The real danger of O'Reilly's ambush interviews

The Fox News host's penchant for surprise interviews of people who've offended him isn't just ethically dubious -- it can harm our legal system.

Published March 31, 2009 4:20PM (EDT)

Bill O'Reilly's interview tactics are getting a lot of attention lately, ever since one of his producers ambushed Think Progress blogger Amanda Terkel after Terkel pointed out comments O'Reilly made suggesting he believed one rape victim had made herself a target. What happened to Terkel shouldn't be diminished, as that ambush was particularly egregious, but it's worth remembering that this frequent ploy of O'Reilly's can sometimes be even more damaging.

Last week, O'Reilly broadcast another ambush conducted by Jesse Watters, the same producer who targeted Terkel. This one was of J. Rodgers Padgett, a Florida judge who'd angered O'Reilly by releasing a convicted sex offender on bail pending appeal. This time, as you can see in the video below, Watters and Padgett nearly came to blows. The producer surprised Padgett inside a convenience store and then, when the judge tried to leave, Watters used his leg to block Padgett from closing his car door.

That this particular ambush nearly escalated to violence is bad enough, but what's worse is the way O'Reilly and Watters twisted the facts of the situation. Clearly, no one wants to see a newly convicted sex offender out on the street, certainly not one like the man convicted in this case, whose victim is mentally challenged. But O'Reilly and Watters made it seem as if the judge had a choice in the matter, with Watters even using some loaded language -- "obviously this guy's got some predilection to being soft on sex offenders" -- in a way that seemed to suggest that perhaps Padgett had ulterior motives.

Turns out, unsurprisingly, that the real story differs sharply from the way O'Reilly told it. John Campbell, a local defense lawyer, told Tampa's News Channel 8, "As a matter of law, Judge Padgett had no choice... I would like to see that gentleman locked up as well, but the law doesn't allow for it." According to Campbell, unless it was shown that the convict is a flight risk, he had to be let out on bail pending appeal.

Moreover, as he does in most cases -- Terkel's was an exception -- O'Reilly claimed that the only reason he sent Watters out for the ambush was that they had contacted Padgett, who'd refused to speak to the show. That may be true, but it ignores an important fact: As News Channel 8 reported, "Under Florida law, sitting judges are not allowed to discuss pending cases."

O'Reilly's broadcast has inspired protests from local residents. It's also done some damage to our legal system, the idea that people are entitled to due process. Cable news shows focusing on crime generally oversimplify the law, but this sort of thing is on a different level entirely. In O'Reilly's world, if a judge acts in a way we don't like, then it's time to get him, facts and law be damned. That sort of attitude won't end well for anyone.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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