NO WINNERS IN O’REILLY VS. OLBERMANN
*By Roger Aronoff
MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, for some time now, has been trying to generate ratings by attacking his competitor in the same time period, Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. It hasn’t worked too well. O’Reilly continues to clobber him. But there is another aspect to this controversy that deserves public interest and comment. Both cable news personalities do not seem to be interested in correcting the record when they are caught making serious errors.
Last October, O’Reilly was interviewing former Gen. Wesley Clark, the retired General turned Democratic presidential candidate turned Fox News contributor. In the context of the controversy surrounding the treatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison, and whether or not more photos of alleged abuse should be released, O’Reilly said that there have always been atrocities, even by Americans, committed in war. He said “General, you need to look at the Malm?dy Massacre in World War II in the 82nd Airborne.”
Malm?dy was a city in Belgium where an atrocity took place during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, during the Second World War. But O’Reilly was terribly wrong about the facts. The atrocity involved German troops killing Americans.
Fast forward to May 30, 2006. The subject on The O’Reilly Factor, and practically everywhere in the media, was an alleged massacre of innocent civilians in Haditha, Iraq, including women, children and the elderly. The total was said to be 24 dead. O’Reilly’s guest was again, Wesley Clark. Part of their exchange went as follows: (transcript is edited to exclude extraneous verbiage)
CLARK: ?It’s an indicator that the stress on the units is such that standards of discipline and performance are breaking down at the margin.
O’REILLY: I disagree. In Iwo Jima, in the Battle of the Bulge, Malm?dy, all these things, and you’re a military historian. You know, these happen. It happens in every war. It’s happened in every army. And you’re right. It’s a breakdown caused by stress. And the breakdown has to be dealt with by the military extremely quickly, effectively.
O’REILLY: Murderers, if they’re deemed guilty in a military court of justice, have to be punished.
But to draw a wider implication, general, when 95 percent, and I think you’d agree with that figure, of American forces overseas under tremendous stress, are performing heroically every day, to draw a wider implication at this juncture is brutally unfair, both to our forces and to our country. What say you?
CLARK: I say that, first of all, you’ll have to show me and prove to me that there were ever any American soldiers in Belgium, and Normandy, or in Iwo Jima, who murdered civilians.
Secondly, I think you’re too low when you say 95 percent of the forces are performing effectively. I’d say 99.5 percent of the forces are performing effectively. Maybe higher.
But when you have incidents like this, and you have chains of command under enormous stress, that is an indicator that things aren’t going right. You’ve got to be sensitive of those indicators. You’ve got to fix the problem. Otherwise, it’s going to get worse.
O’REILLY: And in Malm?dy, as you know, U.S. forces captured S.S. forces, who had their hands in the air. And they were unarmed. And they shot them down. You know that. That’s on the record. Been documented.
And Iwo Jima, the same thing occurred. The Japanese attempted to surrender, and they were burned in their caves.
The next night, May 31, O’Reilly read a viewer’s mail at the end of the show:
O’REILLY: Don Caldwell, Fort Worth, Texas: “Bill, you mentioned that Malm?dy as the site of an American massacre during World War II. It was the other way around, the SS shot down U.S. prisoners.”
O’Reilly responded, saying, “In the heat of the debate with General Clark, my statement wasn’t clear enough, Mr. Caldwell. After Malm?dy, some were executed by American troops.”
In his response, Olbermann made the point that this was not a sufficient correction. “Wrong answer,” said Olbermann. “When you are that wrong, when you are defending Nazi war criminals and pinning their crimes on Americans and you get caught doing so twice, you’re supposed to say, ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong,’ and then you’re supposed to shut up for a long time.”
It’s clear that O’Reilly was not truly acknowledging his mistake, but it’s also clear that he was not defending Nazi war criminals. He was making a point about unfortunate atrocities committed during war and got the facts wrong. He should have corrected the record in a straightforward manner.
His failure to do so is mystifying. In a column from June, 2005, O’Reilly said that “After German SS troops massacred 86 American soldiers at Malm?dy in Belgium on Dec. 17, 1944, some units like the U.S. 11th Armored Division took revenge on captured German soldiers.” O’Reilly had the basic facts right, in this column at least, about Malm?dy. So how could he have gotten the facts wrong on two subsequent occasions? It’s hard to know, especially since O’Reilly and Fox News have chosen not to respond to AIM’s request for an explanation of not only the error but the failure to correct the error.
How did O’Reilly make such a gross mistake twice, eight months apart, after having written accurately about it a few months earlier?
Olbermann, however, took this straightforward case of O’Reilly getting the facts wrong to another, more insidious level. He alleged that anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy had questioned the evidence about what the German Nazi troops had done at Malm?dy and, therefore, O’Reilly was a modern-day McCarthy for raising questions about the atrocity. Olbermann’s lengthy diatribe on this matter concluded with, “Senator Joe McCarthy and evidently Bill O’Reilly believe that the real victims in the story of 84 American service-men at Malm?dy, the real victims were the Nazis.”
Rather than stick with the case that O’Reilly had gotten the facts wrong in a big way, and that he had failed to acknowledge his error, Olbermann decided to resort to a smear, using one of the left-wing’s favorite punching bags, Senator McCarthy. This conduct is at least as objectionable as O’Reilly failing to acknowledge his error.
Another of Olbermann’s distortions was that Fox deliberately altered its transcript of the May 30 show to claim that O’Reilly said “Normandy” rather than “Malm?dy,” in order to obscure the serious nature of O’Reilly’s error. “Fox washed its transcript of O’Reilly’s remarks,” claimed Olbermann with intense indignation and a high degree of certainty. “Its website claims O’Reilly said ‘in Normandy’ when, as you heard, in fact, he said ‘in Malm?dy.'” Olbermann said that Fox had engaged in the Orwellian rewriting of history.
But it turns out that Fox had nothing to do with the transcript, other than posting it on its site after it was sent over by the transcription company, Morningside Partners, a Maryland-based company that provides the same service for Olbermann’s Countdown show. Morningside told us that one of its transcribers had just heard Clark refer to Normandy, and that when O’Reilly said Malm?dy, the transcriber either misheard or mistakenly wrote down Normandy. When informed of the error, it was immediately corrected.
Once again, Olbermann had put the darkest interpretation of events on what Fox had done. But his claim made no sense. Why would using “Normandy” instead of “Malm?dy” have made O’Reilly look any better? Clearly, it was an innocent mistake that Fox News and O’Reilly had no control over.
This kind of desperation tells us a lot about Olbermann. His glib manner, wise-guy approach, and steady flow of Bush-bashing have not significantly improved his ratings, and his mean-spirited attacks on O’Reilly and Fox News over Malm?dy cannot help. It’s too bad he didn’t stick to his well-documented case that O’Reilly had badly mangled the facts about Malm?dy. He exaggerated the controversy into something it was not.
Even after a period of falling ratings for Fox and increased ratings for MSNBC, O’Reilly is averaging over 2 million viewers per night during the original prime time cablecast, while Olbermann’s number is less than a quarter of that. The corporate bosses at MSNBC have done all they can for Olbermann, even running a daytime version of his show at 9:00 a.m. EST.
The Malm?dy controversy is the latest chapter in Olbermann’s frontal assault on O’Reilly. Jumping on the Fox News personality for alleged mistakes or gaffes, he has occasionally labeled O’Reilly one of the “worst persons in the world.” Olbermann once gave AIM this label for criticizing a leftward drift by Fox News.
Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz said in an Internet chat on the Post website that this is a deliberate strategy. He wrote that “anything that Keith can do to draw O’Reilly into a public exchange has the effect of increasing Olbermann’s visibility. Plus, given that ‘Countdown’ has an increasingly liberal and anti-Bush bent, the shtick undoubtedly plays well with Olbermann’s audience.”
Under these circumstances, it’s understandable why O’Reilly would not want to be drawn into a public dispute with the likes of Olbermann, who is desperate to use O’Reilly as a prop. But O’Reilly is spinning in his own No Spin Zone when he fails to openly acknowledge and correct egregious errors.
As for Olbermann, with the forced resignation of MSNBC President Rick Kaplan, his low-rated show and reckless approach to the issues of the day should be coming under renewed scrutiny.
*Roger Aronoff is a Media Analyst with Accuracy in Media. He is the Writer/Director of “Confronting Iraq: Conflict and Hope.”
SECRET EVIDENCE FOR SECRET PRISONS?
Desperate to justify its Pulitzer Prize-winning story about CIA “secret prisons” in Europe, the Washington Post claimed that a European investigator by the name of Dick Marty had found “signs” or “indications” of their existence. In fact, the investigator’s report admits he found no “hard evidence” of what the Post reported to be true. The U.S. State Department spokesman said about the Marty report that “We don’t see any new solid facts in it. There seems to be a lot of allegations but no real facts behind it.” The same applies to the dubious Dana Priest article, based on anonymous sources, that won the Pulitzer.
The Post headline, “European Probe Finds Signs of CIA-Run Secret Prisons,” could just as easily have been, “European Probe Finds No Proof of CIA-Run Secret Prisons.” The ninth paragraph of the story, written by Craig Whitlock, said, “Marty acknowledged that he lacked proof that would firmly establish the existence of the prisons.” The two countries said to have maintained “secret prisons” absolutely deny the charges. In fact, Polish Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz said, “This is a slanderous accusation finding no reflection in reality. We shall not respond to charges which are not based on facts.”
The most important part of the report is on page 66, where Marty admits he has no “hard evidence” but finds “elements” suggesting that “secret detention centers” had existed. Notice how “secret prisons” had now become “detention centers.” In the original Dana Priest article, it was dramatically suggested they were like Soviet-style gulags.
The Marty report was conducted largely in response to the Priest article, and he makes references to it, as if the Post story was authoritative. However, Germany’s Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper has editorialized that Marty relies too heavily on newspaper articles. “The public,” the paper says, “rightly hopes for a bit more from a special investigator’s report than a detailed press review on the issue.”
Covering The Report
Over at the Boston Globe, reporter Colin Nickerson noted that Dick Marty had charged various European countries with having “collaborated with the United States” but that he “offered little in the way of hard evidence?”
In a different formulation, Dan Bilefsky of the New York Times reported that Marty had charged that two European countries “probably” harbored “secret detention centers.” Not surprisingly, an Al-Jazeera story went further, insisting that Marty had documented that the CIA had been caught “operating secret prisons” in Europe. It is typical of Al-Jazeera to exaggerate or lie in an effort to make America look bad.
But what accounts for the Post’s sensational approach to this story? It may be motivated at this point by the simple desire to find some justification somewhere for Priest’s story and her Pulitzer. The paper has to be in a panic over the fact that the story remains unconfirmed.
While there is little doubt that the U.S. has moved suspected terrorists around the globe, in a practice known as rendition, the Priest article’s claim about “secret prisons” made this sound sinister and sensational. It is noteworthy that the State Department, in rejecting the Marty report for lacking “solid facts,” maintained that, “renditions are an internationally recognized legal practice” and that “Carlos the Jackal wouldn’t be in jail today without the practice of rendition.” This international terrorist was captured in Sudan in 1994, injected with a tranquilizer, bound, stuffed into a sack, and transferred to France, where he was put on trial, convicted of murder, and sentenced to life in prison. Interestingly, he announced in 2003 that he was converting to Islam and pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Last week Venezuela’s lunatic ruler Hugo Chavez called the terrorist “a good friend.”
The capture of this killer was hailed at the time as a great success. But now, when the U.S. does it, during a time of war when Americans are facing the prospect of more terrorist attacks, the Washington Post decides that its job is to investigate, expose and undermine this effective practice through exaggerations and lies. European leftists went crazy over the charges and demanded a probe.
But the basic truth is that the Priest article on “secret prisons,” which was published on November 2, 2005, still cannot be confirmed, even after a comprehensive investigation. It looks like the position of the Post will have to be that evidence for the existence of the secret prisons will just have to remain secret?if it exists at all. Does this kind of coverage deserve a Pulitzer Prize?
PUTTING THE HEAT ON AL GORE
Since we have a biased media on important public policy issues, it is really up to conservative groups to try to get alternative information into the national debate. The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), headed by Fred Smith, is doing just that. It is filling the void on the media’s failure to present both sides of the global warming debate by running ads directly confronting media bias. One of CEI’s targets is a Time magazine cover story urging people to be “very worried” about global warming. As CEI suggests, we should really be worried about slanted journalism that doesn’t have enough faith in people to enable them to make up their own minds.
CEI has also taken on Al Gore, the star of his own new movie on global warming, by noting that Gore used a lot of jet fuel to fly around the country warning people about the greenhouse gases that he helped produce. The hilarious CEI ad on this is titled “Al Gore’s Big, Fat Carbon Footprint.”
In terms of the major media, John Stossel of ABC News is probably the only reporter for the major broadcast networks who takes the time to offer any information contradicting the notion that we are in the midst of man-made global warming and that it threatens a major global catastrophe. Stossel was at the CEI annual dinner on May 23 and received the Julian Simon Award, named for the intellectual giant who disputed the no-growth doomsayers whose previous predictions were proven false. Stossel’s new book, Myths, Lies, and Outright Stupidity, includes a section on global warming. He concludes that warming is occurring but that there’s no hard evidence to link it to human activity. He also concludes that a U.N. treaty can’t stop or fix it.
Fortunately, Fox News has finally come through with a program offering different perspectives on the topic. It had come in for intense conservative criticism for having turned over an hour of airtime on November 13, 2005, to liberal activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., to promote his alarmist and near-hysterical view. The May 21 FNC special, hosted by David Asman, was called “Global Warming: The Debate Continues.” He said, “Today, almost all scientists agree that there is global warming, but there is no scientific consensus about what causes global warming or how it will affect our lives.”
Among others, the show included Senator James Inhofe calling man-made global warming a hoax. The Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Inhofe has delivered several important speeches on this subject. He was interviewed by Fox for more than two hours, but the channel used only a couple minutes of his remarks.
On the Fox show, however, Inhofe was able to make the critical point that Time magazine, which is now warning of global warming, once warned of a new ice age.
Why don’t those on the left want to accept the likelihood that warming and cooling are natural cycles over which humans have no influence or control? If that was the case, then new government solutions, including global treaties like the U.N.’s Kyoto Protocol, wouldn’t be necessary. Sounding the alarm over a problem that may not exist also gives liberals the chance to appear compassionate. For the media, it’s another opportunity to implement the liberal agenda and sell magazines and papers.
What You Can Do
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