FOX hypes stories to claim “Christmas Under Siege”

FOX News is aggressively hyping several small controversies involving public holiday displays that don't explicitly mention Christmas in order to depict a widespread and sinister “attack on Christmas” by “secular progressives.” Led by hosts Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, FOX News anchors have returned continually to several minor stories whose theme is the purported marginalization or persecution of Christians. A closer examination of each of these stories reveals that they hardly constitute an anti-Christmas trend.

Beginning on December 3, O'Reilly began a recurring segment on The O'Reilly Factor called “Christmas Under Siege.” O'Reilly's December 7 "Talking Points Memo" included a litany of anecdotes that appear to show an epidemic of anti-Christmas fervor sweeping the nation:

O'REILLY: All over the country, Christmas is taking flak. In Denver this past weekend, no religious floats were permitted in the holiday parade there. In New York City, Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg unveiled the “holiday tree,” and no Christian Christmas symbols are allowed in the public schools. Federated Department Stores -- that's Macy's -- have done away with the Christmas greeting “Merry Christmas.”

Moments later, O'Reilly revealed that this “siege” on Christmas is part of a sinister campaign by “secular progressives” to advance a radical agenda:

O'REILLY: Secular progressives realize that America as it is now will never approve of gay marriage, partial birth abortion, euthanasia, legalized drugs, income redistribution through taxation, and many other progressive visions because of religious opposition.

But if the secularists can destroy religion in the public arena, the brave new progressive world is a possibility. That's what happened in Canada.

Though O'Reilly rarely names these “secular progressives,” he has made it clear that Democrats are the target of his attacks. On December 8, he told Representative Brad Carson (D-OK), who recently lost his bid for U.S. Senate in Oklahoma, that “progressive secularists have ruined the Democratic Party.” On the December 7 broadcast of the nationally syndicated Radio Factor with Bill O'Reilly, he declared that “the people at The New York Times, the L.A. Times -- the far left wing of the Democratic Party -- they hate the fact that 82 percent of Americans are Christian.” On his December 9 radio show, O'Reilly told a caller: “Remember, more than 90 percent of American homes celebrate Christmas. But, the small minority that is trying to impose its will on the majority is so vicious, so dishonest -- and has to be dealt with.”

In fact, the evidence of any concerted “attack on Christmas” disintegrates when one examines the alleged examples.

Denver's “Parade of Lights”

While it's true that Denver's annual “Parade of Lights,” held December 3-4, chose not to include the Faith Bible Church's religious float, the Downtown Denver Partnership, the private group that organized the parade, explained that because the small size of the parade forces it to turn down many floats each year, including a religious float would appear to be an act of religious favoritism. The Denver Post explained in a December 4 editorial:

“We have a policy designed to not put us in position to make value judgments [such as] which religion gets in,” says Jim Basey, president of the partnership.

Unlike other parades, such as Denver's St. Patrick's Day parade that stretches on for hours with dozens of floats and various groups just marching along, the Parade of Lights is limited in size and scope. It only lasts an hour, with elaborate floats that are often re-used from year to year. Organizers turn down many groups each year simply because there isn't time or room for everyone.

O'Reilly debuted the “Christmas Under Siege” series on December 3 with a segment on the Denver parade. In a teaser for the show that aired on FOX throughout the day, O'Reilly asked, “Is the city of Denver attacking -- I mean attacking -- Christmas?” During the show, when a guest defended the partnership's decision by explaining that the parade wasn't meant to honor any particular holiday but, O'Reilly insisted, “It's the Christmas holiday. That's the holiday!” Of course, other religions have December holidays as well.

Bloomberg and New York's “holiday tree”

On his December 6 radio program, O'Reilly was even more explicit in singling out Bloomberg for his choice of words: “Today, New York City, the mayor, Bloomberg, lit a tree but he will not call it a Christmas tree. It's a 'holiday tree.' 'Holiday tree.' The mayor of New York City will not call it a Christmas tree -- all right?”

But while Bloomberg apparently did refer to the tree at Rockefeller Center as a “holiday tree” at the lighting ceremony on December 6, his choice of words is hardly indicative of a trend, as O'Reilly suggested. A press release promoting the ceremony by Swarovski, the crystal company responsible for the 550-pound, 10-foot-wide crystal star atop the tree, touted “the 72nd Annual Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree”; the Associated Press story on the ceremony similarly referred to “the center's famed Christmas tree”; and a website devoted to the tree by New York's local NBC affiliate, WNBC (which includes the live “tree cam”), is prominently titled “Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree.”

Christian symbols in New York schools

New York City public school policy does not specifically ban Christian symbols. According to an article in the December 11, 2002, New York Times, "[t]he policy permits what it calls secular holiday decorations, including 'Christmas trees, menorahs and the star and crescent,' according to a memorandum that the schools chancellor's general counsel distributed a year ago. If one symbol is displayed, so should those of other 'beliefs or customs,' it said." The Times reported that the school board is basing its policy on a 1989 Supreme Court case: “In a 1989 decision involving displays in Pittsburgh, the Supreme Court ruled that a Nativity scene at the Allegheny County, Pa., courthouse was unconstitutional because it lacked secular symbols of the Christmas season, making it seem as if the county endorsed the religious message. But it said an 18-foot-tall menorah on the steps of City Hall was acceptable because it was coupled with a 45-foot-tall Christmas tree. The ruling essentially said context had to be considered in each case.”

Federated Department Stores and “Merry Christmas”

While Federated Department Stores Inc. has apparently replaced “Merry Christmas” displays with “Happy Holidays” in many of its stores, this development received scant attention before FOX News began hyping the so-called “Committee to Save Merry Christmas,” which was apparently the first to complain about holiday displays at Macy's and Bloomingdale's, which Federated owns. O'Reilly devoted an entire segment to the story on the December 1 O'Reilly Factor in which he explained: “I understand this attack on Christmas. We do a lot of reporting on it.”

But that “committee” appears to consist of little more than a single individual, Manuel Zammarano, and his website. Moreover, the store allows individual stores to make their own decisions, according to its statement, as Media Matters for America noted when O'Reilly devoted a segment to the story on the December 1 edition of The O'Reilly Factor. Anchor Chris Wallace also scoffed at Federated on the December 5 edition of FOX Broadcasting Company's FOX News Sunday, suggesting that Macy's is bowing to “political correctness”:

Macy's, the department store featured in the Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street, denies it's being politically correct in its advertising by using “Seasons Greetings” and “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” But perhaps there's a hint of the company's thinking in a statement on the corporate Web page, quote: “These expressions of goodwill are more reflective of the multicultural society in which we live.” How about this: Bah, humbug!

Declaration of Independence “banned” from California school

Media Matters has documented FOX News' peddling -- led by Hannity -- of a false report that Stevens Creek Elementary School in Cupertino, California, banned the Declaration of Independence because it mentions God. FOX News managing editor and chief Washington correspondent Brit Hume (11/24); Wallace (12/5); FOX News contributor Newt Gingrich (12/6); and host John Gibson (11/26) all repeated this false claim. In fact, the school prohibited supplemental handouts by Williams to his students as part of a lesson on the role of Christianity in America's founding, including selected excerpts from the Declaration of Independence that made reference to God, following complaints by parents that Williams's teaching “crossed the line into evangelizing.” Further, the Cupertino Union School District has noted that the Declaration is featured in the school's textbooks and is displayed in some school buildings.

On December 8, Hannity & Colmes presented a special “Take America Back” edition of their show live from Cupertino. But during the show, even the teacher at the center of the controversy, Stephen J. Williams, admitted: “Well, my kids had read the Declaration [in school], so that's a little bit of a stretch.”

Christmas trees and signs

Hume reported on the “Political Grapevine” segment of the December 3 edition of Special Report that “Californians will once again have an official state Christmas tree” thanks to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican. Hume explained, “Former Democratic Governor Gray Davis switched to the secular holiday tree four years ago. But Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says the yuletide symbol will be the Christmas tree as long as he's in office,” suggesting that Schwarzenegger had changed the tree itself. But according to an article in the Sacramento Union, the only thing that has changed is the governor's choice of words; the display outside the state Capitol building featured a white fir tree both this year and last year, when Schwarzenegger called it a “holiday tree.”

Hume also reported that “Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, had planned to scrap the 'Merry Christmas' sign on city hall and replace it with a politically correct sign reading 'Happy Holidays'” but that public outcry caused him to change his mind.