Grover Norquist, the right's premier political organizer, once told me that the most significant difference between liberal journalists and conservative journalists is that the former are journalists first while the latter are conservatives first (if journalists at all). Right-winger Bill O'Reilly plays the role of a journalist on TV, radio and print. His grasp of the profession's fundamental tenets, however, seems hardly more secure than that of an actor hired to play a journalist in a phony White House Medicare video.
Recently O'Reilly complained on television, radio and in his syndicated column about a December 2003 group interview conducted by about a dozen and a half writers and scholars with John Kerry in Al Franken's apartment. Those present at the two-hour, on-the-record event--myself included--grilled Kerry about his record, his plans and what looked to be his failing campaign. Because few believed Kerry was still in the running--Slate's Mickey Kaus was holding a contest to name the excuse he would use to drop out of the race--the encounter generated little mainstream coverage. I posted a long description of it on my "Altercation" weblog (www.altercation.msnbc.com ), including the "spirited exchange" between Kerry and me over his misguided vote to authorize the Iraq war, and William Rivers Pitt wrote about it on the Truthout.com website.
Months later, O'Reilly became exercised upon reading a short paragraph about the meeting in a New York Times Magazine profile of his nemesis, Franken, in which Time managing editor Jim Kelly was quoted observing, "By the third go-round, the answer [regarding Iraq] was getting shorter and more relevant." In his column, O'Reilly complained, "The 'third go-round'? That sounds like coaching to me, but I could be wrong. Maybe the Massachusetts senator simply wasn't making himself clear.... Can you imagine if executives from the Fox News Channel, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times had gathered at Camp David for a little slap and tickle with President Bush? And nobody was told about it? And The New York Times found out about it? Can you say PAGE ONE BOLD FACE HEADLINE?"
Alas, the talk-show host is confused on several counts simultaneously. The meeting included no executives and was clearly no "slap and tickle" session. Here's Pitt's description: "Kerry's decision to open himself to the slings and arrows of this group was bold and impressive. He...had his game face on. He needed it, because Eric Alterman lit into him immediately on the all-important issue of his vote for the Iraq War Resolution. The prosecution had begun." (And O'Reilly cannot credibly plead ignorance on this point, because, at the request of a Fox producer, I forwarded him my MSNBC.com report on the meeting.)
O'Reilly has apparently never seen a public official being asked a tough question over and over until he offers a straight answer. Perhaps this is because he largely hangs around with the conservatives at Fox and maybe takes in the occasional presidential press conference on television. When reporters attempt to re-ask Bush a question, he merely repeats the same nonsense he spouted in the first place. With few exceptions, reporters tend to let him get away with it. In July 2003 Bush deliberately misled the country with the words: "Did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is: absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in." He repeated this obvious falsehood in January alongside the Polish president. Never was Bush forced to follow up with an explanation of why he didn't seem to have a clue about the war he started. Given that Bush's statement bore "no relation to reality," the Washington Post's Dana Milbank was asked, "Why has that not been made more of by the press?" Milbank, perhaps the toughest of all regular White House reporters, responded, "I think what people basically decided was, this is just the President being the President. Occasionally he plays the wrong track, and something comes out quite wrong. He is under a great deal of pressure."
Meanwhile, New York Times White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller has admitted that asking tough questions of the President is just too scary, and we should get off her case about allowing him to mislead America and the world: "I think we were very deferential," she recently explained in an interview, "because it's frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you're standing up on prime-time live TV asking the President of the United States a question when the country's about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the President at this very serious time."
Finally, there's O'Reilly's idea that the world would be shocked if Bush held a similar meeting. Well, here one has to wonder what planet the man inhabits. Bush and his advisers have meetings like that one all the time. The primary difference between them and Kerry--at least at the meeting I attended--is that they do not have the guts to go on the record. Bush invited a group of neocon columnists over for lunch right before he went to war and, without going on the record and with no pesky "third go-rounds" on questions, manipulated each one of them into deceiving the nation. For instance, the late Michael Kelly, writing in the Washington Post, passed along this bit of malicious misinformation unedited: "The official [actually Bush] described both Hussein and al Qaeda as...part of, and partners in, the war of terror against the United States," and "spoke of a 'connection between a despot who has got chemical, biological and eventually, perhaps, nuclear weapons, and a shadowy network....'"
Remember, this is a President who cannot even face the 9/11 Commission without Dick Cheney there to baby-sit him. And O'Reilly has a problem with Kerry taking tough questions for two hours on the record? As with Bush, we're left with the perennial unanswerable question: dishonest, moronic or both?
I report, you decide.