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.