When he appeared on Bill O'Reilly's Fox News Channel show last week, Georgetown law professor David Cole was impressed that the hard-charging host played, as part of his opening commentary, "a balanced sound bite" from the chairman of the 9/11 commission.
Cole was less impressed when an aggravated O'Reilly stopped the taping of "The O'Reilly Factor" and killed the sound bite. And when Cole brought up the incident during his interview, he says, O'Reilly "exploded," called him an SOB and declared he would never be invited back.
O'Reilly says a left-wing academic is using a minor staff mistake to try to discredit the program. "We're trying to be fair," he says. "We're trying to give the other point of view so people can see who has the stronger argument. It's really depressing that the discourse has sunk to this level."
The heated words -- which were edited out of the program seen by viewers -- involved O'Reilly's criticism of the New York Times and its coverage of the controversy over whether there were links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.
In kicking off what he called "no-spin coverage" of the issue, O'Reilly began the show by saying that "the Times and other newspapers have been under heavy fire for their misleading headlines, basically saying there was no link" between Iraq and al-Qaeda.
As Cole listened from Washington, the program played a clip of commission chairman Thomas Kean saying: "There is no evidence that we can find whatsoever that Iraq or Saddam Hussein participated in any way in attacks on the United States -- in other words, on 9/11. What we do say, however, is there were contacts between Iraq and Saddam Hussein, excuse me, al-Qaeda."
O'Reilly complained that this was the wrong sound bite. In retaping the commentary, he paraphrased one of Kean's points but not the other: "Governor Thomas Kean says definitely there was a connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda. And he's the 9/11 investigative chief, but that's not enough for the Times."
"I was sort of astonished he would do it so brazenly in front of guests," says Cole, an activist attorney who has challenged the USA Patriot Act in court.
O'Reilly calls "totally absurd" the suggestion that he cut the sound bite "because it didn't fit my thesis." A producer had simply selected a clip that wasn't right for the segment, he says.
But Cole says: "Here he is castigating the New York Times for misleading its readers, and he was misleading his viewers. I wish the show had been live because I'd love for his viewers to see what he was up to."
What viewers saw was a lively debate among O'Reilly, Cole and Mark Jacobson, an Ohio State instructor who helped shape the Pentagon's policy on Guantanamo Bay prisoners. The only clue that there was a blowup at the end of the interview -- when Cole was asked to leave -- is that O'Reilly didn't thank his guests, ending the segment instead with a closing comment.
"We make mistakes because we bring in people who are trying to cause trouble," he says of Cole. "I thought he was a rational person."
Cole was just getting started. He discussed the matter on the Air America radio show of the commentator's most vocal critic, Al Franken. He also submitted an op-ed piece about the incident to several news organizations, including The Washington Post, and still hopes it will be published.
O'Reilly sees this as part of "a pretty well organized campaign" on the left to monitor his television and radio shows. He cited an appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor" last week by John Podesta, former chief of staff in the Clinton White House, who now heads a liberal think tank called the Center for American Progress.
Podesta complained that "you compare Bill Moyers to Mao Zedong. You say that's a joke. You compare Al Franken to Joseph Goebbels, you know, the Nazi propagandist."
"That was Michael Moore, by the way," said O'Reilly, adding that such comments were often satirical. "I said that Michael Moore is a propagandist and so is Joseph Goebbels. And then I explained what propaganda is."
"It's a two-way street here, buddy," Podesta said at one point. "You do this all the time as well, you label people, you smear people."
O'Reilly also cites what he calls a false claim by Moore, in publicizing his film "Fahrenheit 9/11," that O'Reilly had "banned" him after a contentious interview. The host insists that is not the case and typical of his liberal detractors.
"They're trying to say that we're liars," says O'Reilly. "If you can't beat 'em, slime 'em."