Nov 3 2006

Bill O’Reilly Needs Help

Fox host demands Letterman apologize for pointing out Fox host's inaccuracy

War on Christmas? He never got any closer than Thanksgiving?Fox News Channel‘s Bill O’Reilly and CBS talk show host David Letterman had a well-publicized showdown on Letterman’s program in early January, 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 accurately 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 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 help finding his own deceptions, let’s offer some assistance.

In his January 3, 2006 Late Night appearance, O’Reilly made several false claims regarding the supposed “war on Christmas,” a theme the Fox host had been heavily promoting to illustrate, as he told Letterman, 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 been using the more inclusive “holidays” in their advertising, they had not barred anyone from saying “Merry Christmas.” What’s more, by the time of O’Reilly’s appearance on Letterman, the corporation had capitulated to the demands of Christian right groups like the American Family Association and had replaced “holidays” with “Christmas” in its ads on its websites. By early December 2005, the AFA declared victory (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 was actually more evidence that you can’t not say Christmas.

Another primary example in O’Reilly’s campaign:

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, safe with my family, out of the storm.’ They replaced the words to ‘Silent Night’ with that. Now, with all due respect, I even think the baby Jesus would say ‘gimme a break.’

Was this really a school district changing Christmas carols to secularize the celebration of Christmas? No. The school was staging, as it had for years (and as had dozens of churches and schools across the country), a performance of the play “The Little Christmas Tree,” which was written by a Presbyterian minister and includes traditional Christian songs like “Angels We Have Heard on High” (Washington Post, 12/20/05). The lyrics O’Reilly is citing were changed by the playwright because the song is sung by a Christmas tree. As the playwright told the Post, “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.”

The attention drawn to his previous distortions, however, did not prevent O’Reilly from introducing more misleading information during his most recent 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: “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.”

None of O’Reilly’s claims stand 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 that said that “the groups’ presence was considered a threat to the [Saddam Hussein] regime and the Iraqi government attempted intelligence collection operations against them. The DIA stated that information from senior Ansar al-Islam detainees revealed that the group viewed Saddam’s regime as apostate, and denied any relationship with it.”

Nor is it accurate to describe Ansar al-Islam as an “Al-Qaeda affiliate.” The DIA (Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 9/8/06) described the group as “an independent organization that receives assistance from al-Qa’ida, but is not a branch of the group.” And O’Reilly’s claim about an Iraq-based plot to poison British water has not been substantiated either; in January 2003, anonymous government officials linked the ricin threat in England to Iraq, but did not provide any evidence (Associated Press, 1/16/03).

The fact that Letterman’s “office” can’t identify O’Reilly’s falsehoods doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Will O’Reilly be “man enough” to apologize?

ACTION: Please write to Bill O’Reilly and point out the false statements he made during his 2006 Letterman appearances.


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