Of Agendas, Fetishes and Crusades

For more than a year, Bill O’Reilly has been railing against the New York Times for what he believes is its excessive coverage of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. Back on May 27, 2004, he said, “some press people are using the terrible Abu Ghraib prison scandal as a political hammer. Some people don’t see that as a bad thing, but I do. I think the story should be reported accurately and aggressively, but not used by the media to advance an agenda.” (Emphasis added.)

O’Reilly feels the Times, more than anyone else in the “left-wing media,” has focused far too much on the military prison torture scandal. On his Fox News show, “The O’Reilly Factor,” he has repeatedly condemned the paper for its Abu Ghraib coverage, and has kept a running tab of the number of front-page stories the Times has written about it. O’Reilly hasn’t always had the numbers exactly right — on May 27th, he said there had been “total of 50 front page articles” in the Times about the scandal, and then on June 22nd said, “They got 47 stories on Abu Ghraib on the front page” — but his point is clear: The Times “is using the prisoner story to hammer the Bush administration.” In the past year, in addition to the examples above, he criticized the Times’ Abu Ghraib coverage on June 11, June 14, June 30, July 1, July 9, July 21, August 9, Oct. 8, Oct. 25, Nov. 9, Nov. 22, Feb. 16, March 9, April 12, May 3, May 16, and May 17. The notion that the Times is allowing ideology to dictate its coverage has become a common refrain on the show.

But there’s another common refrain of late on “The O’Reilly Factor,” one that puts his criticism of the Times into a different light. Last January, University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill made news when students and faculty members at Hamilton College protested a scheduled speaking appearance by Churchill, who had written an incendiary essay that compared the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to Nazis. The night after the story broke, O’Reilly attacked Churchill, calling him an “anti-American fanatic,” and invited onto his show a Hamilton faculty member and the family of a man who died in the Sept. 11 attacks.

You might think that was ample coverage of a story concerning whether or not an obscure but controversial professor would or should speak at an equally-obscure small college. But O’Reilly covered the story for nine straight days — and has barely slowed down since. Here’s a recap of the Churchill coverage on “The O’Reilly Factor”:

Jan 28: O’Reilly attacks Churchill and interviews the Hamilton professor and Sept. 11 family.

Jan 31: O’Reilly interviews anti-Churchill University of Colorado professor Paul Campos.

Feb 1: After Hamilton cancels Churchill’s appearance, O’Reilly interviews conservative crusader David Horowitz and two Hamilton students.

Feb 2: O’Reilly gets a call from the Times asking if he felt responsible for the death threats Churchill has received since the story broke. “I knew this was going to happen. I told you last night that the left wing media would be angry that “The Factor” could influence the national discourse,” O’Reilly says.

Feb 3: O’Reilly attacks Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who had written a column criticizing O’Reilly because he “went to town on the controversy.” He interviews FOX News correspondent Carol McKinley, who was covering a Colorado University meeting about Churchill. O’Reilly’s column about Churchill is posted on billoreilly.com.

Feb 4: Guest host John Gibson interviews two wide-eyed CU college students who support Churchill. One says, “I believe Professor Churchill’s a wonderful, wonderful man. He’s taught a lot of students a whole lot of things.”

Feb 7: O’Reilly interviews Colorado governor Bill Owens, who has called for Churchill’s resignation.

Feb 8: O’Reilly talks about how the ACLU “has finally broken [its] silence” and backed Churchill. He sarcastically feigns shock.

Feb 9: O’Reilly interviews anti-Churchill CU professor Paul Campos — again. He also interviews Commander Greg Noone, a former prosecutor for the U.S. Navy, and wonders, “Can [Churchill] be tried for either treason or sedition?” The answer: Not so much.

Feb 11: O’Reilly interviews Wisconsin state assemblyman Steve Nass. He wonders why the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater has not cancelled an upcoming appearance by Churchill, and complains that the networks are ignoring the story. “This is not an important story, that a guy who hates America is profiting from that hate and inflicting pain on the 9/11 families?” he says. “This is not worthy of some exposition? Come on. This goes right to the heart of our liberties, right to the moral fabric of America. This is huge.”

Feb 16: O’Reilly once again interviews David Horowitz about Churchill.

Feb 17: O’Reilly interviews talk show host Craig Silverman, who says CU should fire Churchill. He also interviews a student and faculty president at Eastern Washington University, which “might still pay radical Professor Ward Churchill to speak on campus.”

Feb 18: O’Reilly interviews a college instructor who “is involved with feminist issues.” She wants Churchill to resign. He points out that “the only college that has not canceled radical professor Ward Churchill as a speaker is the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater,” and says “Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle has been strangely silent about the entire situation.” He accuses Doyle of remaining silent because “he’s indebted to some Native Americans in Wisconsin,” and interviews former Wisconsin governor Scott McCallum, who criticizes Churchill and Doyle.

Feb 23: O’Reilly complains that “The University of Hawaii gave Churchill an all expense paid trip to Oahu to reiterate what he has said before.”

Feb 24: O’Reilly interviews former KKK grand wizard David Duke, who defends Churchill’s right to free speech.

Feb 25: O’Reilly interviews the executive producer of the syndicated program “Celebrity Justice,” who talks about Churchill. He plays a video of Churchill getting in a confrontation on camera.

Feb 28: O’Reilly interviews reporter Raj Cohen, who accuses Churchill of “possible copyright infringement involving a piece of art.” Cohen says Churchill copied the work of a deceased artist. O’Reilly also re-interviews anti-Churchill talk show host Craig Silverman.

March 2: O’Reilly: “Professor Ward Churchill is a traitor in my estimation.”

March 7: O’Reilly criticizes CU president Elizabeth Hoffman, who has resigned in the wake of the Churchill controversy and a football scandal. He says she was “totally intimidated by Churchill,” and claims that Churchill will “take the entire University of Colorado down with him.”

March 8: O’Reilly interviews another CU professor, Phil Mitchell, who “may lose his job because he is an evangelical Christian.”

March 11: O’Reilly interviews radio reporter Dan Caplis. They discuss whether or not Churchill is a plagiarist and air accusations that he is.

March 24: O’Reilly interviews Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi. They discuss allegations that Churchill might not actually be Native American. O’Reilly tells Harsanyi to call those deciding Churchill’s fate “weasels,” and Harsanyi says, “I’d love to.”

March 29: O’Reilly criticizes CU for “ducking the Ward Churchill issue.”

April 7: O’Reilly interviews Ward Churchill’s lawyer, David Lane. He mocks Sangamon State University, Churchill’s alma mater. “I have never heard of it,” he says. “…it’s certainly not Yale, all right. It’s not Stanford or something at that level.” He also again questions Churchill’s ethnicity and airs the plagiarism allegations.

May 19: O’Reilly again interviews radio host Craig Silverman. They discuss whether or not Churchill should be considered Keetoowah Cherokee, which he claims to be. Wonders O’Reilly: “When do you think this is going to wrap up and they’re going to boot him?”

That’s 25 instances of Churchill coverage on “The O’Reilly Factor” since the story broke in January. Twenty-five separate shows during which O’Reilly covered the story of one misguided college professor as though it were the Watergate hearings.

Now let’s reconsider O’Reilly’s criticism of the Times continuing coverage of the Abu Ghraib prison atrocities and follow-up developments. He said, “I think the story should be reported accurately and aggressively, but not used by the media to advance an agenda.”

O’Reilly’s Churchill fetish is, of course, a classic example of agenda-driven journalism — in this case, one “that will make white, middle-class [people] feel angry and disgusted,” as David Foster Wallace put it in a story about right-wing talk radio — the very talk radio that, as Jack Shafer of Slate pointed out, serves as a model for much of Fox News’s programming.

Break down the logic on which O’Reilly bases his criticism of the Times: He believes the paper overplayed the prison abuse story because Times editors believe the more people see the story, the worse they will feel about the Bush administration. Fair enough. But even O’Reilly must see the obvious corollary in the Churchill story. The nutty professor, after all, serves as a handy stand in for liberal Bush critics. His overblown rhetoric tars rational people on the left by association. O’Reilly’s decision to relentlessly focus on him instead of giving voice to more rational and credible representatives of the left speaks volumes.

So next time you hear O’Reilly complaining about the Times’ Abu Ghraib story — and trust us, it won’t be long — take a moment to consider his Churchill obsession. The Times has aggressively covered the unfolding tale of systematic torture by the U.S. military; “The O’Reilly Factor” has aggressively covered the rhetoric and alleged ethical transgressions of one far-left university professor. By O’Reilly’s calculation, that makes the former guilty of ideological agenda-driven coverage and the latter a fair and balanced arbiter of the news of the day.

Only one of these stories will go down as a genuine footnote to history. You can guess which one we’re referring to. The other, as it long ago became clear, will last only as long as one man’s obsession.

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.