Last month I received an e-mail from my alma mater, Boston University, containing the following invitation: “Save the Date! Alumni Weekend! October 23. A Conversation with Bill O’Reilly: ‘A Bold Fresh Look at the Future of News.’”
The BU college hosting the event? The College of Communication (COM), home to the university’s Department of Journalism. In addition to a “conversation” between the face of FOX’s “The O’Reilly Factor” and another BU alum, Bill Wheatley (retired executive vice-president of NBC News), the evening will include a presentation of six “Distinguished Alumni Awards,” an honor already bestowed upon Mr. O’Reilly.
See anything wrong with this picture? Not COM Dean Tom Fiedler, the man responsible for choosing O’Reilly as the night’s star attraction.
“I would argue that Bill O’Reilly is a role model for our students,” Fiedler told me recently. “I grant that his is a controversial path, and it may not be the path that all would choose.”
A role model?
“We are honoring Bill O’Reilly for living an honorable life,” Fiedler explained. “He has generously supported Boston University.”
“An honorable life.” It would take an article far longer than this one to catalog the deceptions, evasions and bullying tactics of O’Reilly.
Let me mention, but not stress, the millions of dollars that, according to the Washington Post, O’Reilly paid to his former producer, Andrea Mackris, to settle her sexual harassment case in 2004.
Another, more recent case:
On May 31, 2009, Dr. George Tiller, the Kansas abortion provider, was murdered at his local church. During the months leading up to this crime, O’Reilly often referred to the doctor as “Tiller the baby killer.” When criticized for his frequent use of the phrase, O’Reilly claimed he was directly quoting others. This was quickly disproved with voluminous videotape evidence.
I asked Dean Fiedler: Did this specific case give him pause?
“That would be a good issue to bring up as a question at the O’Reilly evening,” Fiedler replied. “Why is he so provocative? O’Reilly is a controversial figure, so this will be a rare opportunity to hear directly from him about why he does what he does.”
So, is it fair to say that the evening is part of the grand old tradition of American colleges allowing controversial, or even hated, public figures a platform to air their views?
Fiedler suddenly changed course. “Colleges ought to provide platforms for the most controversial views, but this evening is not that kind of platform,” he said. “This is an evening where we are giving distinguished alumni awards to people who we think highly of. Bill O’Reilly was deemed to be a role model earlier in his career, and I’m certainly not going to second guess that decision.”
This reminds me of the scene in 1930s gangster films when the notorious gangster’s old immigrant mother is questioned by the cops. “All I know is he’s a good boy,” she says in a defensive, sniveling tone. “He’s always been good to me.”
Is it naïve to hope that prestigious American universities bear some responsibility to improve society? Or is it obvious to all but the misguided optimist that the purpose of American higher education is simply to prepare a student for a high-paying job? And to then pray that the alumnus earns so much money that he donates sizable amounts back to the poor, old, lovable academic mother that raised him?
In a time when broadcast media, both of the mainstream and stridently partisan varieties, are widely criticized for degrading the American political debate, is it too much to ask that one of our foremost schools of journalism refrain from honoring O’Reilly, no matter how generous he’s been?
Is money, in the end, all? Can the dean imagine any situation in which the university might withhold high alumni honors from a famous, generous graduate?
“Yes, of course. I would not be part of honoring someone with a criminal record,” said Fiedler. And then he paused, as if to think of another impediment to academic honors. “But your political views, or being a so-called bully on the air: that’s really not relevant.”
A criminal record. That’s the main ethical criterion. It made me think back to my own days at BU, the early 1970s, when I saw speakers such as Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin and Catholic priest and peace worker Daniel Berrigan hold forth from a university podium. Both served time in jail.
Fiedler does regret one small aspect of Friday’s event: the title, “A Fresh, Bold Look at the Future of News.” Doesn’t it sound like a toadying, sycophantic nod to O’Reilly’s memoir, A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity?
“I didn’t choose the title and I’m dismayed it came out that way,” he said.
None of Fiedler’s kind words toward O’Reilly approach the praise heaped upon him by former BU President John Silber, a man who’s earned as much as $6.1 million in a single year, even while in retirement. In a letter to the Boston Herald last year, Silber wrote that O’Reilly “continues to be a remarkably evenhanded journalist of whom we at BU continue to be proud. He is a worthy mentor to students.”
The outmoded BU motto, from its Methodist past, is “Learning, Virtue, Piety.” A new one? “Show Me The Money.”
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