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Bill O'Reilly Is Guilty Once More of  Sloppy, Misleading Journalism, This Time About the United Way

November 27, 2001

Bill O'Reilly, in his November 26 Talking Points memo which always opens his program, charged that the United Way had misled contributors to a TV telethon which raised money to aid victims of the September 11 attacks and their families. 

O'Reilly charged that while contributors were told all the money would go to the victims and their families, in fact, some of the money was being diverted to other uses:

[W]ith your donations, the United Way has lent the Brooklyn Philharmonic, for example, $200,000. The Institute for the Development of Earth Awareness got a grant for $5,000.

The Jennifer Muller Dance Troupe got a grant for $25,000. And the New York Scandia Symphony got as much as $20,000. The Mothers' Voice AIDS prevention program got a grant for $100,000.

After giving more such examples, O'Reilly makes his accusation.  His language is so strong that it is worth quoting at some length:

Now, the United Way says that these and other organizations like them were all adversely affected by the terror attack, and we have no argument with that. But that's not what Americans were told by the Hollywood celebrities who pitched us on TV. We were pitched helping the families...

[T]hese organizations may be very worthy of support, but they should be under the banner of the 9/11 fund. Should they be under that banner?

The fact is that the United Way has changed the mandate in midstream, saying now the entire 9/11 fund will not go directly to the grieving families, as was the telethon pitch. In the new turn, the fund will go toward, quote, "immediate and longer-term needs of the victims, their families, and communities affected by the tragedy."

So now the canvas is much wider, and some Americans believe they've been snookered. So the right thing to do is for the United Way to give refunds if people want them. A canceled check or credit card slip would be proof.

If the United Way is not willing to do that, it will be forever marked as an outfit that cannot be trusted.

And that's the memo.

Before utilizing such strong language, one would assume that a journalist, especially one with as large an audience as O'Reilly, would be responsible enough to check his facts and be sure of them before making any accusations.  As it turns out, O'Reilly -- not so unusually -- had no idea what he was talking about, as became evident when later in that program, he interviewed Joshua Gotbaum, the CEO of the United Way's September 11 Fund:

O'REILLY: What say you, Mr. Gotbaum?

GOTBAUM: The telethon money was specifically reserved for victims and their families, and not one dime of that money is going to cultural institutions.

...There is the General September 11 Fund, whose doors were opened on September 11. There is a separate fund, also administered jointly by the United Way and the New York Community Trust, that was set up specifically to receive the contributions...

O'REILLY: No telethon money's going into that general fund.

GOTBAUM: The telethon money is not going into the general fund. The telethon money is reserved specifically for the victims and their families.

O'REILLY: All right. Now, is all of it going to go to the victims and their families?

GOTBAUM: One hundred percent...

O'REILLY: I'm just hearing tonight now there's two funds. I just thought there was one. Everybody else in my organization just felt there was one fund. Now you're telling me there's two. This is confusing, very confusing to people...

GOTBAUM: Well, then I think it's very important that we set the record straight.

O'Reilly immediately switched issues, and berated Mr. Gotbaum for not having yet set up a data base identifying all the victims.  O'Reilly also pointed out that while Mr. Gotbaum was saying that the United Way would take no administrative costs out of the telethon money, that was misleading, since the United Way operates by giving grants to grass roots charities who actually distribute the funds to victims, and those grass roots charities may retain a small portion to cover their own administrative costs.

On both those latter points, O'Reilly raises valid issues concerning which the United Way can be validly criticized.

But after opening his program with what amounts to an accusation of fraud against the United Way, O'Reilly never once apologized for his erroneous charge.

Shouldn't he have checked with Mr. Gotbaum or another United Way official before making his charge?

Compounding the matter, O'Reilly's Talking Points memo from yesterday which makes the charge is today posted on O'Reilly's web site.  Why is O'Reilly still publicizing that charge when he knows it's untrue?

Let's even give the benefit of the doubt to O'Reilly, and assume that he reasonably tried to ascertain the facts from the United Way before his broadcast, and was unable to get from that organization the kind of clarification that Mr. Gotbaum later provided.  Even so, why, again, does O'Reilly continue to publicize the charge in his posted Talking Points memo? 

O'Reilly does provide a transcript of the Gotbaum interview, but under the misleading banner "Why is some of the money that was raised for families of terror victims being funneled to arts groups?"

To top it all off, in today's Talking Points memo, O'Reilly broadcast a snipped of yesterday's Gotbaum interview, but not the portion which makes clear Gotbaum's correction of O'Reilly's erroneous charge.

Talk about a No-Spin Zone!  Bill O'Reilly runs an All-Spin Zone.

This was a selection from The Daily Diatribe

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