March 23, 2009

Gobsmacking. There's no other word for it. What else can you call it when a national TV network's most popular anchor goes onscreen and reports a story that not only completely inverts reality, but does it by unleashing a camera crew that engages in the behavior of stalkers, actually tracking down a woman blogger on her weekend getaway and ambushing her at her hotel? It's not just hypocrisy: This is a psychotic perversion of press rights in a way that violates basic American privacy rights. And it's dangerous as hell.

That's what Bill O'Reilly did tonight on the O'Reilly Factor. Here's the report from O'Reilly's own sector of Planet Wingnuttia:

O'Reilly: Now, for the evil part. Last month, after the charitable event was announced, a bunch of far-left loons picked up some propaganda from the hate group Media Matters, that said I am unsympathetic to the plight of crime victims -- a preposterous lie. Along with America's Most Wanted, the Factor has done more for the victims of crime in America than any other television program on the air. The loons pointed to a Radio Factor episode from three years ago. We've posted the entire commentary on

Elements at NBC News then encouraged the loons to protest the Alexa Foundation, causing Alexa and her family major grief.

That's right: O'Reilly is claiming that these reports actually harmed rape victims, since the Alexa Foundation was probably acutely embarrassed by the reports. So to prove his sensitivity to rape victims, he sent out a news crew to stalk a woman on her private weekend getaway.

What so infuriated O'Reilly was a Think Progress report -- itself a pickup from NewsHounds, and which in turn was picked up by MSNBC -- pointing out that while O'Reilly was going to give a speech before the Alexa Foundation, which benefits rape victims and their families, he had something of a history of gross insensitivity to the victims of rape himself. Here's what Amanda Terkel at Think Progress actually reported:

Our post — which never criticized the Alexa Foundation — highlighted the fact that in the past, O’Reilly has implied that women who dress in a certain way or consume too much alcohol should perhaps expect to be raped. Here is what he said on his radio show on Aug. 2 about Jennifer Moore, an 18-year-old woman who was raped and murdered:

Now Moore, Jennifer Moore, 18, on her way to college. She was 5-foot-2, 105 pounds, wearing a miniskirt and a halter top with a bare midriff. Now, again, there you go. So every predator in the world is gonna pick that up at two in the morning. She’s walking by herself on the West Side Highway, and she gets picked up by a thug. All right. Now she’s out of her mind, drunk.

O’Reilly’s comments about Moore were part of a larger segment about the dangers of drunkenness. His other example was Mel Gibson going on a drunken tirade and yelling anti-Semitic comments. “I think it’s safe to say that if Mel Gibson didn’t get drunk, he wouldn’t be in this terrible situation he finds himself in,” said O’Reilly. “And if a young woman, 18-year-old Jennifer Moore of Harrington Park, NJ, didn’t get drunk, she’d be alive today.”

No doubt O'Reilly is still reeling from the embarrassment of a previous case where his grotesquely insensitive remarks came back to haunt him: namely, the Shawn Hornbeck incident, in which O'Reilly first suggested that a boy who had been kept a captive of a child molester for years had somehow "wanted it." As it happened, he was scheduled to speak before a conference for the families of missing kids. The ensuing uproar didn't subside until his appearance was cancelled.

In other words, the guy who should have at some time apologized for belittling the victims of sexual assault -- and never has -- instead is claiming that his critics "hurt a rape victim and her family."

The Alexa Foundation is sticking with O'Reilly (a spokesperson was on afterward to fiercely denounce the protests). There apparently were pickets outside O'Reilly's appearance, and a groups called Concerned Women Against Sexual Violence created a petition of protest as well -- which got a big shout-out from Keith Olbermann.

So of course, Bill O'Reilly sent out his flying monkeys -- namely, the same ambush news crews, headed by an uber-cretin named Jesse Watters, who have attacked other hapless miscreants who had the audacity to bother O'Reilly's august ego -- in swift and nasty retaliation, as Terkel describes:

- The Stalking: Watters and his camera man accosted me at approximately 3:45 p.m. on Saturday, March 21, in Winchester, VA, which is a two-hour drive from Washington, DC. My friend and I were in this small town for a short weekend vacation and had told no one about where we were going. I can only infer that the two men staked out my apartment and then followed me for two hours. Looking back, my friend and I remember seeing their tan SUV following us for much of the trip.

– The Ambush: Shortly after checking into our lodgings, we emerged and immediately saw two men walking toward us calling out my name. Watters said he was from Fox News, but never said his or his companion’s name, nor did he say he was with The O’Reilly Factor.

Read the rest to see how the rest of the encounter went. Then compare it to O'Reilly's version above.

This whole episode itself is a gross bit of hypocrisy, considering that O'Reilly himself has complained about journalists invading celebrities' privacy -- a point for which he was recently slammed by Jon Stewart.

And that raises an important point about press ethics. O'Reilly's ambush crews claim to be "investigative journalists" acting in the crusading tradition of the old '60 Minutes' crews of the '70s and '80s. And indeed those journalists did excellent and serious work tracking down various official miscreants.

But they did it at their offices or their places of work. They didn't invade their homes.

Moreover, there is a big difference between people who anger you, or people with whom you disagree, and public officials or powerful people who have abused their positions. I think we all can understand why it's ethical for journalists to pursue the latter, and why everyone who has a shred of ethical decency as a journalist pauses long and hard while considering the former.

The power of the press is very easily abused, especially against ordinary private citizens who aren't celebrities, and whose privacy is every bit as sacred as Bill O'Reilly's.

If this kind of harassment continues, however, then it may comes time to turn the tables -- and they've picked a set of victims more capable of fighting fire with fire than they reckon. O'Reilly and his crew may not like it when bloggers start camping out on their lawns and demanding answers to insultingly partisan questions, shouted aggressively, as they try to get to their cars. Jesse Watters, what's your address?

In the meantime, here's John's now-classic guide for dealing with O'Reilly. We recommend frequent if not constant repetition of the words, "Andrea Mackris."

UPDATE: Amanda Terkel chimes in on tonight's BillO report. As noted above, there was a lot edited out by O'Reilly.

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