When Bill O’Reilly got his start on Fox News, he was charmingly irreverent, a moderating factor on a right-leaning news network; and I liked him for it. I was 14 years old, and would go on, in my teen years, to read one of O’Reilly’s early books, along with Christopher Hitchens’ "Letters to a Young Contrarian," and eventually Dinesh D’Souza’s "Letters to a Young Conservative" and Friedrich Nietzsche’s "Beyond Good and Evil." I was hashing out a political identity into my 20s, and, as this awkward reading list suggests, it was complicated. It’s perhaps a shame that today’s O’Reilly is not complicated.
In the segment where O’Reilly calls Salon a “hate site,” and his program ambushes a handful of San Francisco civil servants, I was struck more by the “talking points memo” working in conjunction with O’Reilly’s monologue than with the breach of decorum or even the comparison of Salon to white-supremacist outlet Stormfront. The real danger of that O’Reilly segment isn’t so much the ambush tactics or the sensationalism as the sloppy thinking O’Reilly performs for his viewers, which gives the appearance of justifying that sensationalism.
For this reason I’ve decided to work through that O’Reilly segment, which Salon’s Scott Eric Kaufman has reported on, paying close attention to those moments when O’Reilly uses both rhetorical tricks and logical fallacies to convey a provocatively hateful message about undocumented immigrants, a message that, ironically, comes a lot closer to hate speech than the simple act of advocating on either a conservative or progressive media outlet like National Review Online or Salon.
O’Reilly kicks off the segment by addressing the “evil” of the coldblooded murder of Kate Steinle before airing a clip of an interview with Steinle’s parents, who speak of the “battle of evil and goodness.” I mentioned Nietzsche’s "Beyond Good and Evil" above because it’s a powerful critique of Manichaeism, the belief in a dualistic moral struggle of good versus evil. Manichaeism makes it easy to oversimplify conflicts and tragedies by defining actors as pure good and pure evil. This is exactly what O’Reilly will go on to do in his “talking points.” He writes, “Every sane person knows that gunning down a 32-year old woman in the street is an act of pure evil.” The memo goes on: “There are many Americans who will not act to prevent that kind of evil from taking place.”
Here we can see two important rhetorical moves designed to bring audiences to the conclusion that, despite the culpability of the evil man who murdered Steinle, we are to identify that murderous evil both with undocumented immigrants and with people who don’t agree with O’Reilly’s hard-line immigration views. O’Reilly first sets up the scenario as though it’s as simple as good people versus evil people (as opposed to, for example, a more complicated policy nexus of immigration and gun control issues). Then he swiftly aligns “the Americans who will not move to act to prevent that kind of evil from taking place” with the evil itself. In these steps O’Reilly effectively conflates the evil of coldblooded murder with the evil of some Americans who will fail to act on some measure that O’Reilly will assign as a cure for that evil.
What, then, is that measure? O’Reilly begins by blaming the media, which “does not oppose sanctuary cities,” “sanctuary city” being a term with no legal meaning that refers generally to cities that don’t spend city funds and resources to enforce certain federal immigration policies. O’Reilly claims that the “sanctuary city policy” (it’s not a coherent policy at all) “is supported by people who believe that poor illegal immigrants should not be held accountable for violating immigration law,” “folks cloaking themselves in compassion, thinking they’re being humane to the poor who want better lives.” Crucially, however, O’Reilly goes on to re-label these people “hundreds of thousands of bad people.”
Here we can see, again, O’Reilly invoking the Manichaean framework with which he started, only this time, the “evil” one isn’t simply the individual who murdered Kate Steinle, but the “hundreds of thousands” of undocumented immigrants, whom O’Reilly lumps together as “bad people.” This is the point of O’Reilly’s slippage from the evil of murder to the evil of being an undocumented immigrant, to use a negative example of one to stand in for the whole. O’Reilly completes the slippage by claiming that “it is insulting when pro-sanctuary city people equate poor immigrants with violent criminals,” going on to further conflate all undocumented immigrants with violent criminals with one phrase: he calls them “brutal undocumented people.”
From this point, O’Reilly moves onto San Francisco city supervisors, holding them up as an example of the next link in a tenuously constructed chain of evil that begins with a murderer, who, by his undocumented status, becomes a stand-in for all undocumented immigrants, and ends with the civil servants of San Francisco and the broader left, presumably the kind of people who “will not move to act to prevent that kind of evil from taking place.” O’Reilly states unequivocally that Kate Steinle “is dead because of policies that endanger the public,” conflating once again the act of murder with the refusal to support O’Reilly’s specific vision of border security. O’Reilly’s closing judgment is that “it’s a damn shame that all Americans cannot support a policy that would protect people like Kate Steinle … if you saw the heartbreaking interview with her parents last night, how could you not support tough measures against criminal illegal aliens?”
In all of this we should note three tactics of distortion. First, by framing the entire issue of Steinle’s murder as a Manichaean problem of good versus evil, O’Reilly is able to pretend for his viewers that there can only be one problem (lax immigration law), which is itself a manifestation of evil. Both gun control and wider issues of how to distribute limited city funds and resources (O’Reilly isn’t exactly a fan of higher taxes) are as significant factors in this tragedy as immigration law.
Second, O’Reilly’s entire argument relies on the fallacy of composition, which presumes that if something is true of a part of a whole, it must then be true of the whole. This is why, because an undocumented immigrant is alleged to have committed a murder, O’Reilly goes on to call all undocumented immigrants things like “bad people,” “brutal undocumented people,” “violent criminals” and “criminal illegal aliens.”
Third, O’Reilly avails himself of the fallacy of false equivalence in two ways. He equates the culpability for murder with the politically mainstream disagreement between San Francisco city officials and O’Reilly on immigration policy; and he equates sites like Salon and MediaMatters with the self-proclaimed white-supremacist outlet Stormfront, confusing yet again mainstream, partisan media outlets with neo-Nazis. A simple test to reveal the fallaciousness of the comparison would be to ask yourself how long a site like Salon or MediaMatters would exist, drawing articles from prominent policymakers, politicians, artists, academics and journalists, if any of these sites regularly proclaimed white supremacy as its reason for being.
Though it’s a little laborious to go through talking points like O’Reilly’s in this manner, it’s important to reverse-engineer them from time to time to expose what lies at the heart of the machine. In this case we find that the source of hatred isn’t a side of a mainstream political debate about immigration policy, but a desire to paint all undocumented immigrants as murderous villains, “bad people,” “brutal undocumented people” on the side of evil who threaten to put out the white light of America.