Prelude: Does anyone remember Bill O’Reilly? For sixteen years he had the biggest show on Fox News & all cable TV. Hearing snippets of him badgering and baiting liberals, I often felt an urge to take him on.
Be careful what you wish for.
[Note: This account was written in 2009, while I was still working at Quaker House in Fayetteville NC.]
I. The Prelude
It’s true. Out of the blue, in February, 2005, the O’Reilly show on Fox News called. They wanted me to come on and talk about what we do at Quaker House, in Fayetteville NC, near Fort Bragg, with special reference to the case of Jeremy Hinzman, a soldier who left for Canada with his family in December 2003.
The request was both puzzling and daunting. Puzzling because there was no “news peg,” as we journalists say, for the inquiry. Jeremy had left North Carolina more than a year earlier. He had had a hearing before the Canadian immigration agency in early December, almost three months ago, to determine whether he could stay there. But no decision had been announced. I made plain to the Fox producer that I had no expertise in Canadian law and would not pundificate thereon.
So I fretted about it for a day or so, then figured, why not? It was a chance to speak for peace to a very large audience, and NOT be preaching to the choir. The date was set: Wednesday February 23, 2005.
I knew it would be risky, though. O’Reilly was known for ambushing and bullying guests, particularly liberals. So I spent a lot of time over a long weekend preparing, or trying to: thinking up talking points, working to boil them down to quick sound bytes, trying to anticipate assaultive questions.
Then the day came. A white stretch limo pulled up outside Quaker House, to take me to the studio in Raleigh for taping. The limo was a triumph of tacky, a four-wheel slice of Las Vegas: strip lighting inside that changed through rainbow colors, a cutout mirror on the long ceiling, with tiny embedded lights mimicking the night sky; a TV and bar (but BYOB; only water and soda in the cooler).
Living Large . . . for a few miles
Sitting in it, I felt like I’d just won the Elvis Impersonator Contest, Over-60 Division. Or was having a fantasy flashback to the junior prom blowout I never had. Whatever.
We arrived early, and spent an hour cooling our heels in a conference room, with nothing to watch but an hour of Fox “News.” It was a sobering and revealing experience: in that hour, about 45 minutes was devoted to a fawning celebration of the visit by the recently-re-elected George W. Bush to Germany, Mains and Wiesbaden, to be specific.
Half of that time the focus was on Bush’s side-trip to an army base in mid-Germany. This was standard fare, with troops in desert camo arrayed around Himself like the photo backdrop that they were. Then there flashed on the screen an interminable series of platitudinous quotes from the speech (E.g., Your Sacrifices Have Accomplished Much; More hard Work Lies Ahead; We Will Always Remember The Fallen; and other equally moving bon mots.)
As this teleprompter tirade unrolled, the video behind it soon shifted to long shots of enormous naval formations, long lines of big warships steaming urgently — well, somewhere, and firing rockets, big guns, and other weapons at — well something.
This seemed very curious, but my grasp of German geography is somewhat tenuous, and it wasn’t til I got home that I was able to verify that Mainz and Weisbaden are in central Germany, many many kilometers from any chunk of ocean.
In sum, Fox “News” was running a twenty-minute political info-mercial. I’d call it a campaign ad, except that the 2004 presidential campaign was over. Wasn’t it?
Then we were led into the studio, where I was fitted with an earphone and parked in a chair in front of a bookcase featuring the works of Mark Twain on its shelves. (A good choice, by the way; Twain was a dedicated and eloquent anti-imperialist. There once was a whole website devoted to his anti-imperial writings. Here’s a page)
Thru this earpiece I was obliged to listen closely to the first half-hour of O’Reilly’s show, as we didn’t know when he’d call on me. He opened by continuing his witchhunt against a controversial academic Ward Churchill . Churchill had made disparaging comments about some of the victims in the Twin Towers attacks. (Churchill was later fired for purported academic fraud, which he still denies.)
As I listened, however, my sense of the brouhaha changed, and became much more somber: I realized that Churchill was but a convenient tool, a club; the real target there was the university campus as a place where dissent is, or at least used to be, tolerated or even encouraged. That became clear in the show’s first segment, in which he ranted less against Churchill, but rather aimed his invective at the University of Hawaii, which had recently brought Churchill in to make a speech.
This insight was reinforced by the next segment, in which he brought in Michael Faughnan, whose brother died in the Twin Towers, and who recently (Feb. 16, 2005) published an open letter to Churchill challenging his views and suggesting that they talk about their differences. (Faughan and Churchill did meet later that year on Bill Maher’s TV show; the “confrontation” was calm but evidently did not resolve their differences.)
The interview with Faughnan was remarkable: Faughnan said he had heard from Churchill, to the effect that he would be interested in some dialogue about this, and Faughnan said he was prepared to talk, to see if mutual understanding and perhaps some rapprochement might be possible.
This was a surprisingly open and gracious attitude on Faughnan’s part; he could have been a Quaker, or even a Christian. (Caution: irony alert.)
But once Faughnan said that, O’Reilly spent the rest of the interview demanding that he abandon this irenic posture and refuse to speak or have any other contact with Churchill. By now, the point of this assault was clear: it was not Churchill, but the idea of open dissent that had to be squashed. Faughnan, to his credit, calmly persisted that he was willing to try dialogue with Churchill, whether O’Reilly liked it or not.
As was his (deceptive) habit, O’Reilly said to him, “I’ll give you the last word, sir,” then interrupted and hectored him one last time.
All this, I repeat, was going on inside my ear, while sitting in a small chair staring into the blank round eye of a camera, awaiting my turn. Then it came.
II. The Interview
O’Reilly: Unresolved Problem segment tonight [Title Window: “Unresolved Problem”]
“As you may know, reports say at least four American military deserters have fled to Canada hoping for asylum there.”
[New title window: Canadian Flag and text: “Deserter Haven?”]
“We are keeping an eye on the situation, as the Canadian government will have to decide what to do shortly.
[New image: CEF] Joining us now from Raleigh, North Carolina is Chuck Fager, the Director of Quaker House. Mr. Fager counseled one of the deserters, Army private Jeremy Hinzman.“
An update on Hinzman: the Canadian government ruled that his defense that Iraq is an illegal war did not apply and he will not be able to use that. We believe that Hinzman will be sent back to the USA soon.
[Comment: The prediction was overly optimistic. Hearings and appeals on Jeremy’s application for refugee status went on for years. UPDATE: as of late 2019, Hinzman and his family were still living in Toronto.]
[O’Reilly addresses Fager]:
“Now when Hinzman came in to talk to you, he was already in the army, right, Mr. Fager? And what did you tell him?”
Fager: We told him what we told everybody else, that we offered to give them good information [Video of Jeremy pushing his son in a stroller down a snowy street in Toronto] about discharge regulations and regulations like Conscientious Objection rules, and we encouraged then to examine their situation and clarify their values and to find out what their commitments and values were [Scene change back to Fager] and to stand for those commitments. In his case, it was quite clear to him that he was not going to take part in an immoral and unchristian war and he made the choice that we stand behind.
O’Reilly: [split screen, O’Reilly-Fager] Okay, did you ask him why he enlisted in the military in the first place?
Fager: We talked about that some. He, like so many others that we have talked to, felt he had made an immature and mistaken decision, and one that he did not understand the implications of fully until after he had made it. And it was on the basis of re-examining those situations that he came to much more clarity about his own personal and family values, and moral values, and those personal and moral values and his clear understanding that he was asked to take part in an immoral and unchristian war led him to take the action that he did.
O’Reilly: Okay, now you understand within the armed forces there is a Conscientious Objector policy where you can do, you know, see a guy like you –
Fager: We understand that very well, we to talk to people –
Fager: – about that all the time.
O’Reilly: Right. So you don’t have to desert, you can go in and say, as you did, you know, my conscience now dictates that I can’t kill people, or what ever it may be –
Fager. He filed such an application. It was turned down.
Fager: That was not–
O’Reilly: [Split screen O’Reilly-Fager] Now. Perhaps he’s a charlatan–
Fager: — that was not the end of his conscience.
O’Reilly: Perhaps he’s a charlatan. Perhaps he’s a coward. Perhaps he’s a guy who wanted to go into a military to get the benefits–
[Back to video, a repeat of Jeremy pushing stroller]
— and then when it came crunch time, he wasn’t willing to fight for his country. Isn’t that a possibility, sir?
Fager: That may be your opinion, sir. I believe it’s completely mistaken. I know him to be a man of honor, a man of courage, and a man of deep moral convictions.
O’Reilly: And how do you know that?
[Back to Fager onscreen]
Fager: I knew him and worked with him over the course of almost two years, while he was in and out of Fayetteville and Ft. Bragg, which is where we’re located, while he was considering all the issues that were involved.
O’Reilly: Now, do you feel that anybody who participates in the Iraq war is doing something immoral?
Fager: Not necessarily. We ask and invite people to clarify and follow their conscience.
[Switch to scene of US troops in combat gear, carrying weapons and walking down unidentified streets.]
And that’s what we do. We do not preach to people. We don’t call them, they call us. We do have convictions about the war, sir, and we’re quite clear about what those convictions are.
O’Reilly: No, no Quakers historically are pacifist and don’t like war. And we understand that, everybody understands that,
[Back to split screen O’Reilly-Fager]
and I think it’s respected. Many of the —
Fager: Many of the people who call us are people who are in the military and who examine the issues, they are in tough situations. There are many thousands of families who are being put through tremendous strain by this immoral and unchristian war–
O’Reilly: Well that’s what happens in war, sir. You know, I mean, don’t give me any tremendous strain business, these people are defending the United States of America, they have enlisted in a voluntary capacity to do that, and when the going gets tough, some people run to the Quakers. And there you are for their service.
Fager: Many people are being kept in the military past their due date by these stop-loss policies –
O’Reilly: That’s up to, that’s up to the legal system to adjudicate, sir. And it’s certain we have a system that does that. My last question for you is this: How would you defend yourself against Al Queda, should Al Queda actually step up their operations into the United States, against your facility in Raleigh? How would you defend yourself?
[Switch to Fager only onscreen]
Fager: Well sir, we’re not in Raleigh we’re in Fayetteville, near Ft. Bragg. And we would defend ourselves the way we have for the last 36 years. We would follow the teachings of Jesus. You know that Jesus ended up on a cross. But his followers are still around, and the empire that put him on that cross is lost in the dust of history.
O’Reilly: All right, but you —
Fager: – And that’s what I believe is going to happen now.
[Back to split screen O’Reilly-Fager]
O’Reilly: But you wouldn’t take up arms against Al Queda?
[Back to Fager only onscreen]
Fager: We do not have weapons in our house, and I do not think that we would do that. That would be my aspiration and my value.
[Back to split screen, O’Reilly-Fager]
O’Reilly: And you’re entitled to it in the United States of America. And you know what? Guys died for your ability to do that. Mr. Fager, thank you for coming on, we appreciate it very much. When we come right back . . . .
[Note: I look back on this encounter as something of a success, for two main reasons: 1. while O’Reilly was much more skilled at aggressive repartee, he was not able to roll right over me and slander either Quaker House or Jeremy. And 2. I managed to repeat my main talking point, that Iraq was an “immoral and unchristian war” three times in those few minutes.]
An hour or so later, the stretch limo dropped us at the corner (Hillside Avenue is a dead-end, not built for limos, and the vehicle would have had to back up all the way to the beginning of the street to get out.) Emails were pouring into the in-box.
Sic Transit Gloria
Most were supportive. But a phone voicemail called me a “fat ineffective dumbass,” and an email from Chicago declared: “I have lost all respect for your group and will no longer give you the benefit of the doubt in respect to you shirking your responsibility in supporting the country that has given you the platform to voice such dissent.”
Then there was an email from a Friend in New York, with the URL for the O’Reilly program’s daily webpage, which has a lineup of the day’s topics.
On the page was this item:
<< Then, a Quaker institution in North Carolina is helping U.S. soldiers desert… We’ll have a report. >>
(Don’t go looking for it, because it’s been replaced. I did save the page onto my hard drive, tho.)
Reflecting on this note, I finally, with a start, understood the underlying agenda of the interview. There was no real news “peg” for it, no new development in Jeremy’s case. Instead, its point was supposed to be: “outing” Quaker house as a den of unpatriotic treachery, a school for desertion.
Such a slur could paint cross hairs on Quaker House. Although it happened many years before I arrived, the fact of the 1970 firebombing of Quaker House was rarely absent from my awareness. It fit quite well with the dynamic of his attack on universities that are willing to hear Ward Churchill and other, very controversial speakers. (I’m not a fan of Churchill; but even less a fan of banning speakers.)
But something had gone wrong. This “report” never got presented, and the “outing” didn’t happen, except in the innuendo of their subtitles and the repeated video of Jeremy and the stroller. But that was not much.
No doubt this outcome was in part due to the fact that they had not a shred of evidence for the promised “report.” But lack of facts has not been known to stop Fox News and O’Reilly before.
So what was it? My commanding spiritual presence? <joke> A stab of conscience on the part of a producer? (We can always hope.) A spiritual covering generated by the many Friends who wrote to say they were holding me in the Light?
I like this last. And I wonder if, given O’Reilly’s own words, it also enabled that old Quaker chestnut, The Reputation of Truth, to succeed in standing up, not for me but for Itself. It managed to force from O’Reilly an expression of “respect,” even if couched in the passive voice.
Nonetheless, I fired off an email of protest about this seamy insinuation. One hardly expects that Fox & Co. will repent and change their ways; but at least it’s in the record. It follows:
February 25, 2005
Email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
To the O’Reilly program Host & Staff:
Following my appearance on the O’Reilly program on February 23, a friend sent me the following headline on the show’s webpage (since disappeared):
<<Then, a Quaker institution in North Carolina is helping U.S. soldiers desert… We’ll have a report. >>
This statement is FALSE on two counts:
- We are not “helping U.S. soldiers desert.” And
- There was NO such “report” on the February 23 show. No such allegation of “helping U.S. soldiers desert” was made. Rather, to the contrary: I affirmed that we do not encourage soldiers to desert, but to clarify and follow their conscience, and that truthful declaration was unchallenged.
I strongly object to this false and unsupported statement that was posted about Quaker House.
Chuck Fager, Director
Quaker House, Fayetteville NC
Update: As stated above, Jeremy Hinzman and his family are still in Canada; O’Reilly was fired from Fox News in April of 2017. Chuck Fager retired as Director of Quaker House in 2012.