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
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
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: The telethon money was specifically reserved for victims and
their families, and not one dime of that money is going to cultural
...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
O'REILLY: All right. Now, is all of it going to go to the victims and
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
GOTBAUM: Well, then I think it's very important that we set the record
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
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.