An Open Letter To Bill O'Reilly:
"No Spin Zone" or "No Integrity Zone" -- You Decide
by William Hartung
March 19, 2003
March 17, 2003
Happy St. Patrick's Day. I wish I could say I was sending you "best wishes" on this day, but your recent actions prevent me from doing so. Maybe next year we'll be on better terms.
You may or may not remember me. I'm the "other Bill," Bill Hartung, the guy who pinned your ears to the wall in a debate over the war in Iraq on your radio program last Friday.
I'm not writing to gloat, but I am writing to say that if you EVER pull the kind of sleazy stunt you pulled on me last Friday again, I will make it my business to make sure you pay for it, big time - not through lawsuits or boycotts, but in the court of last resort - the court of public opinion.
Your claim to fame is that you're supposed to be a straight shooter. Your program is a self-proclaimed "no-spin zone." How does that square with what you did to me last Friday? After five or ten minutes of heated debate, during which I gave as good as I got - and then some -- you cut off my microphone and proceeded to spend the next five minutes attacking me, attacking my family, and engaging in the kind of slanderous back-biting that frankly I thought was a thing of the past in America.
Don't get me wrong. I expected to get cut off once I started winning the debate. It's your show, and if you want to cut off the microphone, so be it. But what I was AMAZED to learn was that you cut off my microphone without informing me OR YOUR LISTENING AUDIENCE that you had done so. The only reason I was able to figure this out was that one of your listeners sent me an e-mail congratulating me on "opening up a big can of whupass on Bill O'Reilly" (this is a technical debating term which you may or may not be familiar with). The e-mailer mentioned in passing how sleazy it was that you had cut off my microphone while giving the audience the impression that I was still on the line.
To get a sense of what the e-mailer was talking about, a few folks in my office tuned into your show when it ran on WOR in New York later that afternoon. Sure enough, not only did you cut off my mike without telling me or the listeners that you had done so, but once you had cut me off you made an outrageous allegation to the effect that "guys like Bill Hartung" would probably let a situation arise where their own kids were poisoned with anthrax and just sit back and hope for "the French" to deal with the situation. The last straw was that you cut me off a good 2 to 3 minutes BEFORE your producer got on the line to tell me the segment was over. So, Bill, when you called me a "moron," your audience thought I just shut up and listened. In fact, I was having at you for another two to three minutes, ALL THE WHILE THINKING THAT I WAS STILL ON THE AIR.
So, what's my point, you may be asking. If you want to play with the big boys you have to expect it to get rough, right Bill? Well, here's my problem. If you're the guy who operates in the "no spin zone," where do you get off cutting off a caller and giving both your audience AND the caller the impression that they are still on the line?
And if you're so big and tough, how DARE you imply that I don't care enough about my own family to advocate policies that I think will best serve to protect them from terrorists? And how dare you do it AFTER you have cut off my microphone, when I'm in no position to respond?
Is that your idea of a "no spin zone," Bill?. Or, by "no spin," are you simply saying that instead of the more nuanced art of spin control, you prefer the more direct approach of lies, innuendo, and character assassination?
Needless to say, I was fit to be tied when I realized what you had done. One of your producers was kind enough to call me and apologize, noting that it sounded like you had gotten "a little rough" with me. I called her back and read her the riot act (for which I apologized at the end of the call, since it wasn't her fault, it was yours), and asked her whether you make a practice of cutting off callers while trying to give the audience the impression that they are still on the line. She mumbled something about being busy with booking and not hearing the full show that often, and then she apologized again. YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE ONE MAKING THE APOLOGY, MR. O'REILLY, NOT YOUR STAFF MEMBER.
In lieu of an apology, I propose the following: a one hour debate, Bill O'Reilly vs. Bill Hartung, in a neutral format (TV, radio, town hall meeting, you name it), with a mutually agreed upon, neutral moderator. The topic: how best to defend the United States of America in an age of terrorism.
Chances are you will turn down my offer. After all, you've got a huge audience on radio, on television, and through your syndicated column. So why share the stage with some guy from an obscure New York City think tank that most of your listeners have never heard of?
I'll tell you why, Mr. O'Reilly: because it will be good for your soul, and it will increase the chances that you may one day truly run a "no spin zone," a non-partisan, no-holds barred program that criticizes the right as well as the left, and the government as well as its critics. These next few years could shape the direction of this country for a generation to come. If you truly ran a non-partisan show that "tells it like it is," you could do a great service to our nation.
But if you persist in using sleazy tactics like the ones you used on me, and denouncing anti-war protesters as "fifth columnists" who "hate America," you will undermine the most valuable feature of this country - the fact that we are a democracy that tolerates differing viewpoints, where we understand that criticizing the government isn't anti-American, any more than criticizing Bill O'Reilly is anti-American.
We can walk and chew gum at the same time, Bill - we can criticize the government while STILL promoting policies that will protect us and our families from terrorism, and nuclear weapons, and tin-pot dictators with a lust for power. That's what makes our democracy great, and that's what is going to get us through this very difficult period in our history.
The question for you, Mr. O'Reilly, is whether you are going to be on the side of those who promote hatred, fear and division, or on the side of those who promote tolerance, unity, and courage in the face of terrorism. Which side are you going to be on, Bill?
After hearing what happened to me on your show, a friend of mine said "Bill, I think you should stay off of that show if it's going to get you that worked up." But as the guy who e-mailed me after my appearance pointed out, it's not about me or you, Bill. It's about the future direction of our country.
Your audience - which includes a lot of decent, hard working folks (more guys than women, I would guess, but you tell me), guys who serve in the military, the police, the fire departments, on the construction sites, and so forth. As my e-mail correspondent noted, a lot of blue collar Americans think you're the "real deal." So what you say matters, not just for now, about whether we go to war with Iraq, but for the future, when we have to decide how best to defend our country without sacrificing our democratic freedoms in the process.
To paraphrase the great R&B singer James Brown, you, Bill O'Reilly, are the hardest working man in show business. You have a large, loyal audience. You are a smart guy, an articulate guy, and when you get the right targets in your sights, you can expose a lot of hypocrisy. You're right, Jesse Jackson's personal and business dealings raise serious questions about whether he should be viewed as anybody's idea of a model leader. And you're right, the French have longstanding economic interests in Iraq which probably have at least as much to do with the French government's position on Iraq as the high-toned rhetoric of Jacques Chirac. But Jesse Jackson doesn't run the most powerful country in the world, George W. Bush does. And just as France has courted Iraq for oil over the years, so have Dick Cheney and many other members of our current administration in Washington had questionable political and business dealings with Saddam Hussein and other Middle Eastern dictators over the years.
If you're the truth-teller, the guy in the "no spin zone," why not criticize the government when it deserves it, and slam the liberals when they deserve it? You'd have a far more interesting - and far more valuable - program.
If my proposal for a one hour debate doesn't appeal to you (you are a busy guy, after all), how about this: have me on for ten minutes a week for ten weeks. The segments will be timed, and everyone will know exactly when I go off the air (no funny business with the microphone).
You can say whatever you want once I've gotten off the line, as long as the entire exchange - while I'm debating you, and while you're trashing me afterwards - is run as a verbatim transcript on your web site. At the end of the ten weeks, we do a survey of your listeners (a professional survey, not a self-selecting internet poll). If a majority of your listeners think I have something worthwhile to say, you have me on for another ten weeks. If they say "we're sick of hearing from that Hartung guy," you get to pull the plug.
One last point, and then I'll let you go (assuming that you read this letter, and don't "delegate" that task to the same producers who make your apologies for you). When I was getting heated with your producer about your tactics, I was in a car service coming back from an appearance on CNN Financial News. When I got off the cell phone, the driver said "I heard you on O'Reilly today. You were great. People don't usually stand up to him that way. I had no idea he had cut you off, I thought you just hung up on him."
The fact that decent working people like that limo driver listen to your show is to your credit. Are you going to give them the straight story, or are you going to continue the kind of dishonesty and character assassination that you engaged in when I was on the program? Is it going to be the "no spin zone," or the "no integrity zone," Bill? To borrow a line from your employers at Fox News: I've reported, now you decide.
World Policy Institute
William Hartung is Director of the World Policy Institute’s Arms Trade Resource Center