Well, it was interesting.
Not owning a television set, I’d actually never seen O’Reilly in action, other than from watching Outfoxed and occasional clips on CrooksandLiars. So I wasn’t fully prepared for his technique, which is basically to say so many false things in the first thirty seconds that his guest can’t possibly refute them all in the next five minutes.
O’Reilly started out by mispronouncing my name. Since he’d taken a course with me at the Kennedy School (no, he’s not nearly as ignorant as the character he plays on TV), and since his producer had pronounced it correctly for him twice, I find it hard to believe that it was just a mistake. The effect was to make me decide whether to look petty and rude by correcting him, or let it pass. I chose to ignore it. Mispronouncing someone’s name is as good a way as any of conveying the impression that he isn’t important enough to notice, so the exchange left me one down, as I presume it was supposed to. (I asked the producer if the error could be fixed before the show aired; and he said he didn’t think so but he’d try.)
Then came the slew of false statements.
1. The methamphetamine report was funded by George Soros. (Mostly false. Tthe Open Society Institute is one of several sponsors of the Sentencing Project, which has been around for years, and its total contributions over the past five years amount to only $750,000, which can’t be the major share of the Sentencing Project budget.)
2. Soros is a “far-left billionaire.” (False: Soros is a pretty standard-issue liberal, with the slight bias toward the market and civil society as against the state that grows out of his Eastern European background. Soros’s guru is Karl Popper, whose book Conjectures and Refutations is dedicated to Hayek. If “far left” indicates a sympathy for Communism, an interest in revolutionary change, a tolerance for violence, or the desire to suppress competing voices, the identification of Soros as “far left” is about as wrong as it could possibly be.)
3. Soros is spending “tens of millions of dollars” to “bring about a secular America” and “legalize narcotics.” (Mostly false. Soros is indeed an enemy of religious fanaticism, so if a “secular America” is one not ruled by the Robertson/Ratzinger Axis of Preachers, then Soros does indeed aim at it, as do I. But the “legalization” charge is wide of the mark. I think the Drug Policy Alliance, which Soros funds, is badly misguided in its belief that “ending drug prohibition” is some sort of magic bullet, but DPA doesn’t support making methamphetamine legal the way alcohol is now legal, and methamphetamine is currently a legal pharmaceutical drug. Soros’s own professed goal is to reduce the damage done by drug policy to the point where it no longer exceeds the damage done by illicit drug abuse.) Again, I think that Soros and the people he supports underestimate the difficulty of reducing the costs of prohibition without greatly increasing the costs of drug abuse, and that DPA has been very vigilant in isolating Soros from competing viewpoints. But that’s a different question.
4. The report was written to forward the cause of legalization. (False. The aim of the Sentencing Project is reducing the prison population, and its only interest in drug policy is reducing the length and number of sentences for drug law violations. The people at the Sentencing Project quite reasonably fear that if the country is told that it is in the grip of a “methamphetamine epidemic” the Congress will do the only thing it seems to know how to do about drug problems, which is to increase sentence lengths. Moreover, from the perspective of the “drug policy reformers,” as they call themselves, “Methamphetamine is being hyped” isn’t obviously a better line of attack than “Methamphetamine is being ignored while the drug czar and the enforcement agencies chase pot and club drugs.”)
5. The report was eagerly praised by “far-left websites, ” including Slate. (False. Slate is, at most, establishment liberal in its orientation. Jack Shafer, the Slate media critic who picked up the report, is fundamentally libertarian.)
As O’Reilly’s guest, being interviewed by remote control so that I couldn’t even see his face, I found myself in a tricky position. I would have liked to expose the fundamental fraudulence of O’Reilly’s claims, but didn’t want to seem rude to my former student and host. I wanted to explain why I thought the Sentencing Project report was mostly wrong, and to state my view that methamphetamine abuse had been growing — and spreading geographically — for at least the past five years. I also wanted to point out that the blame for our inability to track the growth of methamphetamine abuse lay primarily with the Bush Administration and its culture-warrior, pot-and-E-fixated ONDCP Director.
I did most of that, but I let most of O’Reilly’s fantasies pass unremarked, and I never said “the Bush Administration has been asleep at the switch,” which was one of my prepared sound-bites.
Overall, I think I managed to make most of my basic points, to not sound like a jerk, and to avoid explicitly assenting to O’Reilly’s false claims.. As far as I know (I haven’t seen the tape yet) I made no gaffes and no serious factual errors. On the other hand, I did relatively little to educate the viewers about the extent of the meth problem, the difficulty of measuring it, or the (not very attractive) menu of policy options, and next to nothing to challenge O’Reilly’sborderline-insane premises. Overall, I thought I did reasonably well, given a rather poor hand to play.
Please let me have your thoughts. (The program is to air on Fox at 8 and 11 EDT.) One consequence of my spending this fall in Washington is likely to be increased airtime, so I need to get back into practice. “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.”
Update I watched it. Other than looking more like a stuffed toad than any human being should, and talking through my nose rather than from my chest, I did about as well as I thought I had. The producer had warned me that the interview had run long and would have to be cut by about 20 seconds; instead of cutting irrelevant chatter at the beginning, they took out the point where I gently rebutted some of O’Reilly’s fantasies about the plot to legalize drugs. (And yes, they left the mispronunciation in.)
I also watched the earlier segments, which were much more horrible than I’d imagined. O’Reilly ranted on and on about the two American soldiers murdered in Iraq: his basic line was that we needed to start acting more like Saddam Hussein, and he found two retired brass hats to agree with him about that, and about the disloyalty of the opposition. It made me wish I’d been more confrontational.