O'Reilly: Calling Alterman “Castro confidant” was “just making fun”

FOX News Channel host Bill O'Reilly spoke publicly about the recent threat of a defamation lawsuit from Eric Alterman, whom O'Reilly had called “another Fidel Castro confidant,” calling Alterman a “left-wing loon” and a “pinhead” during the June 15 broadcast of The Radio Factor with Bill O'Reilly. On the previous day's show, O'Reilly compared Bill Moyers to Mao Zedong; on April 20, O'Reilly compared Moyers to Castro and to convicted serial killer Ted Bundy (but claimed he was joking about the Bundy comparison).

O'Reilly's attack on Alterman, and his claim that the Castro remark “was just making fun of Alterman,” came less than one year after FOX News filed a lawsuit, at O'Reilly's behest, against comedian and radio host Al Franken over Franken's book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, which features O'Reilly's visage on the cover.

O'Reilly began his discussion on the June 15 Radio Factor by reading from a Washington Post article that reported both Alterman's threat to sue O'Reilly and O'Reilly's recent on-air apology to columnist and author Molly Ivins for calling her a “socialist”; then O'Reilly proceeded to explain away his smear of Alterman:

But I -- in the beginning, when I called Ivins a soc -- I was just making fun of her. And I was just making fun of Alterman, who is a known left-wing loon, and -- well, I -- maybe I shouldn't say loon. OK, that's -- that's probably too much. A known left-winger who you can't debate with, because he's, “Oh, no, you're all the devil -- Bush is the devil.” OK, fine.

And I just said well you know ... “He's to the left of Fidel Castro,” or something like that. Now, Alterman, of course, is taking that seriously, and he's going to sue me. Well, go ahead, you pinhead, I mean ridiculous. You people can smear, can malign, can lie about everything, you know, and then somebody makes fun of you for doing it, “Oh, I'm going to sue.” OK, go ahead, fine.

O'Reilly's embrace of the can't-you-people-take-a-joke defense contrasts sharply with the explanation O'Reilly offered for his own lawsuit against Franken. In an August 28, 2003, Washington Post article, O'Reilly explained that the lawsuit was aimed at those who “hide behind the satirist's label to defame”:

You have a movement among the ultraleft to discredit me and Fox News Channel any way they can. ... They can't win the debate. They can't win the ratings war. So let's turn to defamation and we'll hide behind the satirist's label to defame. We don't have to be honest and accurate. It's a charade -- people see it for what it is. It had to be exposed, and that's what that lawsuit did.

As The New Yorker's Ben McGrath reported in September 2003, U.S. District Judge Denny Chin ruled against FOX News Channel's lawsuit.