My last word on Bill O'Reilly

For now, at least. Outrage is the oxygen that sustains the flames of hatred, and it's time to turn down the heat

Published June 18, 2009 4:19PM (EDT)

I'm in New York this week for meetings and it's been hard to carve out time to write. But I also confess to wanting to pause before replying to the overwhelming reaction to my clash with Bill O'Reilly last week, positive and negative.

The positive reaction to my tangling with the Fox host over his four-year crusade against the murdered Dr. George Tiller has been heartwarming: sometimes surprising (thanks, Gawker!) and sometimes more predictable (I think everyone in the crowd at the Women's Media Center awards Wednesday night had seen the encounter; I got many hugs from strangers). I was moved by the love from family members who disagree with me on abortion, but who called immediately after the show to tell me they were proud of me and loved me.

On the downside, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't horrified hearing O'Reilly say, "You have blood on your hands," given that the last person he accused of that wound up dead. My fear probably reflected a little bit of grandiosity; I don't think I'm in danger. But it was shocking to hear those words in my ear and to know they were going out to O'Reilly's huge audience.

About my own performance, I'm fairly self-critical. I didn't expect to go into a debate on late-term abortion, or the details of Dr. Tiller's practice. I was asked to discuss my reasons for criticizing O'Reilly's crusade against Tiller, and why I hoped he would turn down his rhetoric. I was sandbagged, but that's the O'Reilly game plan. I should have been prepared for anything. Confronted with the testimony of "Dr. Paul McHugh" that Tiller approved late-term abortions for frivolous reasons, I couldn't retort with the fact that McHugh is notorious for defending Catholic priests charged with sexual abuse; is a founder of the "False Memory Syndrome Foundation," which publicized the notion that frequently, memories of child sexual abuse are false; a crusader against the transgender movement and an abortion opponent. McHugh is hardly the renowned and dispassionate Johns Hopkins scholar O'Reilly depicted.

And while I gave O'Reilly credit for running the interview in full on Friday, I should have been prepared for him to hit me again Monday, when I couldn't defend myself, with selective re-editing that took out my criticism of him and made me look evasive and/or stupid. I wasn't surprised by Mary Catherine Ham playing his ally, but I was slightly saddened that Juan Williams joined the pile-on. Oh well. Live and learn.

A lot of people have asked me, Do I regret it? and Would I do it again? I don't regret it, but I wouldn't do it again. As I wrote last week, I thought it was important to accept O'Reilly's challenge since I'd criticized him on Salon and on "Hardball." I stand by that. I also thought it might advance my goal of turning down the heat on violent, demonizing, dehumanizing rhetoric that may be part of the uptick in vigilate violence we've seen, from the Pittsburgh gun nut who killed police officers in April to Dr. Tiller's murder to the Holocaust Museum shooting last week. That was probably more grandiosity on my part. I don't have enough charm, charisma or personal persuasive power to make someone like O'Reilly turn down the heat or engage in dialogue. But I'm still glad I did it, because it showed people, particularly women, that you can stand up to bullying and survive.

Almost a week later, I'm still getting a fair amount of e-mail about it. It's a great spiritual exercise to try to focus on messages like this (and there were dozens):

I have to admit going into the interview with O’Reilly Friday night that I was on his side; I don’t think you should have called him whatever it was you called him on another news channel (it seems so insignificant now after that "interview" with him!).

But … it is clear you are a sensible, thoughtful individual who believes what she says, and I think O’Reilly WAY overstepped his bounds in this "interview" that was clearly a hit-piece from his side.

I have mindlessly followed him for years, but after Friday night’s attack on you, I don't know if I will ever feel the same way again. And while I disagree with your view on late-term abortion, I APPLAUD you for not being intimidated into changing your mind to accommodate the blasts he directed to you. 

And not like this (and there were hundreds):

I Can only hope that when your children or their children are born they have an egg beater shoved into their Skull and their brains scrambled after they leave the Uterus. I heartfelt hoped it could have been you.

You can read lots of other comments like that on my Friday blog post. We had to close the thread early (after 1,386 posts) because it got so ugly. O'Reilly must be proud to have such educated and compassionate viewers.

But I'll try to make this my last word on O'Reilly for a while. My outrage is just oxygen fanning the flames of his hatred, and if it's really my goal to turn down the heat, I'll avoid talking about, thinking about and certainly watching O'Reilly for the time being.  And I'd advise others who share that goal to do the same. 

By Joan Walsh

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