Bill O’Reilly is a stubborn guy. Even when his program veers into offensive and irresponsible territory, the King of Cable News is loath to issue apologies, corrections or other remarks to atone for his overreaching ways. The folks who petition O’Reilly for such regrets are generally activists and bloggers and others who find fault with his loose-cannon approach to broadcasting. “Far-left loons” is how O’Reilly frequently refers to these types; they don’t scare him.
Now comes a petitioner with a touch more firepower. “We consider such words from the Fox TV company to be unacceptable and insulting, and honestly speaking, we would prefer to get an apology from such a respected TV company.” That request came from Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. He was referring to this exchange between O’Reilly and President Trump as part of a pre-Super Bowl interview on Fox Broadcasting:
O’Reilly: You talked to Putin last week. You had a busy week last week.
Trump: Busy week and a half.
O’Reilly: Do you respect Putin?
Trump: I do respect him but —
O’Reilly: Do you? Why?
Trump: Well, I respect a lot of people but that doesn’t mean I’m going to get along with him. He’s a leader of his country. I say it’s better to get along with Russia than not. And if Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS, which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world — that’s a good thing. Will I get along with him? I have no idea.
O’Reilly: But he’s a killer though. Putin’s a killer.
Trump: There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think — our country’s so innocent. You think our country’s so innocent?
O’Reilly: I don’t know of any government leaders that are killers.
The Kremlin’s interest in O’Reilly’s characterization owes in part to audience. The host’s “killer” comment, after all, came during the Super Bowl pregame show — commonly viewed by tens of millions of viewers — as opposed to a regular old edition of the “O’Reilly Factor,” which routinely scores just millions. The network judged the exchange newsworthy enough to have promoted it ahead of the pregame interview.
Run-of-the-mill TV discussions don’t draw a similar response from Moscow. In December 2015, for instance, MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” team pressed then-candidate Trump on Putin. Co-host Joe Scarborough said to Trump, “Well, also a person that kills journalists, political opponents, and invades countries. Obviously, that would be a concern, would it not?” We don’t recall an apology-request from the Kremlin.
The Kremlin’s request is extending a period of extraordinary international engagement at Fox News. Just last week, the office of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked the network to take down a tweet reporting that a suspect in the terrorist attack on a Quebec mosque was a man of Moroccan origin. That was a faulty early report spread by several news organizations, though Fox News — which changed its news report — left its erroneous tweet unmolested by subsequent reports stating that the suspect, 27-year-old Alexandre Bissonnette, was French Canadian. Fox News later deleted it.
Here’s hoping that Fox News and O’Reilly show less accommodation vis-à-vis the Kremlin. Putin’s many critics and detractors may not have been able to put his fingerprints on a weapon in the many murders of people who have opposed his regime. The lack of direct evidence means little in Russia, however, where the murderous dispatch murderers to do their work for them. Examples: A British inquiry found that Putin “probably approved” the poisoning of Alexander V. Litvinenko, a former KGB officer who had become a critic of Putin. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a Putin critic, was killed in a 2006 contract hit, though it remains unclear who ordered it. Boris Nemtsov, a one-time Putin deputy who turned into a critic of his rule, was gunned down in February 2015 — an event that in the words of one observer showed when the state “stopped feeling shame, stopped trying to explain its actions, stopped trying to keep to the bounds of decency.”
So do what you do, Mr. O’Reilly: Dig in your heels and flick away the Kremlin’s kind request. But while you’re practicing brutal honesty, why not direct a little bit of it toward the president of the United States? Instead of covering for his lies and evasions and falsehoods, why not call him what he is, too?