Fox News host Bill O'Reilly attacked a September 12 Hartford Courant editorial that he falsely characterized as opposing mandatory minimum prison sentences for child sex offenders. In fact, the editorial did not take a position on mandatory minimums; rather, it explored proposals for enhancing post-incarceration monitoring of convicted sex offenders' movements. Further, Media Matters for America discovered no evidence that the Courant has endorsed or opposed minimum sentences for child sex offenders.
During his September 13 discussion with former prosecutor Wendy Murphy, O'Reilly held up the case of one particular sex offender as an example to illustrate "why Connecticut needs mandatories. ... And obviously, the state needs an overhaul, but the paper doesn't want it." He also commented that "[t]he wording [of the Courant editorial] is almost identical to the Houston Chronicle," O'Reilly told Murphy, "in the sense that we can't really throw mandatories at them because we have to throw the key away." Murphy agreed, saying "Yes, you've got that right"; she noted that Connecticut does have mandatory minimum sentences for sex offenses that she said judges and prosecutors skirt.
O'Reilly, however, completely mischaracterized the Courant editorial, which does not even mention mandatory minimum sentences, much less oppose them. From the September 12 Courant editorial, titled "Sexual Abuse Hysteria":
Along with punishment, predators need treatment. Studies show that treatment is effective in helping to reduce recidivism.
Lawmakers must be careful to separate one-time offenders involved in relatively minor incidents from truly serious cases in which there is a strong possibility that the person will strike again. One-size-fits-all legislation unfairly stigmatizes offenders without protecting children. [Sentences quoted by O'Reilly are italicized]
A Nexis search* found no evidence that the Courant has recently taken a position on mandatory minimum prison sentences for child sex offenders. However, in a Dec. 3, 1998 editorial, the paper did say that "[m]uch longer sentences for sexual predators" could be "one answer" to the problem of convicted sex offenders who have served their time but are not ready to return to society.
O'Reilly's reference to the Houston Chronicle alluded to a controversy earlier this year in which, as with the Courant, O'Reilly mischaracterized the content of a newspaper editorial. On the May 10 edition of The O'Reilly Factor, he falsely claimed that a May 10 Chronicle editorial had attacked the mandatory minimum sentences imposed in Florida's "Jessica's Law" as "too harsh." As the Chronicle noted in a May 12 editorial exposing O'Reilly's distortion, "O'Reilly told his viewers that the Chronicle editorial said the Florida law was too harsh. He was mistaken. The editorial excerpts that O'Reilly projected on the screen said nothing about the harshness of the punishment." Subsequently, O'Reilly apologized for misattributing the quotation and admitted that the Chronicle "didn't actually say" that the mandatory sentence stipulated by "Jessica's Law" was "too harsh." However, O'Reilly continued to argue that he was justified in attacking the Chronicle based on "everything that I extrapolated from the editorial."
From the September 13 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
O'REILLY: That law [Florida's Jessica Lunsford Act] mandates 25 years in prison for felony sexual battery first offense on a child 12 and under. Yesterday, the largest newspaper in Connecticut, the Hartford Courant, editorialized this way, quote: "Along with punishment, predators need treatment. One-size-fits-all legislation unfairly stigmatizes offenders without protecting children." The guy who wrote it, [Courant editorial writer] Bill Williams, declined to appear with us this evening. ... In Connecticut, in July, a guy named [omitted] sentenced to three years in prison for sexually violating an 11-year-old girl, three years. This is why Connecticut needs mandatories. And it's -- I have a whole list of people who are serving nothing, no jail at all, for abusing children. And obviously, the state needs an overhaul, but the paper doesn't want it.
MURPHY: Yes, you've got that right. You know, Connecticut, actually, among the states does have some mandatory minimums, so out of 51 jurisdictions, 50 states plus D.C., Connecticut is in that minority of states that has a mandatory minimum.
O'REILLY: Now, I don't understand the Hartford Courant. I know it's a liberal paper, professor. But the wording is almost identical to the Houston Chronicle in the sense that, well, we have to give -- we can't really throw mandatories at them and throw the key away, because they have to be rehabilitated and on and on and on. Is this -- is this in keeping with the paper's theme?
RICH HANLEY (Quinnipiac University journalism professor): It generally editorializes in favor of any sort of civil liberty. Its general editorial tone, however, is one of centrist, middle-of-the-road nonpartisanship.
*Nexis search was "(mandatory w/20 (minimum or prison or jail or sentence)) and (sex! or rape or molest!) and section (editorial or opinion)" for all available dates on Nexis' Hartford Courant database.