February 14, 2013

(Kirsty Wigglesworth /Associated Press)

Bill O’Reilly invited CNN-cum-Daily Beast media guy Howard Kurtz onto his platform for something of a personal showdown. A week ago, O’Reilly appeared to criticize NBC News for failing to address the issue of President Obama’s targeted killing program (drones). In a chat with Bob Beckel, O’Reilly drove at this point:

O’REILLY: Remember the outcry about waterboarding.
BECKEL: Sure.
O’REILLY: Everybody jumping up and down.
BECKEL: Yes.
O’REILLY: NBC News, I thought they were going to like melt down over there. Heard anything on NBC about the drones?
BECKEL: Not yet.
O’REILLY: No.

That condemnation came not long after NBC News broke a huge story on a Justice Department memo that provides a legal basis for the U.S. drone attacks. Why was O’Reilly performing a beatdown on the news outlet that had surfaced such a story?

That’s essentially the question that Kurtz posed on his Sunday CNN show. He guessed that O’Reilly “misspoke,” a polemical elbow that prompted what we all hoped would be a clash on O’Reilly’s Wednesday show.

Didn’t happen. Both fellows showed more interest in common ground than in dogmatism over O’Reilly’s thing about NBC News. The host clarified that in criticizing NBC News, he was citing the absence of anti-Obama analysis/editorializing, not its hard-news bona fides on drones. Okay.

Detente over this insular point served the segment well, as O’Reilly and Kurtz latched onto the more consequential issue of why the media, for the most part, haven’t been as aggressive in pursuing Obama over his counterterrorism tactics as it was vis-a-vis the administration of George W. Bush. Coverage of drones, observed Kurtz, never amassed, even during the presidential campaign. “The press, including the commentators, have been too passive in my view, just like they were in the runup to the Iraq war,” said Kurtz.

Here’s where O’Reilly tried to throttle his guest: “Why haven’t you covered it, then? Why haven’t you spent the time on it that you should have had. Look, you run a media show. And we did, we traced back your media—very rarely did you cover this. Why not?”

Kurtz offered a fine explanation that O’Reilly wasn’t buying. “The left is screaming about waterboarding, yet they’re muted about killing with drones because they’re in the tank for Obama,” railed the host, citing a case of media hypocrisy.

O’Reilly is a master of on-air insta-accountability, and his interruptive approach to prosecuting guests like Kurtz marshals viewers. Perhaps it prevented Kurtz from, say, pointing out one relevant fact to the analysis of media treatment of Bush vs. Obama: Drone strikes started with the Bush administration. According to figures from the New America Foundation, 10 such strikes between 2004 and 2007 claimed between 155 and 200 lives. In 2008, the last year of the Bush administration, drone deployment began spiking, with 36 strikes and a casualty toll between 219 and 344.

Indeed: The Obama administration put the tactic into even heavier rotation, such that it must now own the policy from a public accountability perspective. Yet if the media had been as skewed and as hypocritical as O’Reilly claims, why didn’t he cite any evidence of media overreaction to Bush’s use of drones?

That what O’Reilly characterizes as the Obama-loving media haven’t howled more about drones under Obama is indeed a failing. Another failing is that right-leaning outlets like Fox News haven’t done so either.

The network had plenty of choice moments to push the topic into the news stream in the 2012 presidential campaign cycle. It sponsored seven of the 20-odd Republican presidential primary debates that started in mid-2011 and extended into early 2012. How many questions at those Fox events related to the prudence of deploying drones? Maybe one—this one, according to a study of the debate questions:

“Senator Santorum, you said Monday President Obama has made the country less safe and his policies have made America’s enemies less fearful and less respectful of us. But when it comes to going after terrorists, for example, drone attacks in Pakistan have more than tripled under President Obama, he sent 30,000 more U.S. troops into Afghanistan last year and he just authorized — as we talked about — this mission to kill Bin Laden. How much more aggressive could he be?” — Brett Baier, May 5, 2011 | Fox News South Carolina Debate

Not to single out Fox News on this front. Many news organizations teamed up to keep drones from penetrating the 2012 race. Perhaps that’s because they are all hypocrites, as O’Reilly alleged. Or perhaps they feared the viewers wouldn’t know what on earth they were talking about. Or perhaps they knew that the country’s political leaders weren’t terribly divided on drones, a factor that may soon push the matter back underground, just where the administration likes it.

 

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.