By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, November 10, 2010;
Bill O'Reilly wants my head.
On Thursday night, the Fox News host asked, as part of a show that would be seen by 5.5 million people: "Does sharia law say we can behead Dana Milbank?" He then added, "That was a joke."
Hilarious! Decapitation jokes just slay me, and this one had all the more hilarity because the topic of journalist beheadings brings to mind my late friend and colleague Danny Pearl, who replaced me in the Wall Street Journal's London bureau and later was murdered in Pakistan by people who thought sharia justified it.
The next night, O'Reilly read a complaint from one of his viewers, Heidi Haverlock of Cleveland, who said: "I thought the joke about whether sharia law would allow the beheading of the Washington Post guy was completely inappropriate." O'Reilly replied to her on air: "Well, let me break this to you gently, Heidi. If Dana Milbank did in Iran what he does in Washington, he'd be hummus."
O'Reilly is partly right about that. As an American and a Jew, I probably wouldn't last long in Iran. And criticizing the government there, as I do here, wouldn't add to my life expectancy. But what was he trying to say? That America would be better if it were more like Iran?
O'Reilly's on-air fantasizing about violent ends for me was precipitated by a column I wrote describing Fox News's election-night coverage as a victory party for the Republicans. This didn't strike me as a terribly controversial point, but it evidently offended O'Reilly. "He said there were no Democrats except for Schoen on," O'Reilly complained. "It was an outright lie."
That would have been an outright lie, except that I said no such thing. I wrote: "To be fair and balanced, Fox brought in a nominal Democrat, pollster Doug Schoen. 'This is a complete repudiation of the Democratic Party,' he proclaimed."
Though I didn't claim Schoen was the sole Democrat, in hindsight I should have quoted other putative liberals who appeared on Fox that night - and sounded much like Schoen. There was Bob Beckel, proclaiming: "I feel like the blind guy whose guide dog died" and "I give all the credit to Republicans on this." Or Juan Williams on President Obama: "I just don't think he gets it."
I suspect O'Reilly's fury - he went after me on three consecutive nights last week - has less to do with one sentence in one column than with a book and a series of columns I've written about O'Reilly's colleague Glenn Beck. I've argued that Beck, with his talk of violence, Nazis and conspiracy theories, is all but inviting fringe characters to take up arms. I've held O'Reilly up as a responsible alternative to Beck - but O'Reilly seems determined to prove this wrong.
On Thursday night, he made an eerie reference to The Post's editorial page editor. "Would you put Fred Hiatt's picture up on the screen here?" he asked. "This is the editor, Milbank's editor, Fred Hiatt. And, Fred won't do anything about Milbank lying in his column. I just want everybody in America to know what The Washington Post has come to. All right, you can take Fred's picture off. Fred, have a nice weekend, buddy."
Shortly after this, O'Reilly proposed to his fellow Fox News host, Megyn Kelly, a way to handle their disagreement with me: "I think you and I should go and beat him up."
The two continued on to a discussion of the attempt to bar sharia law in Oklahoma. That's when he made his little "joke" about beheading me, which led to his talk the next night about garbanzo puree.
Kelly, too, took issue with what I wrote, but to her credit she didn't join in O'Reilly's violent fantasies. "When somebody missteps, especially when it comes to any sort of speech or expression of opinion, the answer is to have more speech and opinion," she said.
"I'm not trying to muzzle the guy," O'Reilly replied.
True. You don't need a muzzle if your head has been cut off.
O'Reilly has every right to quarrel with my opinion or question my accuracy. But why resort to intimidation and violent imagery? I don't believe O'Reilly really wants to sever my head, but if only one of his millions of viewers interprets his message otherwise, that's still a problem for me. Already, Beck fans have been accused of a police killing, threatening to kill a senator and having a highway shootout en route to an alleged attack on liberal groups.
Let's drop the thuggish tactics - before more people get hurt.