Viewers of ABC's Good Morning America saw something very unusual earlier
this month: Fox News Channel's star host Bill O'Reilly admitted he was wrong
about something. Sort of.
Right before U.S. forces invaded Iraq, O'Reilly made a bold promise on ABC
about Iraq's WMDs: "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, all right?"
Last week, thanks to persistent needling from ABC host Charlie Gibson,
O'Reilly mustered a half-hearted apology: "Well, my analysis was wrong and
I'm sorry.. I was wrong. I'm not pleased about it at all." As to the promise
to "never trust the Bush administration again," he was considerably less
forceful: "I am much more skeptical of the Bush administration now than I
was at that time," he explained, before blaming CIA chief George Tenet for
But the day after his climbdown, O'Reilly was back on more familiar turf,
telling his Fox audience that the controversy was cooked up by the
"left-wing press" who "used my words to hammer the president." The liberal
media, he reminded his audience, "has made dozens of mistakes itself and
continues to deny that the world is a better place because Saddam is gone."
This from a guy who promises his show is a "no spin zone."
Deception and doubletalk are nothing new on The O'Reilly Factor, where
O'Reilly struggles to maintain the fiction that he isn't conservative--
while regularly inveighing against the "secularists," the "liberal media,"
National Public Radio, the ACLU and an assortment of Bush critics. Bush
himself, meanwhile, is described by O'Reilly as "the closest modern
president to what the Founding Fathers have in mind."
But if O'Reilly's in the mood to issue more apologies, he has his work cut
out for him. He could start by explaining his comments three days after the
September 11 attacks, when he fingered Saddam Hussein as an accomplice: "I
believe that you're going to find out that money from Iraq flowed in and
helped this happen." Or he could explain how he concluded that long-time
nemesis Rev. Jesse Jackson wanted to see Rush Limbaugh in jail on a drug
rap. O'Reilly quoted a truncated passage from a Jackson interview on another
cable network to prove his point-- but conveniently skipped over the part
where Jackson said, "I hope Rush Limbaugh does not go to jail."
O'Reilly could also explain why he hyped a year-end battle of book sales
between himself and Hillary Clinton. O'Reilly would eventually accept
defeat, but not before claiming his competition was cheating: "We're doing
this the old-fashioned way. Regular folks are actually buying the book, not
the DNC and other ideological organizations." That's funny-- if you visited
a website called the Conservative Book Club, you could buy a copy of
O'Reilly's latest hardcover for a dollar. O'Reilly also later admitted that
Clinton's book was not being purchased in bulk by Democratic organizations,
telling the Washington Post the whole thing was "just for sport."
O'Reilly could also explain where he got this idea: "According to analysis
done by the San Diego Union-Tribune, illegal immigrants cost the taxpayers
$20 billion every year," he told his audience last month. But there's no
such "analysis" in that newspaper's archives-- only a conservative columnist
using the figure in an opinion piece. My call to Fox News to sort out the
matter was never returned.
O'Reilly might want to clarify his advice to young journalists, too.
O'Reilly recently interviewed a young conservative who had distributed a
newsletter at his high school calling liberalism a mental disorder. You
can't do that sort of thing, O'Reilly lectured the student: "The calmer you
stay, the less inflammatory you stay, the more people will listen to you.
Right now, you're polarizing, and you're not converting anybody."
That advice may come as a shock to anyone familiar with O'Reilly's angry
shtick: telling guests to "shut up," referring to critics of the Iraq war as
friends of Saddam, and so on. It didn't help matters much that a few moments
before O'Reilly delivered his sermon on civility, he heaped scorn on other
media outlets-- namely the "BBC pinheads" who "deal in defamation." So it's
hard to say when O'Reilly decided name-calling was a no-no. But one thing's
for sure: As usual, the king of the "no spin zone" must have left some
Peter Hart is an analyst at FAIR (www.fair.org ) and the author of "The Oh
Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly" (Seven Stories