Dec 1 2006

Helping O’Reilly

Lies on Letterman about Christmas and Al-Qaeda

Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly and CBS talkshow host David Letterman had a well-publicized showdown on Letterman’s program in January 2006, so it came as no surprise that their next face-to-face on October 27 would be similarly heated. After the interview aired, O’Reilly accused Letterman of dishonesty for saying O’Reilly had lied on his show, and challenged Letterman to produce the evidence.

O’Reilly took exception to Letterman’s crack about him (Late Night, 10/26/06): “The last time he was on the show, I caught him lying.” As O’Reilly retorted on his October 30 broadcast:

Letterman caught me lying? What lie was that? There’s no lie apparent in my appearance with him last January. Check the transcript. And we called his office to find out what he’s referring to. His staff couldn’t define a lie either. So my following words are directed personally to David Letterman this evening: There was no lie, sir. Your statement was false and cheap. You owe your audience and me an apology. I hope you’re man enough to give it.

Since O’Reilly seems to need assistance finding his own deceptions, we’ll offer some.

In his January 3, 2006 Late Night appearance, O’Reilly made several false claims regarding his repeatedly voiced concern about the “war on Christmas”—what he called the “movement in this country by politically correct people to erode traditions, and the Christmas tradition is the most cherished in the country.”

Asked by Letterman: “I wasn’t aware that you couldn’t say ‘Christmas.’ When did this happen?” O’Reilly replied, “Sears, Kmart started it, said no more ‘Christmas.’ It’s all ‘happy holidays’ or ‘winter solstice.’”

In fact, while Sears and Kmart (which Sears owns) had favored the more inclusive “happy holidays” in their own advertising and in-store displays, they had not barred anyone from saying “Merry Christmas.” What’s more, by the time of O’Reilly’s accusation, the businesses had already capitulated to the demands of Christian right pressure groups. Declaring victory, the American Family Association announced on its website (AFA Online, 12/8/05): “Sears has started displaying ‘Merry Christmas’ signs in all their stores. ‘We think Sears has been very responsive,’ AFA’s Randy Sharp says. ‘I believe a lot of Americans will appreciate Sears going that extra step to make sure that “Christmas” stays part of our culture and that it stays in their advertising program.’” Given Sears’ reversal, O’Reilly’s anecdote serves better as evidence that you can’t not say “Christmas.”

Another dubious example O’Reilly cited on the January 3 Letterman:

Ridgeway Elementary School in Dodgeville, Wisconsin. The song “Silent Night”—”Silent Night,” you know? Knocked out the words and told the little kids to sing, “Cold in the night, no one in sight, winter winds whine and bite, how I wish I was happy and warm. . . .” Now, with all due respect, I even think the baby Jesus would say “gimme a break.”

Was this really a school secularizing the celebration of Christmas? No. The school was staging, as it had for years (and as have dozens of churches), a performance of the play The Little Christmas Tree. The playwright, a Presbyterian minister, used the familiar tune of “Silent Night” for a song sung from the point of view of a Christmas tree. As the playwright told the Washington Post (12/20/05): “I’m just flabbergasted. I’m a choir director in a church. . . . Removing it from the Christian tradition was something I never thought anyone could ever come up with.”

These distortions, however, did not prevent O’Reilly from introducing more misleading information during his October appearance on Letterman (10/27/06). O’Reilly responded to Letterman’s question about the decision to invade Iraq—“Why didn’t we stay in Afghanistan?”—by trying to link Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, declaring: “Ansar al-Islam was the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Northern Iraq who tried to poison the British water supply with ricin. They operated with Saddam Hussein’s okay.”

No aspect of O’Reilly’s claim stands up to scrutiny. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his pre-war address to the United Nations (2/5/03), noted that Ansar al-Islam operated beyond Hussein’s reach in the Kurdish-controlled north of Iraq. And a report by the Republican-led Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (9/8/06) cited a Defense Intelligence Agency report stating that “the group’s presence was considered a threat to the [Saddam Hussein] regime and the Iraqi government attempted intelligence collection operations against them. . . . Information from senior Ansar al-Islam detainees revealed that the group viewed Saddam’s regime as apostate, and denied any relationship with it.”

The DIA report also made it clear that Ansar al-Islam was not an Al-Qaeda affiliate, calling it “an independent organization that receives assistance from al-Qaeda, but is not a branch of the group.” As for the ricin plot, anonymous government officials linked the alleged threat to Iraq, but presented no evidence to substantiate it (AP, 1/16/03).

Now that O’Reilly’s falsehoods have been pointed out, will he be “man enough” to apologize?