Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

April 20, 2017

An Encounter with Bill O’Reilly’s Method

By David K. Shipler

            In 2004, with the publication of my book The Working Poor: Invisible in America, I was contacted by producers for the O’Reilly Factor about coming on the show to discuss poverty. First, though, the producers wanted to track down a man who’d made only a cameo appearance in my book, Kevin Fields. He had been buffeted by both his own mistakes and a society that lined up against him as he made assiduous efforts to pull himself into full employment and self-sufficiency. O’Reilly’s producers wanted to get him on the show with me.
            To no good purpose, I was sure. O’Reilly didn’t admire the poor; he stereotyped them. He would make mincemeat of Kevin. So while I tried to locate him, I thought I’d probably warn him what might be coming and perhaps advise him against appearing. But I couldn’t find him. I’d met him through his girlfriend, who had moved and disappeared from public records. There was no listing for him.
This I reported to the producers, but O’Reilly wouldn’t let them give up. So they contacted the penitentiary where Fields had spent two years for assault (with a baseball bat, he had told me, against five guys threatening him and his girlfriend) and got an address. The producers cleverly refrained from telling me that they’d found him, that they’d then interviewed him by phone, and that—while he wouldn’t be on the show—O'Reilly would present distorted facts about him to fit Fields into the conservative image of the immoral, undeserving poor.
I’d mentioned in the book that Fields, trained in prison as a butcher, hadn’t been able to get a job as one and had done mostly landscaping. But O’Reilly was determined to portray him as a lazy, self-indulgent, sex-crazed slacker.
Fields happens to be black, and the image of the sexually promiscuous and aggressive black man is deeply rooted in white prejudice. This O’Reilly played on, announcing with gleeful indignation that Fields had fathered four children by four different women (two more than at the time I’d interviewed him, Fields had told the producers).
O'Reilly then proceeded to outright falsehoods and distortions. “He’s been incarcerated time and again for failing to pay child support,” O’Reilly declared. Not true, as I learned when I reached Fields after the show: He’d been jailed once for one week and had otherwise made his payments.
“Here’s a man who’s just flat out irresponsible!” O’Reilly huffed. Fields was one of those people “basically, at their core, unable, unable—all right?—to be responsible. Thus, no one’s gonna hire them.”
But in fact, O’Reilly’s producers knew that Fields had been hired, which he told me afterwards he had explained to them. He had been working steadily for the past three and a half years as a meat wrapper in a Giant supermarket, at $7.35 an hour.
Fields was no model citizen: multiple kids with multiple women, a spotty job record, a quick temper that got him into trouble at least once with the law—but also a relentless determination to hold down steady work and advance against the odds as much as he could. All these were elements of the complex contradictions of a life that didn’t fit neatly into either the liberal box defining the social roots of poverty or the conservative impulse to blame the victims.

Complexity was not the stuff of the O’Reilly Factor, whose host had to distort to make his argument. Seeing him expelled from Fox for sexual harassment, after denouncing Kevin Fields for his sexual activity, brings a certain satisfaction. Except that we can be sure that Fox will find other such propagandists to carry the banner of bigotry.

April 9, 2017

Putin's Wrong Bet

By David K. Shipler

            If Vladimir Putin actually preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, he just drew his first bad hand. As (not so) humbly predicted in this journal during the campaign, Clinton would have been a methodical, predictable commander-in-chief who would have acted in Syria and elsewhere within a strong diplomatic and military context, not impulsively based on horrendous photographs of gassed children. That was good enough reason to stir Trump’s latent humanitarian impulses, but a single missile strike without solid preparation and well considered follow-up is unlikely to send what press secretary Sean Spicer called “a very strong signal.” Messages sent with missiles and bombs are rarely received as intended.
Clinton would surely have done what Trump didn’t bother to do: She would have been on the phone with Putin after Syria’s chemical weapons strike. She would have talked with Putin before retaliating. She would have surrounded herself with seasoned foreign-policy professionals who would have been working closely with Moscow, even in tough and hard-headed fashion, to fashion a joint approach to ending the Syrian carnage. She would not have led Putin to fantasize that he had a president in Washington that he could twist around his little finger.
This is a speculative scenario, to be sure. But as both Secretary of State and presidential candidate, Clinton displayed a clear-eyed realpolitik—willing to face down Putin but work with him on the countries’ overlapping interests, especially on counter-terrorism. While more hawkish than President Obama, she showed no inclination to go off on half-cocked military adventures isolated from any coherent strategy.