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May 2, 2004: Fox News, Fair and Balanced - Just Not Very Canadian

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The Canadian columnist Heather Mallick appeared on the The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News last Tuesday night to discuss a column she wrote welcoming the presence of American deserters in Canada.  Needless to say, Bill O’Reilly was outraged by such a position.  He was fuming, to put it mildly.  Heather was in his sites.  And somehow he managed to get the Globe and Mail to schedule her on his show for a chat.


Well, Heather actually agreed.  As she says – "I always say yes to American TV because how else are Americans going to hear about radical notions like feeding the poor and sheltering the gentle, or letting black people vote in Florida?"


This was going to be classic.


Now much has been said in these pages about Bill O’Reilly – like this from last September on his rhetoric technique, which is basically telling people to shut up.   

And how did this encounter go?


Well, there is her view of that.


See My Fox trot with Bill O'Reilly

Heather Mallick, The Globe and Mail (Canada), Saturday, May 1, 2004 - Page F2


Here’s the key passage:


Mr. O'Reilly is not a smart man.  He's like one of those old guys you see on the street ringing a bell and shouting about eternal damnation.  He talks to his trousers.  You know the type.  They let wasps nest in their hair so they can lure weasels, trap 'em and eat 'em slow over the summer.

We were supposed to be discussing American deserters fleeing to Canada; instead, he went off on some wild thing about the mayor of Vancouver injecting people with heroin and unless Canada shapes up, "we" will boycott you and destroy your economy, just like "we" did to France.

I said France seemed to be doing fine.  He implied that France now looked like Dresden in 1945.  I hadn't heard that.

I said the United States couldn't boycott Canadian goods because it would be mutually damaging.  "We're your biggest trading partner."

"No, you're not."  (We are.)  Naturally, I wanted to reply, "Yes, we are," so that he could say "No, we're not," and then I'd say, "Everything you say bounces off me and reflects back on you, so there," but I couldn't regress that far….

And then he asked me if I was a socialist, and I said, "Certainly," and it was as if I'd said I like donkey semen in my latte instead of milk.  He then went into a mad rant about lefties … and how I was a typical Globe columnist.  I said, no, truthfully, I think I'm regarded as "idiosyncratic" (the first six-syllable word ever spoken on the O'Reilly show), and he erupted again.


The whole degraded debacle and everyone's reaction to it, including mine, reminded me that Americans now have to cope with a new surrealism in public life.  In the 1936 Spanish Civil War entries in a diary I read long ago, by someone who may well have been Stephen Spender, the writer describes an O'Reilly-esque scene.  "A man squats and defecates in the street, without comment."  Re-reading these diaries decades later, Spender writes, "What on earth did I expect him to say?  Olé?"


Bill O’Reilly is still gloating how he put the lefty Canadian woman in her place – he showed the American people who our true enemy really is.  And on the show you hear further rumblings about ruining Canada with a Fox-News-inspired boycott just as we ruined France.


There is a disconnect here.


If we are to believe Bill O’Reilly and Fox News, our boycott of French products – wine and cheese and whatever else – has devastated the place.  Paris looks like Dresden did in May of 1945 – just dusty rubble and hollow-eyed, starving waifs clad in tatters. 


Well, I do trade emails several times each week with four friends in France, two in Paris and two in la France profonde (the countryside, or really, any place that’s not Paris).  Not one of them has mentioned this ruin of a once proud country -at all.  I’ll ask again.


Bill O’Reilly runs a show that is, at bottom, opinion and commentary.  But it is opinion about and commentary on the facts of what happened in the world.  It seems there are facts, and the there are facts.  Fox News sees a quite different world than CNN and MSNBC and what they call the left-wing liberal media – the Los Angeles and New York Times, and the Washington Post and the rest.


My friends are lying to me about France?  Fox News sort of says they are.


Well, some would say only fools rely on news organizations that get the facts wrong.  And that brings us to Dick Cheney.


In the Washington Post this week Cheney says he likes Fox News.  Why?

Vice President Cheney endorsed the Fox News Channel during a conference call last night with tens of thousands of Republicans who were gathered across the country to celebrate a National Party for the President Day organized by the Bush-Cheney campaign.


... "It's easy to complain about the press -- I've been doing it for a good part of my career," Cheney said.  "It's part of what goes with a free society.  What I do is try to focus upon those elements of the press that I think do an effective job and try to be accurate in their portrayal of events.  For example, I end up spending a lot of time watching Fox News, because they're more accurate in my experience, in those events that I'm personally involved in, than many of the other outlets."

Readers might recall this from last October - regarding a study done by researchers from the Program on International Policy Attitudes (a joint project of several academic centers, some of them based at the University of Maryland) and Knowledge Networks, a California-based polling firm.  The study showed that, statistically, those who consistently get the actual facts wrong about what our country has done and is doing - and about much of what is happening in the world - use Fox News as their usual source of information.


The item in these pages quoted Harold Meyerson’s summary –


... People are proceeding from radically different sets of facts, some so different that they're altogether fiction.


In a series of polls from May through September, the researchers discovered that large minorities of Americans entertained some highly fanciful beliefs about the facts of the Iraqi war.  Fully 48 percent of Americans believed that the United States had uncovered evidence demonstrating a close working relationship between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.  Another 22 percent thought that we had found the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  And 25 percent said that most people in other countries had backed the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein.  Sixty percent of all respondents entertained at least one of these bits of dubious knowledge; 8 percent believed all three.


The researchers then asked where the respondents most commonly went to get their news.  The fair and balanced folks at Fox, the survey concludes, were "the news source whose viewers had the most misperceptions." Eighty percent of Fox viewers believed at least one of these un-facts; 45 percent believed all three.  Over at CBS, 71 percent of viewers fell for one of these mistakes, but just 15 percent bought into the full trifecta.  And in the daintier precincts of PBS viewers and NPR listeners, just 23 percent adhered to one of these misperceptions, while a scant 4 percent entertained all three.


Ah, well, does it matter?




As Eugene Oregon explains

It is a pretty slick setup, frankly.  When Cheney lies, Fox News reports it as the truth and together they fool Americans into supporting this administration.

Yep, Cheney is still saying, even if not as often, that we still could find those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, even the nuclear bombs.  They were there.  Really.  And he’s still saying Saddam Hussein was working with that Osama fellow.  He says that’s a fact.  Fox reports that.  No question.


Oh well.  Facts just aren’t what they used to be.


And France is ruins because we stopped buying their wine and cheese, and renamed those deep-fried salty potato sticks as the final coup de grace.  We really fixed their wagon.


Damn.  One might conclude America is not only divided in opinion, but actually sees two completely different worlds, and cannot even agree on some basic facts. 


No.  That couldn’t be.


On the other hand, given the choice between believing my friends who actually live in France, where the tell my the sky is not falling and the restaurants are open and folks still buy crap at Monoprix and all the rest, and believing Bill O’Reilly who tells me France is an economic wasteland, and he personally helped make it happen, well, I trust my friends.  They even send pictures.


But we all could be wrong - and Bill O’Reilly should tell my friends in France to stop lying.  I’m afraid they’d just laugh.


Maybe that’s the only appropriate thing to do.

We can’t even keep out facts straight?  Facts?  Hide them are change them.


This is getting relatively absurd.


Jon Wiener, a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine has an item in this weekend’s Los Angeles Times that sends up one more red flag, even if it is a small red flag.  Wiener is a contributing editor to the Nation magazine.  That’s a reliably left side rag.  But he is an historian, and his new book is "Historians in Trouble."  Huh?


Wiener comments on the retirement of the current Archivist of the United States, former Kansas Governor John Carlin.  The job of this archivist person?  Overseeing the most important documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights.  That sort of thing.  The folks in this office claim what they do is important.  “It is a public trust on which our democracy depends.  It enables people to inspect for themselves the record of what government has done."


Maybe so.  The archives office collects and preserves the records of government, including many presidential papers and documents from hearings – like the hearings that have been going on regarding what went wrong two years ago and how to fix these ongoing terrorism problems.  And the office is working on next year’s release of the presidential papers of George Bush’s father.


The problem?  The problem seems to be President Bush's nomination last month of one Allen Weinstein to take over the job from Carlin next year.


Weinstein has a rap for excessive secrecy and of ethical violations.  And Wiener reports that almost two-dozen organizations of archivists and historians have "expressed concern about his nomination."  And it looks as if these folks will, in the Senate confirmation hearings later this year, say the new guy just won’t do at all.


It seems the new guy won’t ever let other historians see his documents and interviews, and this does seem to violate the standards of the American Historical Association and the Society of American Archivists.  The idea is everyone gets to look at source material and think about it, then write things about it.  Weinstein is not big on that.


In 1999 Weinstein wrote "The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America - The Stalin Era" and said the book was based on documents that came from KGB archives.  But only he saw the KGB files, and he won’t let anyone else see them.  After all, his publisher, Random House, paid around a hundred grand to an organization of retired KGB agents to gain exclusive access to the documents.  Some people say this is a violation of research ethics.   They say it is flat out wrong for a historian (or his publisher) to pay archivists not to provide information to anyone else.  It prevents others from checking the accuracy and completeness of the resulting work.  


But we do live in a market economy, don’t we?

Wiener points out that when Yale University Press obtained access to the Communist Party archives in Moscow, the Yale editors declared that their documents would be available to other researchers.  Jonathan Brent, executive editor of the "Annals of Communism" book series at Yale, explained that "we want to enhance scholarship, not impede it."


Well, maybe the folks at Yale just aren’t good businessmen.

Then too Wiener tells us this Weinstein guy also withheld research materials from other scholars in his earlier book "Perjury," a 1978 assessment of the Alger Hiss case.  Weinstein concluded that Hiss really was a Soviet spy.  A damned communist!  And Weinstein flat-out refused to make his interviews available to historians who disagreed with him.


I’m not sure he said, “Go fish!”  But that was the general idea.


Wiener also points out that Victor Navasky, the publisher and editorial director of the Nation magazine these days, found that six of Weinstein's key sources each said he or she had been misquoted or otherwise misrepresented in the book.  Weinstein then, and that would be in late 1978, promised to make his interview tapes available at the Truman Library.  He just hasn’t gotten around to it yet.  Twenty-six years and he’s been too busy?  I guess.


Well, Weinstein has a reputation as an exacting and ideologically pure conservative anti-communist who thinks most other historians are liberal fools.  Think Ann Coulter without the long legs and nasty attitude. 


Anyway, Weinstein has seen, heard and read the real facts and knows who the bad guys are.  And he doesn’t want anyone else to see these facts.  No need for that.


He’s a Bush kind of guy.  You just have to trust him, and Fox News, and Bill O’Reilly too.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
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