Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Why I Turned Down O'Reilly

By Mary Alice Carr

The first time I appeared on "The O'Reilly Factor," in 2004, I sat across from Bill O'Reilly in awkward silence while he shuffled papers and took notes.

Finally, he glanced up and acknowledged my existence. "Thank you for coming on," he said. "Most people don't have the guts."

I said, "Well, you are one of the most-watched new shows on cable."

He swiftly retorted, "The most-watched new show on cable TV."

Let's face it: Bill O'Reilly is not only aware of his power and his reach, he's damn proud of them.

So I went on his show, time and again, even though many other progressives discouraged me. I went because I know what O'Reilly knows: It's the most-watched show, and I thought it was imperative that his audience also hear our viewpoint.

I also know that when you have a bully pulpit, you need to be held accountable for what you preach.

O'Reilly is being incredibly disingenuous when he claims that he bears no responsibility for others' actions in the killing of Dr. George Tiller on Sunday. When you tell an audience of millions over and over again that someone is an executioner, you cannot feign surprise when someone executes that person.

You cannot claim to hold no responsibility for what other people do when you call for people to besiege Tiller's clinic, as O'Reilly did in January 2008. And this was after Tiller had been shot in both arms and after his clinic had been bombed.

O'Reilly knew that people wanted Tiller dead, and he knew full well that many of those people were avid viewers of his show. Still, he fanned the flames. Every time I appeared on his show, I received vitriolic and hate-filled e-mails. And if I received those messages directly, I can only imagine what type of feedback O'Reilly receives. He knows that his words incite violence.

That is why I made a personal pledge to no longer sit across from him after he called for people to converge on Tiller's clinic. I realized that appearing on the show with him would only legitimize his speech and that no good would come of my efforts.

So on Tuesday morning, when an O'Reilly producer called and asked me to come on the show to "discuss the reasons why women have late-term abortions," I held fast to my pledge. I told his producer what I thought: that I had had that conversation on air with O'Reilly five years earlier and that he agreed with me at the time that the decision was between a woman and her doctor. That O'Reilly then went on to pretend we had never talked about it and continued condemning women and doctors. That the nation and those of us in the pro-choice community are reeling from the murder of a doctor who helped women. That we hold O'Reilly responsible for helping to create a climate in which hate was allowed to fester. That I refused to dignify his irresponsible behavior, not to mention his deplorable reaction to Tiller's shooting.

O'Reilly had the opportunity to apologize for his words, and he didn't. He had the opportunity to say that this tragic outcome was something about which he felt sorry. He didn't. When restraint and perspective were called for, he fanned the flames higher. In fact, on his June 1 "Talking Points," he played the martyr, saying his critics were seeking to stifle any criticism of "people like Tiller -- that and hating Fox News is the real agenda here." On his show the next day -- the show I declined to appear on -- he again called a murdered man "Dr. Killer."

I admit that after the call from the producer, I hesitated. What an opportunity, I thought, to sit across from O'Reilly and call him out for what he has done and where his responsibility lies. To speak for everyone in America who is hurt and scared and angry. I have never been a Fox News hater; clearly, I've used the show for the benefit of my movement and my organization, and I've answered his questions on some of the toughest issues around. Didn't I have the right to also call him out for his speech?

But then I realized I just couldn't. Because if the murder of a man in a house of worship wasn't enough to make Bill O'Reilly repent, what hope did I have?

The writer is vice president of communications for NARAL Pro-Choice New York.