February 27, 2013

(Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

Fox News chief Roger Ailes recently told an interviewer, “The contributions being made by Latinos are extraordinary, and we need to talk about them.”

Talking about them is certainly what top Fox News host Bill O’Reilly did last night. Oh yeah.

In a riff on the topic of the week, O’Reilly was railing against the spending of the federal government. From around $2 trillion in 2003, O’Reilly said, federal spending has grown to $3.6 trillion this year. Take it away, transcript:

So why are we spending all the money? For what reason? I’ll tell you why. Take a look at this chart put out by the Pew Research Center. It says 48 percent of Americans want smaller government and fewer services. But among Hispanics, only 19 percent want smaller government and fewer services. A whopping 75 percent of Latinos surveyed approve of bigger government and more entitlements. That’s why President Obama is spending the money because he knows that a coalition of African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, organized labor, and committed liberals will overwhelm the Republican Party.

Bolded text added to highlight a stunning pivot on the “O’Reilly Factor.” After citing poll results representing Americans at large, O’Reilly turns straight at Hispanics, leaving a clear impression that this group is to blame for runaway government. From there, it’s more conspiracy-mongering about President Obama’s building a racial coalition. O’Reilly’s words constitute a fresh articulation of an idea that he has already presented to Fox News viewers, as recently as Election Night 2012. When asked about an apparent Obama victory on that night, O’Reilly said:

Because it’s a changing country, the demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore. And there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things and who is going to give them things? President Obama. He knows it and he ran on it.

When my colleagues on the Washington Post editorial board interpreted O’Reilly’s remarks as a lament that there were too many “voters of color” in the electorate, O’Reilly lashed back, calling that accusation “vile” and its framers “pinheads.”

Last night’s finger-pointing at Hispanics, however, cements the case against the superstar cable host. Why would he single out Hispanics in trying to account for America’s addiction to big government? Listening to his monologue, a viewer might well suppose that Hispanics are born with innate relish for lavish national parks, fleets and fleets of aircraft carriers and federal holidays out the wazoo. Though he never stated it outright, O’Reilly’s delivery and emphasis suggest, somehow, that race determines attitudes about the size of government.

Too bad O’Reilly and his crew (apparently) didn’t consult any pollsters before presenting his case on air. Paul J. Lavrakas Jr. is president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR). He says that the “single biggest factor determining one’s stance on size of government is party affiliation and thus whether one inherently is supportive of or opposed to anything the Obama administration is behind.” In other words, Democrats support bigger government, and a great deal of Hispanics are Democrats.

An August 2012 poll by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation illuminates the matter. Eighty percent of Republicans favor a smaller government with fewer services, compared with 30 percent of Democrats. Among Democrats alone, 60 percent of white Dems; 68 percent of black Dems; and 77 percent of Hispanic Dems support a larger government with many services. Those are significant margins that transcend race. So if O’Reilly wants to cite large groups of people as being responsible for big government, just blame the Democrats.

Now, have a look at this data:

Look at the last column in the second chart. Among Republicans and independents who lean Republican, 59 percent of non-whites favor smaller government. More proof that if you’re going to address this question, party affiliation—and not race—offers the proper framing.

Diving yet deeper into these weeds, Lavrakas explains the complexities behind the issue:

Race certainly correlates with those attitudes, but race per se as a demographic characteristic does not cause these beliefs. It is much more complex than that. Instead, race is a surrogate for the many unmeasured psychographic factors (various lifetime experiences, feelings of empowerment or disadvantagement, feelings of control of one’s own destiny, etc.,) that lead one to believe that smaller government is better or that large government is better. Race is convenient (in that it is easy) to measure in polls whereas it takes more time and careful thinking on the part of pollsters to measure the real factors that lead one to their position on this attitude towards size of government.

What he’s saying, in effect, is that the question of race and attitudes toward government is way too complicated a question to handle on “The O’Reilly Factor.”

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