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Sam Smith vs Fox News' Bill O'Reilly - Smackdown

Sam Smith vs Fox News' Bill O'Reilly

Sam Smith vs Fox News' Bill O'Reilly - Smackdown

By Editor Sam Smith
See full TRANSCRIPT: – or below

Reader Chas Edwards used the right word when he described your editor's appearance on the Bill O'Reilly show as a "smackdown," for television of this variety has far more in common with professional wrestling than with professional journalism. And like a professional wrestler I went on the show knowing full well that I was the designated loser. Bad Bubba O'Reilly was to show his infinite skills against Ultimo A-Train Sam with the latter left humiliated on the mat.

Some have inquired, and not too gently, why I would submit to such nonsense. Reader Weld in Brunswick Maine, for example, writes, "In exchange for a diatribe against the Clintons, O'Reilly agrees to let you air three common sense ideas. Take a shower and don't forget to scrub. You could at least have asked about his fake Peabody Awards."

Leading aside the shameful truth that I enjoy nonsense immensely, things like the O'Reilly show are merely the outward and most visible sign of an artificiality that pervades television. I learned this early when I was seriously considering television at a career. In January 1961, I made my only foray into the real world of network television. I was hired for Kennedy's inauguration by CBS News as a news editor. Along with fellow WWDC newsman Ed Taishoff, I sat all day capped with a headset in a ballroom of the Washington Hotel, turning phone calls from CBS correspondents into stories placed on Walter Cronkite's personal news ticker. If there was one thing Ed and I knew, it was how to take news from callers, turn it into copy and get it on the air fast.

But when the calls weren't coming in, I looked around the room and tried to figure out what the scores of CBS minions and executives were doing. As far as I could tell, Ed and I and a few people in front of dials and screens were doing most of the work. Yet we were badly out-numbered and under-paid by men in suits who tore around yelling and looking concerned or angry or wanting to know where something was. It all didn't look like much fun and I think it was when I decided I didn't want to be a network anchorman after all.

I would also cover events with my little battery operated tape recorder and felt blessed with the speed I could set up and depart compared to those in television. It seemed like every time they wanted to do something, a giant Leggo set would appear between them and the something and nothing could happen until they had assembled it.

The result is that everything that television does becomes television rather than what it starts out to be. For example my few minutes on Fox required numerous phone calls, including a "pre-interview," follow-ups and useful advice on how to facilitate the O'Reilly experience. Upon arrival I was layered with powder to make me look as much unlike myself as possible although, as I pointed out to the duster, making me up is a bit like George Bush trying to balance a budget. And then I sat for 45 minutes as people rushed back and forth on unknown but important missions including Britt Hume who sincerely wished me luck tackling O'Reilly and Bill Kristol who said hello and then quickly turned and left when he realized that it hadn't been necessary.

And to what end? To spend a few minutes talking to a wall that for the purposes of television I was to imagine as Bill O'Reilly. How an industry that spends so much money on everything else can only give you a wall to talk to leaves is puzzling and I know of no one who has experienced one of these remote interviews who finds it comfortable.

I comforted myself by recalling the time I was interviewed in my office and placed in a chair in front of the camera. A bored young intern sat in a chair under the camera and I was told to direct my answers to him, answers to questions being provided over a speakerphone 160 degrees off my starboard bow by an interviewer in New York. Three minutes into the interview the intern fell asleep, a development unnoticed by the crew on the other side of the camera. So for the next ten or fifteen minutes I had to inform a dormant slacker on some matter of great concern without totally breaking up. On the whole, I prefer walls. Besides, on the other side of that wall was not just a TV host but his audience, real people, decent people, un-pre-interviewed, without mikes, cameras or makeup.

Educated by good Quakers, I learned early not to shun the present but to follow the instructions of George Fox and "walk cheerfully over the face of the earth answering that of God in every one," in which he would presumably include Bill O'Reilly. The Brazilian Archbishop Helder Pessoa Camara once declared: "Let no one be scandalized if I frequent those who are considered unworthy or sinful. Who is not a sinner? Let no one be alarmed if I am seen with compromised and dangerous people, on the left or the right. Let no one bind me to a group. My door, my heart, must open to everyone, absolutely everyone."

Unfortunately, the tradition of personal witness regardless of context is far stronger among the religious and the right than among liberals and progressives. Especially in recent years, liberals have taken to shunning, often proudly or pompously, those not of their ilk, which is, among other things, a hard way to win votes. One needn't be a proselytizer, only a witness or, in the Hubert Humphrey tradition, a happy warrior moving through alien ground with a smile and a dream.

Besides, I got to talk with the Bosnian driver of the car Fox News had sent for me. And by the time we had reached the UAW headquarters where my next meeting was, he had indicated that he would switch from his current political apathy to voting Green in the next election. So you see, it was worth it, after all.

Fox News Network
January 31, 2005 Monday



LENGTH: 1540 words

HEADLINE: Personal Story: Interview With Journalist Sam Smith

BYLINE: Bill O'Reilly

GUESTS: Sam Smith


O'REILLY: Thanks for staying with us. I'm Bill O'Reilly.

In the "Personal Story" Segment tonight, many Americans, including some radio talk-show hosts, do not know the difference between a liberal and a progressive and a conservative and a traditionalist.

Progressives want major changes in the country. Some liberals simply want to operate differently under the current structure. Conservatives usually want smaller government and a social agenda that rejects major change. Traditionalists, on the other hand, think the country was well- founded, but are open to change if the improvements reflect the basic philosophy of the founders.

Got all that? There will be a test.

"The Factor" believes that the progressive secularists are on the wrong track. But, as always, I could be wrong.

Joining us now from Washington is Sam Smith, the editor of the Progressive Review and author of the book "Sam Smith's Great American Political Repair Manual." What a title. There you go.

All right, Mr. Smith. What do we need to change here?


O'REILLY: You can pick any issues you want. Just run them down, and I'll debrief you on them.

SMITH: All right. Let's start with public campaign financing, and we'll do it before the elections instead of the way we do it now, which is after the elections in the form of payoffs to campaign contributors.

Then we can move on there -- from there to instant runoff voting where you get to vote for your first, second and third choice for candidates, and we won't have another one of these messes like we had in 2000 and to a lesser extent in 2004.

O'REILLY: All right. So you want a presidential election that says you can vote for your best candidate, then number two and then number three.

SMITH: That's right. And if nobody gets a majority, then you take the people who voted for the third candidates and you look at their second choices, and...

O'REILLY: Yes, but why...

SMITH: ... in the process...

O'REILLY: ... why do we need that? Why not...

SMITH: In the process...

O'REILLY: Why do we need that?

SMITH: Well, you need that because you don't want to repeat what we had in 2000 and we had this year. You want to have -- when you have elections, you want people to feel like something fair happened...

O'REILLY: But what if I only think...

SMITH: ... and the easiest way...

O'REILLY: What if I only want one and I don't like the other two guys?

SMITH: Well, that certainly is your right. You can do that...

O'REILLY: I don't know about that.

SMITH: But the problem -- the problem is that this idea is growing very fast. And you know where it's growing? It's growing on college campuses because a lot of students are understanding the idea and realizing it should be much more fair.

O'REILLY: Let me make a prediction. Let me make a prediction. That will never happen.

All right. Go on. What else does this country need to change?

SMITH: OK. Now this is going to upset you because it breaks your paradigm, but I would get rid of the rMDNM_No Child Left Behind and turn the school systems back to the local school districts where it belongs.

That doesn't mean that you don't have extensive federal funding of school systems, but I think that treating education as a -- essentially sort of a top-down corporate matter has been an utter disaster.

O'REILLY: All right. Well, let me challenge. Let me challenge.

SMITH: All right.

O'REILLY: In the city where you are right now, Washington, D.C., you have an utterly chaotic school board there, the worst -- among the worst test scores in the nation, among the highest spending per pupil, all right?

So, clearly, the Washington, D.C., school board and local government cannot run their schools. They simply cannot do it. And you want me to endorse your idea and have that spread?

SMITH: Well, how about -- how about the Suffolk County School System? What, do you think they're qualified to run the school system?

O'REILLY: I have no idea what goes on. I'm just giving you...

SMITH: Yes. Well, I'm just -- I'm just...

O'REILLY: ... a major metro area, D.C., which is spending more than $10,000 per pupil and they can't teach anybody anything.

SMITH: Hey, listen, few people have been as much of a critic of a school system as I have here in D.C., but the point is that you're not going to solve it by having George Bush run the D.C. school system. That simply is not going to work...

O'REILLY: Well, that's -- but if...

SMITH: ... and so...

O'REILLY: If the federal government imposes standards and says if you don't meet the standards, you don't get the federal money, I think that might encourage higher standards, no?

SMITH: Yes, but the problem with that is that -- and you talk to teachers about this -- is that you find that -- you were a teacher once, I believe, and, you know, you...


SMITH: I don't think you would want the federal government telling you that you have to spend so many weeks this semester getting ready for a test...

O'REILLY: But I wouldn't.

SMITH: ... when you really want to do something else.

O'REILLY: No, I wouldn't. I'd teach...

SMITH: Well, that's what's happening.

O'REILLY: I'd teach the children so that they would be prepared to take the test. I wouldn't drill them and memorize them. But that's just me.

All right. What else? No Child. Election reform. What else?

SMITH: OK. Now here are a couple of other sort of off-beat ones. I don't feel either the Democrats or the Republicans do much for small business, and I would make that a major aspect of...

O'REILLY: Tax breaks you mean? Tax breaks for small business?

SMITH: No, just going through the whole realm of issues that small business people have.

O'REILLY: But then you have...

SMITH: The problem is...

O'REILLY: You don't want the federal government to micromanage the school districts, but you do want them to micromanage the small business area?

SMITH: No, but the problem is that they're micromanaging right now. You see, there's an awful lot of difference if you're running a Fortune 500 corporation and have a lot of lawyers and you're fulfilling some sort of federal requirement or if you're running a small restaurant and you have to do all this paperwork, and...

O'REILLY: Oh, listen, I agree with you there.


O'REILLY: I think everybody should get a flat tax and cut out the nonsense.

SMITH: So you simplify it and you worry about things...

O'REILLY: All right. I'm a progressive there.

SMITH: All right.

O'REILLY: I'm with you on that.

SMITH: OK. Good.

O'REILLY: OK. Now...

SMITH: OK. How about...

O'REILLY: I want to ask you one -- We're running out of time here, and this is very interesting to me. Would you consider -- you're a progressive. You edit the magazine. But are you a liberal?


O'REILLY: OK. So you're a...

SMITH: No, I'm -- and I'm a conservative on the Constitution. I'm a conservative on the environment.

O'REILLY: All right. And you got in trouble with the Bush administration because you criticized them for what?

SMITH: I got in trouble with the Clinton administration.

O'REILLY: I'm sorry. The Clinton administration.

SMITH: Yes. Because I did what a reporter is meant to do and looked at the facts, and I was one of the earliest -- long before the so-called right-wing conspiracy, I was getting stuff from progressive student groups in Arkansas on what was going on down in Arkansas. And it was just a story I followed, but the Clinton people didn't like that.

O'REILLY: And you -- what, you thought he was corrupt?

SMITH: Oh, I have been following urban corruption all my life, and I...

O'REILLY: OK, but why did you get in trouble with the Clintons and -- why?

SMITH: Well, because they did not like people who challenged them. I know of at least, I think, nine reporters who either lost their jobs, got transferred off the beat, or otherwise...

O'REILLY: But what did you challenge them on? Define it.

SMITH: Well, simply -- simply by reporting what was going on down there in an aggressive fashion, which to my mind...

O'REILLY: Well, tell us what your beef was. We don't know what your beef was.

SMITH: Oh, well, it's a long, complicated story.

O'REILLY: Just name one.

SMITH: Let's take, for example, what was going on in Mena (ph) where you had a drug operation in which the -- most of the state was sort of looking the other way, where you had the CIA flying arms down to the...

O'REILLY: The Contras.

SMITH: ... Contras and there were drugs coming back the other way, and you had Barry Seal bringing drugs into Arkansas.

O'REILLY: I got it. I got it.

SMITH: I'll tell you -- I'll tell you there was a state trooper who described it well.

O'REILLY: Mr. Smith?


O'REILLY: It's old news.

SMITH: All right.

O'REILLY: But you say you got banned from NPR and C-SPAN. Is that true?

SMITH: No, it's from -- the local NPR station, yes, I got banned from, and...

O'REILLY: We don't like that, Mr. Smith. We want you to have access to the media.

SMITH: No, we don't like that. No.

O'REILLY: OK. Just kind of -- you have to just focus a little bit more. But we appreciate it, Mr. Smith. Thanks very much for coming on.

SMITH: All right.

O'REILLY: Back in a moment with the beginning of the Michael Jackson trial -- Is it the end for the pop icon? -- upcoming, as "The Factor" continues all across the USA and all around the world.




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