is being disciplined and methodical. That is very encouraging. They are lining up world support for the action America is going to take." [The O’Reilly Factor, 9/17/2001]
"There should be little wiggle room for the Taliban government. They should be given a short deadline in which to hand over bin Laden. If they don’t, the U.S. should bomb the Afghan infrastructure to rubble – the airport, the power plants, their water facilities, and the roads. This is a very primitive country. And taking out their ability to exist day to day will not be hard." [The O’Reilly Factor, 9/17/2001]
"Remember, the people of any country are ultimately responsible for the government they have. The Germans were responsible for Hitler. The Afghans are responsible for the Taliban. We should not target civilians. But if they don’t rise up against this criminal government, they starve, period[emphasis added]..." [The O’Reilly Factor, 9/17/2001]
On Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq
(To Colonel Robert Maginnis): "Colonel, if weapons of mass destruction aren’t found, your reputation, my reputation – because I will have to apologize because I bought into it, I bought into it." [The O’Reilly Factor, 4/22/2003]
"And if Bush lied – if he lied – I’ll be the first one to hang him, OK? But there’s no evidence of that presented by the best people we can find." [The O’Reilly Factor, 7/7/2003]
On Abu Ghraib
"But Abu Ghraib was interesting. I got criticized by the New York Times for not running the pictures. And I told the audience, I’ll tell you what happened. I’m not running them because I know—you know, we go all over the world. And I know as soon as I run them, al-Jazeera’s going to pick them off The Factor, throw them on there and whip up anti-U.S.—and more people are going to get killed. So I’m not going to do it. You want to see them, you can see them someplace else. Not here." [The O’Reilly Factor, 5/12/2005]
"We already know what happened at Abu Ghraib. And people are going to prison because of it. Clearly, more pictures of Abu Ghraib help the terrorists, as do Geneva Convention protections and civilian lawyers. So there’s no question the ACLU and the judges who side with them are terror allies." [The O’Reilly Factor, 7/25/2005]
On the ACLU
"If the ACLU ever wants money, it should contact the al Qaeda fundraisers. No organization in America enables terrorism as much as the ACLU, period. It is putting your life in danger. And that is no exaggeration. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do about it. No way to stop it. The ACLU operates within the law and uses the legal system to oppose the war on terror. And there are enough loony judges around to give that organization power, especially here in New York City and in San Francisco." [The O’Reilly Factor, 8/4/2005]
"I recognize that homosexuality in America is going to be controversial forever. That’s always going to be that way, and no matter what you do or I do, the controversy is going to exist. So I always tell gays to be as low keyed as possible, to be as discreet as possible. And if I had a gay son or daughter, I would tell them in high school, don’t let anybody know you’re gay.… That’s my advice to all homosexuals, whether they’re in the Boy Scouts, or in the Army or in high school – shut up, don’t tell anybody what you do, your life will be a lot easier." [The O’Reilly Factor, 7/7/2000]
Illustration: August J. Pollak