Why I went on "The O'Reilly Factor"

He said he'd debate the Tiller murder -- then attacked me for "having blood on my hands." But he showed it all.

Published June 12, 2009 11:13PM (EDT)

(UPDATED after The O'Reilly Factor aired)

I was surprised when so many people I respect told me not to appear on "The O'Reilly Factor." I'd attacked Bill O'Reilly for his jihad against Dr. George Tiller, and he asked me on to discuss my "accusations." I thought that was fair. I could explain my point of view to his face; to say no felt like being a punk. But smart and supportive friends, family, co-workers, Twitterers and media stars all over the country reached out and suggested I skip it.

I thought about it, but not for long. I like doing TV. I'm not terrible at it. I criticized him, I should have the guts to repeat it to his face. I also need to say that when I announced I'd said yes, every one of the doubters, and more, sent me great advice and good wishes. (Thanks to Media Matters who, unbidden, just had staff start sending me clips to watch, about O'Reilly's lies. And if you're not on Twitter, well, Twitter rocked for me.) My daughter coached me; so did my litigator ex-husband, so did my friend and Salon co-conspirator Kerry Lauerman. It takes a village to debate Bill O'Reilly!

His producers also helped by doing that thing they do: "Hey, Bill really respects you for coming on the show! He wants to have a conversation! It'll be fine!" (And they promoted my appearance on the show by identifying me on the Web site as "Joan Walsh of Slate.com.")

Well, it was so not fine. I think the high or low point was when he shrieked at me, "You have blood on your hands!" At one point he also either told me to "Shut up" or "Be quiet," I can't remember. (If I'm wrong about that, when I see the clip, I'll correct it. UPDATE: Actually, he shouted "Stop talking!") He called me "vile." I think I said he was vile, too. There were a couple of "I know you are but what am I?" moments that I'm not totally proud of. It was a kaleidoscopic nightmare, a TV acid trip, and I don't do acid. It almost seems like O'Reilly does, but I don't think so.  The man is driven by demons. God bless him and save him.

Now all I can really do is wait for the edited, taped version to air at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET. And as one media friend, urging me not to do it (while sending me great newsy tidbits of O'Reillyisms that I used), explained, I'm not likely to feel good about it: "This is not about debate nor offering an alternate point of view. This is the Harlem Globetrotters, and if you're too good to be the Washington Generals, he will make you into them by editing and lying." I grew up loving the Harlem Globetrotters, so man, that really hurt.

But actually I can do one more thing besides wait: I can lay out what I remember saying (I should have taped it) so we can compare the final, edited show. Which may differ significantly, or it may not.

(UPDATE: I'm going to give "The O'Reilly Factor" credit here: The show was pretty much how it went. Exactly how it went, as I can recall. I will post it later)

First of all, he wasn't Genial Bill O'Reilly, grateful to have a left-wing critic to spar with. From his opening words he was curt. He instructed me to answer his very simple questions directly. (I got a Guantánamo kind of vibe; do I have to?) And basically, like at Guantánamo, he just asked the same loaded question over and over seeking the same answer: Do I think there should be any protections for late-term fetuses?

I started calm. I acknowledged that late-term abortion is the most angst-producing of all reproductive rights issues, but it only accounts for 1 percent of the abortion in the U.S. -- and most of the women who do it have heartbreaking reasons. I tried to make the point, repeatedly, that it's sad that there are two versions of reality on this: the O'Reilly version, where Tiller is a killer, and worse, a profiteer, and the feminist version, where Tiller is a hero, because he performed this legal but rare procedure in dire circumstances for women who were diagnosed late in pregnancy with aggressive breast cancer; for a 9-year-old girl, raped by her stepfather, who didn't know she was pregnant; for women who found late in their pregnancies that their babies had brain and heart deformities that would kill them early in their lives, but not without a lot of surgery and suffering.

If I'm sorry I did the show -- and I'm not yet sure I am -- it's only because of one thing: He used me to try Dr. Tiller again, postmortem. He brought out uncorroborated stories he claimed he'd never shown before: a 13-year-old girl (I couldn't see her or verify her story) who claimed Tiller killed her baby and had her deliver it in a toilet. He featured psychiatrists who from a distance challenged Tiller's findings that women were in danger if they delivered late-term babies. He continued his "profiteering" charges, claiming that Tiller charged $6,000 per abortion; I said, "Bill, you've always said it was $5,000, so that's interesting! And I know he did some for less and pro-bono." I think that's when he cut me off and denied that, but I'm not sure. But, jeez, it did get worse. He also accused me of calling him "a vile accomplice" to Scott Roeder, and I jumped in, "I called you vile, but I never called you an accomplice." On both these recent shootings I've made clear the responsible parties are the shooters, I told him. Woo-hoo! We'll see if it airs.

What else do I remember? It's getting lost in a haze of post-adrenaline marveling at the surreality of the whole thing! I told him that he was within his rights to think late-term abortion should be illegal, and that he should work to make it so. But right now it's legal.  I compared his position to that of gun opponents. We can legally, under various circumstances, own guns. But some gun opponents would  like most guns, especially handguns, to be illegal. What if those folks started a crusade against gun dealers, maybe picking out one in particular, saying he had "blood on his hands," "he should be stopped," all the O'Reilly Tiller quotes? 

Sadly, Bill cut me off and derided that comparison as stupid, and went back to asking me his one apparent question: if late-term fetuses deserved any protection. I hemmed and hawed -- I hate that I did that, but as I said, though I'm ardently pro-choice, I'm Irish Catholic, and I was raised to think abortion was wrong -- but in the end, I support the law as it is. My overriding principle is that I believe this very tough choice can only belong to women. It might have been then he said, "You have blood on your hands!" Not sure; we'll watch the video.

Shortly after that he started badgering me about whether I'd call Dr. Tiller a hero, and I strangely bobbed and weaved until reality beckoned, and I said, "Yes, he's a hero!" Well, it was over then. He had what he wanted. His audience could see what I was (you fill in the blanks there). I believe he repeated that I have blood on my hands, but I'm not sure. I might have said he has blood on his hands. It wasn't pretty.

At the end, I threw several things at him I expect will be cut, but I'd be thrilled to be wrong.  (UPDATE: I was wrong.) They are all factually correct.  I mentioned O'Reilly's attacks on liberals like Rosie O Donnell, Janeane Garofalo and Michael Moore for whipping up possible violence against the right. I also talked about O'Reilly's tragic previous connection to the slaughter of liberals, almost a year ago, by wingnut Jim David Adkisson. It's chilling. Just like Scott Roeder, unbelievably -- is there really a God? I believe there is but sometimes there's precious little proof -- Adkisson shot his prey in a church. He'd railed against "liberals," repeatedly -- and police found the collected works of Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage in his house.

O'Reilly shut up as I made those last two sets of points, and so if I had to bet what would be cut, it would be that. Oh well, I tried.

Watch O'Reilly yourselves tonight, and weigh in here. Maybe he'll run the uncut version! If he does, I'll apologize. In the meantime, I'll leave you with the probably really pathetic uncut version of the "Talking Points" I had prepared for O'Reilly, almost none of which got used. I'm a little embarrassed because they make me look like a liberal Pollyanna, a lamb ready to lie down with the lion -- to be eaten! Live and learn.

Thanks for having me Bill, maybe this is the first step in what I talked about on my blog: Dialing down the extreme rhetoric and hate. If we can sit here and talk calmly, maybe we'll set a good example for others.

My basic issue is that we are a nation of laws, and abortion is legal. Late-term abortion is legal. It's heart-wrenching, and it gets a lot of attention, but we should note that only 1 percent of all abortions in the U.S. are after 21 weeks.

What bothers me, Bill, is that you started a crusade against a doctor who was doing his legal job. You have an enormous audience, the top show in cable, and I think you have a responsibility to think about the impact of your words. And on the issue of abortion, there's a terrible history of violence in this country. At least four doctors have been killed, multiple clinics have been bombed. Dr. Tiller himself had been shot twice in 1993, Bill. His clinic had been bombed and repeatedly vandalized. He was in clear danger, and yet you attacked him, 42 times over four years, and at least 24 times you called him a "baby killer." (That's from the nonpartisan fact-checker Politifact.) You accused him of "murder," "you said he had blood on his hands," you said he "had to be stopped," and the people of Kansas were a "disgrace" for not stopping him -- even though he was acquitted by the courts multiple times of various legal charges against him.

I know you have decried vigilante justice, and I believe you mean that, but we saw vigilante justice in this case. Every time I've written about it, Bill, I've been sure to say you did not cause it.  The only person responsible at this point is Scott Roeder, unless we find he had formal accomplices, no word of that so far. I'm just saying that in the wake of Dr. Tiller's tragic murder in a church, no less, you might have expressed some remorse. Instead, you turned your show into a pity party, and made yourself the victim, and honestly, Bill, I don’t often agree with you, but I thought you were better than that. I was disappointed. That's what I said.

If you really wanted to be fair and balanced, you could have said in every segment, "Some call him Tiller the baby killer, others call him Dr. Tiller, the hero, because he has performed this legal but rare procedure for women in dire circumstances: Women who were diagnosed with breast cancer; for a 9-year-old girl raped by her stepfather, who didn't know she was pregnant, for women who found late in their pregnancies that their babies had brain and heart deformities that would kill them early in their lives, but not without a lot of surgery and suffering. The two sides probably can't meet, Bill, but there is another side. And again, only 1 percent of abortions are late-term abortions, taking place after 21 weeks. One percent, Bill.

I am a pro-choice Irish Catholic. I have agonized for years, but I am pro-choice. I have one Catholic aunt who works at Planned Parenthood, escorting women past clinic protesters. I have another Catholic aunt who loved Obama's economic policies but couldn't vote for him because of abortion. I love them both, and they love me. After prayer and soul searching I came to believe the only answer is that this is the woman's choice. We live in a pluralistic country, Bill, people disagree. People don't agree on when life begins. They're not sure the right course here. So abortion stays legal. People stay uncomfortable with it, for sure. It's true. But it is legal, and if you don't think it should be legal, work within our great democracy to change the laws.

Finally, Bill, you yourself have demonized folks on the left for saying things that you believe could lead to violence: You've railed against Hollywood, you've railed against Rosie O Donnell and Janeane Garofalo and Michael Moore for saying things you believed were irresponsible and could foment violence. Just last month, you criticized Google Maps for making it easy to find the homes of people who gave money to Prop. 8, because they might get hurt. Antiabortion crazies regularly published the address of Dr. Tiller's home, church and clinic. So I think you're inconsistent on these issues, you call out the left if you think their speech could endanger conservatives, or just Americans, but I'm a pariah for raising the same questions about your Tiller speech? I don't understand it, but I hope we've improved the terms of the debate tonight.

Epic fail! What was I thinking? I'll be back after I watch the final clip with a reaction.

Oh, and while you're waiting: Media Matters has clips of O'Reilly calling Dr. Tiller a "baby killer," without any attribution, which he denies doing.

Update: Watch the segment here.

By Joan Walsh

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