May 1 2002

The ‘Oh Really?’ Factor

Bill O'Reilly spins facts and statistics

Bill O'Reilly

When Bill O’Reilly is most certain, viewers should be most skeptical.

If it’s “spin” to back up your arguments with bogus facts and statistics, and to dismiss numbers that don’t fit in with your preconceptions, then Bill O’Reilly‘s Fox News Channel show isn’t, as he repeatedly claims, a “no-spin zone”–it’s Spin City.

During an interview with National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy (O’Reilly Factor, 2/5/02), O’Reilly claimed that “58 percent of single-mom homes are on welfare.” When Gandy questioned that figure, O’Reilly held firm: “You can’t say no, Miss Gandy. That’s the stat. You can’t just dismiss it…. It’s 58 percent. That’s what it is from the federal government.”

But by the next broadcast (2/6/02), O’Reilly was revising his accounting: “At this point, we have this from Washington, and it’s bad. Fifty-two percent of families receiving public assistance are headed by a single mother, 52 percent.” Not only is that a different number, it’s the reverse of the statistic he offered the previous night– not the percentage of households headed by single mothers that receive welfare, but the percentage of families receiving public assistance headed by single mothers. That’s a distinction that O’Reilly did not attempt to clarify; he seemed unapologetic about emphatically putting forward an inaccurate statistic the night before.

The following night (2/7/02), O’Reilly came up with more solid figures, but they bore no resemblance to his original numbers: About 14 percent of single mothers receive federal welfare benefits, he now said–less than one-fourth of his earlier claim. (He suggested that food stamps ought to be considered a kind of welfare, but that only gets him to 33 percent–still 25 percentage points short.) O’Reilly explained that “it’s really hard to get a stat to say how many single moms percentage-wise get government assistance,” though he’d found it easy enough to pull one out of the air just three nights earlier.

Suspect certainty

There’s a valuable lesson here for Factor watchers: When O’Reilly is most certain, you should be most skeptical. On another show (2/26/01), O’Reilly explained to Florida state senator Kendrick Meek that, thanks to Gov. Jeb Bush’s “One Florida” program, 37 percent of students at Florida universities were black: “Thirty-seven percent. That’s much higher than the population, the black population, of Florida. Bush is doing a good job for you guys and you’re vilifying him.” When Meek challenged those numbers, O’Reilly insisted they were “dead on.”

Dead wrong is more like it: Total minority enrollment for the freshman class entering in 2000 was 37 percent (Florida Times-Union, 8/30/00)– black enrollment was about 18 percent.

Sometimes a guest who sticks to his or her guns can keep O’Reilly’s audience from being misinformed. When the host claimed (5/8/01) that the United States “give[s] far and away more tax money to foreign countries than anyone else. . . . Nobody else even comes close to us,” Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies was thankfully on hand to explain that U.S. contributions per capita were lower than those of any member of the European Union. “That’s not true,” O’Reilly inaccurately responded.

Actually, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in 2000 the U.S. gave only 0.1 percent of its Gross National Income as official development aid–less than Italy, the least generous EU nation. Denmark gave 10 times as much on a per capita basis. Even in real terms, Japan in 2000 gave away a third more aid, even though its economy was less than half as large.

O’Reilly rewrote diplomatic history during an interview with James Zogby of the Arab American Institute (4/2/02). After Zogby argued that Israeli settlements were an obstacle to peace between Israel and Palestine, O’Reilly countered that during the Camp David negotiations in July 2000, the offer made by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak “would have given 90 percent of those settlements back”–an idea he credited to “what every single American expert who has seen that says.”

In fact, O’Reilly got the proportion of settlements Barak was prepared to give up almost backwards: He promised Israelis that any deal with the Palestinians would involve “80 percent of the settlers in settlement blocks under our sovereignty” (Jerusalem Post, 9/13/00). When Zogby pointed out O’Reilly’s error, the host said he would welcome any former diplomats who could prove him wrong: “I’ll put them on tomorrow,” he said–but didn’t.

O’Reilly frequently refuses to believe his guests–even when they cite a source. When one Factor interviewee remarked (3/1/02) that “60 percent of all people will live in poverty for one year of their life,” O’Reilly shot back: “Not in the United States…. No, that’s bogus. I mean, that’s a socialist stat. You can believe it if you want to, but it’s not true.” When the guest explained that the number comes from research at Cornell University, O’Reilly shot back: “Well, what more do I have to say?”–as if any information coming from an Ivy League institution had to be wrong.

O’Reilly can be quite fond of a statistic, however, when he thinks it makes a point for him. “Here’s the statistic that tells me American society and the system we have in place works for both blacks and whites,” he told the NAACP’s Walter Fields (5/15/01).

Eighty percent, all right, 80 percent of what whites earn, blacks earn if they stay together in a committed relationship, whether it’s marriage or living together. So if a black man and woman are married and stay together, they earn 80 percent of what white couples earn. And the reason it isn’t 100 percent is because more blacks live in the South where the salaries are lower. That tells me that the American system, the capitalistic system, works and is fair. Where it’s broken down—all right, you may disagree with that, but that stat is rock solid.

That stat–which O’Reilly has brought up on at least three further occasions (3/25/02, 3/27/02, 4/3/02)–is actually out of date; the latest census figures (Current Population Reports, 1999) show that black married couples make 87 percent of what white married couples do. But O’Reilly’s idea that blacks overall are poorer because they have chosen not to marry doesn’t hold water; black single mothers make only 65 percent of what white single mothers do, even though they have the same family structure. And the notion that living in the South explains blacks’ lower incomes is a fantasy; blacks in the South, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, actually make more money than blacks in the Northeast.

Even when O’Reilly has a source, he’s prone to distorting numbers. ABC‘s John Stossel came on the O’Reilly Factor (1/26/01) to claim that $40,000 in government money is spent annually on anti-poverty programs for each poor family. The stat appears to derive from the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector, who deceptively includes expensive programs that go to non-poor families–like Pell grants, reduced-price school lunches and Medicare–in his tally.

A few days later (1/29/01), O’Reilly was garbling the already misleading figure: “We’re paying $40,000 per person who [is] on government assistance now”–quadruple the amount of spending Stossel was claiming.

“This is personal”

O’Reilly’s got something against National Public Radio–namely, they’re not interested in him. “This is personal, this is absolutely personal,” he said on his January 7 show. “I’ve had two No. 1 bestsellers. . . . Not one NPR invitation.” He’s not one to take an offense lying down, so he lets them have it, attacking the network’s “left-wing point of view” (3/6/02): “I’ve never heard a right-wing person on NPR anywhere,” he charges (1/7/02). “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.”

Conservatives, of course, appear regularly on NPR, both in commentary (e.g., Weekly Standard‘s David Brooks, Heritage Foundation’s Joe Loconte) and as sources in news stories. Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who as a global warming skeptic represents a tiny fraction of the scientific debate, was on NPR three times last year; the network quoted Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee 11 times in 2001.

You’d think O’Reilly would at least get right what people say about him. “Every time you write about me, you put a little pejorative adjective in front of my name,” he remarked to a gathering of TV writers (St. Paul Pioneer Press, 1/28/02). “In the Boston Globe the other day, it was ‘the conservative hatchet man.'” He also complained on his show (1/14/02) about “the Boston Globe calling me a conservative hatchet man.” In fact, what the Globe actually called O’Reilly (12/7/01) was “an attack dog on Fox‘s the O’Reilly Factor.” Perhaps what they should have called him is “unreliable.”


Terror and Ecstasy

On February 4, Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance questioned whether casual drug users were really funding terrorism, as O’Reilly seems to argue. When Nadelmann pointed out that marijuana and Ecstasy were not involved in Afghanistan, O’Reilly responded, “Well, Ecstasy is,” adding that “most comes from Holland.”

To Nadelmann’s retort–“and are the Dutch involved in terrorism?”–O’Reilly said, “No, but it’s not run by the Dutch, it’s run by Middle Eastern guys.” When Nadelmann expressed incredulity, O’Reilly challenged him to a $100 wager, which the drug reform advocate accepted.

Later in the show, Nadelmann again asserted that the casual use of drugs like marijuana and Ecstasy has “no link to the terrorists.” “You’re wrong about the Ecstasy,” O’Reilly insisted. “You’ll send me the check, and I’ll be very happy…. It’s controlled by Middle Eastern people out of Holland, that’s where it comes in here from.”

The following night (2/5/02), O’Reilly gloated that he had won the bet: “OK, here’s what the Office of the National Drug Control Policy says, and we quote, ‘Drug Enforcement Agency reporting demonstrates the involvement of Israeli criminal organizations in Ecstasy smuggling. Some of these individuals are of Russian and Georgian descent and have Middle Eastern ties.'”

O’Reilly seized on this mention of “Middle Eastern ties” to claim that federal drug officials backed up his claims. But the statement made no mention of Afghanistan or terrorism, the aspects of O’Reilly’s claim that Nadelmann had most taken issue with. Is O’Reilly really claiming that Ecstasy users are supporting terrorism by giving money to Israeli mobsters? More likely he’s just demonstrating once again that he’ll clutch at any straw to avoid admitting that he’s wrong. —P.H.