O'Reilly on the radio: Three lies, one broadcast

On June 28, in an apparent reference to Media Matters for America, FOX News Channel host and radio host Bill O'Reilly told a caller on his nationally syndicated radio program, The Radio Factor, that because he performs three hours of commentary and analysis every weekday (two hours of The Radio Factor and one hour of his FOX News Channel show The O'Reilly Factor), it's easy for “people now on the Far Left” to “jot down everything I say and then quickly try to run in and try to make it seem a lie. You can do that to anybody.” On The O'Reilly Factor that evening, O'Reilly reiterated this complaint: “The bomb-throwers are now recording all of that [O'Reilly's three hours of daily commentary] with an eye on finding so-called lies. Now anybody can find something in three hours to challenge.” On the July 7, O'Reilly told three lies during the course of his two-hour Radio Factor broadcast.

Lie #1: Bush tax cuts didn't create the budget deficit

Apparently reading from a summary of Senator John Kerry's (D-MA) proposed policy agenda by Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), America's oldest independent liberal lobbying organization, O'Reilly took issue with Kerry's promise (as summarized by ADA) to “restore fairness in taxes, reversing the tax cuts for the wealthy that have turned record surpluses into record deficits.” "Well, it wasn't the tax cuts that turned that into deficit," O'Reilly insisted. "It was the war on terror, and the war in Iraq, OK."

But according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the first deficit of the Bush presidency occurred in August 2001 -- before September 11 and before the war in Iraq. (Though the fiscal year 2001 budget was passed under President Bill Clinton, the CBO's FY 2001 projection reflects the fiscal effects of President George W. Bush's 2001 tax cut.) Even if we interpret O'Reilly's claim charitably and assume that he means to say that war is responsible for transforming a modest, manageable budget deficit into the enormous, long-term deficits that the CBO now projects, he was still wrong.

In FY 2000, the federal budget ran a unified surplus equal to $236.4 billion, or 2.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP); for FY 2004, CBO projects a unified deficit of $477 billion, or 4.2 percent of GDP. A January 2004 analysis of that shift, by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), directly contradicts O'Reilly's claim about the source of the budget deficit. CBPP reported:

The drop-off in revenues [due to tax cuts, whose effect on the 2004 federal budget the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates at $236 billion, and the economic downturn] accounts for more than three times as much of this shift as the rise in expenditures [due largely to increased spending for homeland security and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq]. Between 2000 and 2004, revenues as a share of GDP fell by 5.0 percentage points -- and thereby accounted for 76 percent of the fiscal deterioration. Spending as a share of GDP increased by 1.6 percentage points, accounting for 24 percent of the deterioration.

Lie #2: “Socialistic” French, Germans, and Canadian governments tax at 80 percent

Proceeding through the ADA summary of Kerry's policy agenda, O'Reilly came to Kerry's commitment to “work towards affordable health care for all Americans.” Interpreting this commitment as an endorsement of “socialism” in the French, German, and Canadian mold, O'Reilly warned listeners that France, Germany, and Canada “are taxing you [residents of those countries] up to 80 percent”; in fact, taxes in those countries are roughly half that.

O'REILLY: That's what socialism is, basically the government seizes private property, seizes salaries through taxation, and then redistributes that to pay people's bills, housing costs, food costs, medical. That's what socialism is.

And there are varying degrees of it. All right? France and Germany, very socialistic countries, but it's not pure socialism. They're not taking your house. But they are taxing you up to 80 percent. Canada's going that way too.

Forbes magazine's May analysis of data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that as a share of GDP, the overall tax burdens for the three “socialist” countries O'Reilly named -- including national and local taxes -- were as follows:

France: 44.2 percent

Germany: 36.2 percent

Canada: 33.5 percent

(For the purpose of comparison, America's overall tax burden is 28.5 percent of GDP.)

Though Media Matters for America cannot be certain that no individuals or firms in any of these three countries ever have any portion of their income or wealth taxed at 80 percent under any circumstances, the Forbes analysis strongly suggested that such tax rates do not exist anywhere in the developed world. The top marginal income tax rate for a single person earning €1 million annually (about $1,239,000 in current dollars) is 58 percent in France; 44 percent in Germany; and 56 percent in Canada. Corporate tax rates in all three countries are even lower.

Lie #3: Canadian, British, and French media are “government-controlled,” but Italian media is free

During a discussion of why so many people around the world -- especially in Canada and western Europe -- dislike and distrust the United States, O'Reilly blamed these nations' “government-controlled” news outlets for operating with a left-wing, anti-American bias. O'Reilly held up Italian media as a rare exception of a western European media establishment that is free from bias and government control. In fact, by law, the governments of the United Kingdom, France, and Canada have no control over the editorial content of British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Agence France-Presse (AFP), or the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). By contrast, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi personally owns and controls a large swath of Italy's most influential media outlets.

From the July 7 broadcast of The Radio Factor with Bill O'Reilly:

O'REILLY: Now, the reason [that Europeans dislike the United States] is that in most European countries, the media is controlled -- the electronic media -- is controlled by the government. BBC. Agence France. They control the flow.


Add to that a controlled media in Canada. FOX News isn't allowed up there. We're petitioning, but they not real anxious to have us up there. All right? They got their CBC -- government-controlled, Left -- and they got their big newspapers, primarily Left -- banging America, banging, banging, banging.


Well, a lot of it has to do with that, but I think the point that you make that's valid is, if you're living in a European country, no matter what country it is, with the possible exception of Italy, you're not getting the truth. You need a radio-free network and a television-free network to get both sides.


But, what you have now, [caller's name], is that you have a closed media in there. So the propaganda element from the BBC and the other government-run agencies is enormous.

King George V established* the BBC in 1926 by Royal Charter. An Agreement accompanying the charter specifically established the BBC's editorial independence from the government. According to the current Agreement, “The Corporation shall be independent in all matters concerning the content of its programmes and the times at which they are broadcast or transmitted and in the management of its affairs” [subclause 2.1 of the Agreement]. The BBC is governed by a twelve-member Board of Governors appointed by the queen in consultation with government ministers. None of the governors are government officials. A 16-member Executive Committee appointed by the Board of Governors runs the BBC's day-to-day operations. None of these executives are government officials.

Far from dutifully serving up British government propaganda, as O'Reilly's characterization of the BBC as “government-controlled” would suggest, the BBC became embroiled in controversy last year when defense and diplomatic correspondent Andrew Gilligan reported in a live radio broadcast that British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government had ordered that an intelligence dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction be “sexed up” in order to bolster Blair's case for war. Though BBC chairman Gavyn Davies eventually resigned over the affair, his resignation came in response to an independent inquiry by British judge Lord Hutton that found that Gilligan's accusation against the government was “unfounded.” Hutton was appointed to lead an investigation into the death of British scientist David Kelly, who committed suicide after he was identified as the source for Gilligan's story on the weapons dossier; but prior to the release of Hutton's findings, the BBC had “robustly defended” Gilligan's story from government criticism, according to [video] to BBC special correspondent Gavin Hewitt.

The CBC was created as a crown corporation by an act of the Canadian Parliament in 1936. A crown corporation is a corporation owned by the Canadian government but over which the government is forbidden to exercise operational control. No member of the CBC's twelve-member Board of Directors is a public official. Its senior managers are also independent.

AFP is also owned by the French government; but, much like the BBC and the CBC, the 1957 French law that established AFP specifically forbids government interference in editorial decision-making. The French government is represented on the executive board and the administrative council.

By contrast, decreasing media independence in Italy under media magnate and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has become a source of international concern. In 2004, an annual global survey of press freedom by Freedom House, a Washington-based, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization devoted to the spread of democracy and civil society around the world, singled out Italy as a country that was "backsliding" on press freedom:

In Italy, increased media concentration and subsequent political pressure led to the downgrading of the country from Free to Partly Free.

“Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been able to exert undue influence over the public broadcaster RAI" said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, the survey's managing editor. “This further exacerbates an already worrisome media environment characterized by unbalanced coverage within Berlusconi's enormous media empire.”

The survey ranked Italy seventy-fourth in the world in press freedom, just ahead of Namibia and behind Benin, Botswana, and Solomon Islands. The section of the report devoted to Italy noted the recent resignation of a prominent Italian newspaper editor: “The editor of Corriere della Sera, the major daily, resigned in May amid allegations that he was pressured to quit due to his tense relations with government officials.” It also noted that Berlusconi personally controls a large portion of the Italian media:

Berlusconi's substantial family business holdings control the three largest private television stations and one newspaper, as well as a significant portion of the advertising market. As prime minister, he is able to exert influence over public service broadcaster RAI as well, a conflict of interest that is one of the greatest in the world.

Shortly after the survey was published, Lucia Annunziata, head of RAI's board of directors, resigned, “alleging that forces loyal to Premier Silvio Berlusconi's government were trying to control the broadcaster,” according to a May 4 report by CNN.

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*Correction: When this item was first published, it incorrectly stated that “Queen Elizabeth II established the BBC in 1926 by Royal Charter.” In fact, Queen Elizabeth II's decree appears only on subsequent renewals of the charter, the latest of which took effect in 1996 and runs through 2006. [back to article]