Saturday, June 03, 2006

Unfounded Outrage Against O'Reilly

“Crooks and Liars” has a film clip of MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann ripping into Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly for saying that American soldiers committed the war atrocity at Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge.

Olberbman (and many liberal bloggers following his footsteps) went far overboard in their criticism here and, in doing so, has diverted the debate away from its legitimate subject.

Of course, I am no fan of Bill O’Reilly. His presence on Fox News is a prime example of what I am talking about when I say that people are too tolerant of liars. O’Reilly’s willingness to report deliberate falsehoods should have cost him his job long ago – if not from above (fired for lying), then from below (low ratings from a people who are sufficiently intolerant of deception).

Yet, in this case, O’Reilly committed what is in fact a common slip – substituting one name for another – as we all do from time to time.

O’Reilly needed only to have mentioned “Webling” or “Dachou” instead of “Malmedy.” Both of these involve incidents where American soldiers lined up and executed German prisoners. At Dachao, after the surrender, German prisoners were lined up against a wall and machine-gunned to death – not much different than what happened at Malmedy.

[Note: I also remember reading a book on the Battle of the Bulge many years ago where. One of the starkest memories of what I read was a report of American soldiers killing Germans who had surrendered and been disarmed. In this case, as I remember, the Americans were cut off and at risk of being killed or captured themselves, but the ordered the execution of the German prisoners before leaving.] In fact, since Dachou is associated with a concentration camp, I can hear O’Reilly thinking to himself as he spoke, “Dachou. No, that can’t be it, That was a concentration camp. Malmedy. That sounds right.” Then, he utters his misstatement. (Note: This incident did, in fact, occur near the Dachou concentration camp.)

In fact, ironically, I made a very similar mistake in the first draft of this posting. If I had been speaking (and if I had not been reading from a script, which Olbermann was doing but O’Reilly was not at the time of his misstatement) I would not have had the opportunity to check those facts and correct that mistake.

As Olbermann documented, O’Reilly has done this twice. Again, I can think of a number of cases where we get a particular association stuck in our heads and repeat a mistake. It is telling that both incidents involved discussions with Wesley Clark. Similar situations trigger associations. We are more likely to make the same mistake twice when the two different situations are alike.

O’Reilly gets blasted for a common type of mental slip (it apparently happened twice) because it presents an opportunity to paint the comment as something far worse. We are supposed to believe that O’Reilly knew the facts of Malmedy but intentionally reversed the roles in order to cast American troops as the villains. He is supposed to have done this in spite of the fact that the Malmedy massacre is one of the most widely known atrocities of the war.

What I see in this incident is a bunch of liberal bloggers attempting to score rhetorical points against somebody by offering a worse-case interpretation of an event as fact and inviting others to share the speaker’s dislike for the target of that distortion.

It’s the same approach that we find in the case of the Ishaqi killings. Recently, an Army hearing cleared a group of American servicemen of wrongdoing in action at Ishaqi. The allegations against the Americans say that the soldiers entered a house where an Al-Queida operative was said to be hiding, killed all 11 occupants including children, then called in an air strike on the building in order to conceal the evidence. The Americans say that they took fire from the house, fired back, then called in the air strike.

The BBC recently showed a video of the aftermath of the incident. BBC World Affairs editor John Simpson says that the video shows that the victims clearly died of gunshot wounds.

I recall Senator Frist getting into a great deal of trouble for diagnosing Terri Shiavo (who was said to have been in a permanent vegetative state) by merely viewing a video tape. Frist is a physician. John Simpson is allegedly able to tell the difference between a gunshot wound and a shrapnel wound from a video tape when a bullet is really nothing more than a piece of shrapnel.

I am not saying that the American soldiers were, in fact, innocent. At the same time, I am not going to accuse the military of a cover-up simply because I want to believe that the Americans were guilty. I will say that one of the arguments for moving from a martial law to civil law is because civil law allows for something that martial law cannot provide -- open trials before an impartial jury that renders verdicts that can be trusted.

I am saying that those who want to accuse the military of a cover-up and assume that the Americans at Ishaqi are guilty, and those who want to accuse O'Reilly of maliciously attacking the 82nd airborne out of a desire to forgive murder, are both cherry-picking their evidence.

Let’s go back to O’Reilly, and assume that he had used the word “Dachao” rather than “Malmedy.” What was his point? Was it a valid point?

O’Reilly’s made this misstatement while arguing that it is unfair to take this incident and criticize the military as a whole -- applying it to the 95% of the service men and women who are doing an honorable job in Iraq.

Specifically, O'Reilly was interpreting Representative John Murtha's critical remarks against the military for taking 6 months to do anything about this incident (Which, itself, is unfair -- Murtha did not critize the military as a whole but did criticize the fact that it took 6 months to seriously investigate this incident, which is a legitimate point of criticism.)

O’Reilly did not say that these types of actions are a part of the normal course of war and should be forgiven. He did not say that the American army was, as a matter of course or policy, authorizing these types of murders. He said something that I have defended often in this blog – that we should not generalize this one incident and hold other American service personnel in disrepute because of what these people did.

Yes, O’Reilly made a valid point, to an extent.

It is wrong to denigrate all American service personnel because some of them commit murder, just as it is wrong hold all New Yorkers in contempt because some commit murder. More generally, it is wrong to cherry-pick the evidence of wrongdoing, use that to create an accusation – and then to act on that accusation. That is what the Bush Administration did in attacking Iraq. That is what Keith Olbermann and the liberal bloggers did in attacking O’Reilly, this time.

Look at the nature of this issue. O'Reilly gives a twisted interpretation to what Murtha was saying. Olbermann presumes maliciousness in interpreting what O'Reilly was saying. The common factor here is in cherry-picking the evidence and giving it an interpretation that is useful in generating hatred towards another.

Let us resolve to quit attacking people based on a cherry-picking of the evidence and unfounded leaps of logic and base our accusations on a reasonable interpretation of the actual facts available. This tendency to give favored interpretations to events because it is useful in fanning fires of hate and contempt is getting us into more and more trouble.


Anonymous said...

I think it's unreasonable to presume innocent intent on O'Reilly's part, given his record. The interpretation of intentional deception is entirely consistent with his past behaviors. When he compares the Ishaqi incident to a WWII incident, he *does* imply that massacres are part of the normal course of war. If it happened in the good old days, it can't be all that bad. (This is of course bullshit, but it's persuasive to some people, which is all that matters to O'Reilly.)

I also agree with the above commenter that whether or not this type of behavior is widespread within the service, it is a serious problem even if only a few people are doing it, and it needs to be investigated, not covered up. When someone smears the guy who calls for investigation, I think it's reasonable to interpret that as an intent to cover up.

I'm not about to say every American soldier is a murderer. But neither is Murtha - that "position" is a straw man. Raising it is a diversion, an attempt to create an indefensible position and shove Murtha into it. Why? To destroy his credibility. Why would O'Reilly want to destroy Murtha's credibility? See above.

As Clark pointed out, the problem is not whether *every* American soldier commits atrocities, but whether *any* do.

Anonymous said...

No matter how much I despise O'Really(?), I have to agree with you that it could have been an honest mis-statement, and I don't think he was trying to slander those WWII soldiers as Olbermann implies.
However, his broader point seemed to be that it happened in WWII, it happens now, so not such a big deal. This is despicable.
There is certainly enought to criticize O'Rielly without resorting to this uncharitable interpretation.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


One should always presume innocence. It is guilt that must be proven, not innocence. (In fact, one can never actually prove innocence.)

I have agreed that O'Reilly's application of his point to Murtha is a mistake. Murtha wants to know why it took 6 months for this crime to come to light. We have the alleged crimes of the soldiers to consider -- but we have a second problem in that the soldiers almost got away with these crimes, and would have if not for the fact that somebody took a video of the effects.

Now, with 150,000 mostly young males in a foreign country, there is going to be some problems. The Bush Administration should have planned on this. American servicemen have committed rape and murder in every country where we have soldiers -- Japan, Korea, Germany. It is poor planning for the Pentagon not to have expected incidents like this sooner or later -- and the political fallout that would have come from it.


I do not see O'Reilly's point being that "it happened in WWII so it does not matter." In fact, in the clip of the actual discussion, he says that it does matter and it is unforgivable. His point was a warning against overgeneralization.


Now, I would like to avoid the specifics of what O'Reilly did or did not say. My point was a more general moral point about giving people the benefit of the doubt, rather than looking for excuses to hate them.

With respect to O'Reilly, he gives us enough solid reason to hold him in contempt. We do not need to invent reasons.