Truth about the Peabody

This is without a doubt Franken’s most famous incident.

In a column for Newsday on March 8, 2001, Robert Reno asserted:

O’Reilly… has repeatedly boasted of his Peabody Awards…

As Reno is quick to point out:

Actually he has never won a Peabody.

If O’Reilly had claimed to have Peabody Awards, this would in fact be quite a lie. The Peabody Award usually recognizes a program, not an individual. In the cases where it does recognize an individual, it is usually for their lifetime body of work, a high honor. Claiming to have more than one would be unprecedented boldness indeed.

Of course, Bill O’Reilly never claimed to have Peabody Awards. O’Reilly had been mixed up about what awards had been won by Inside Edition, a news series he had anchored. O’Reilly had claimed that Inside Edition won two Peabody Awards when, in fact, the two award winners at Inside Edition had actually received Polk awards, not Peabody. Matt Meagher and Tim Peek each got one for their work in an undercover investigation of insurance fraud for the show

There is an important distinction between Polk and Peabody. The Polk is “a journalists award” while the Peabody is oriented toward the program itself.  Franken recounted having publicly confronted O’Reilly at a book expo, but his account dishonestly leaves out this part, where O’Reilly’s explains:

O’Reilly: “It was a discussion about the program. I said nothing — that I won anything. It was about the pro-gram.”

Franken: “Then why did you use the pronoun ‘WE’?”

Franken was referring to the fact that O’Reilly was no longer on Inside Edition when the awards were won. O’Reilly seemed a bit surprised by the question, shook his head and let the expo move along at that point.

Yes, O’Reilly had used the word “we”. But remember, he had thought it was a Peabody the show had won.

This is very important.

Most often, the Peabody honors one-time special presentations like Olympic coverage. Sometimes they award it to a series. When O’Reilly studied journalism, the Peabody Award was for the series’ entire history, which by extension affords bragging rights to anyone who has ever worked on it and certainly to a former anchor. This is not always the case today, but it was usually the case at the time.

Here’s an example:

American Playhouse (1990):

For nine seasons “American Playhouse” has been showcasing quality television. It has offered works by outstanding American playwrights and has presented adaptations of stories by distinguished American writers. During 1990 alone the series presented such quality works as “Women and Wallace” and “An Enemy of the People.” During the eight previous years it has attracted both seasoned filmmakers and has nurtured new talent. In examining its record, members of the Peabody Board indicated they wished to acknowledge the contributions of “American Playhouse” with the presentation of a Peabody Award.

–Official Peabody Award announcement

Notice how it honored the entire nine-season history of the series. So in the context of the award being a Peabody, which O’Reilly thought it was, it was natural for O’Reilly to use the word “we”. In any event, Franken only provided one verified incident wherein O’Reilly even used the word “we”. On May 19, 2000 O’Reilly had said:

Does that mean we throw the Peabody Awards back? We won Peabody Awards…

O’Reilly said this in response to a statement made by his guest Arthel Neville:

You hosted Inside Edition which is considered a Tabloid show

The statement by Neville is in the context of O’Reilly’s affiliation with the show as an alumni.  The use of the word “we” merely indicates an affiliation.

Take, for instance, when Al Franken wrote in the first chapter of his book, The Truth, that:

“…the exit polls suggested we were so far ahead, some of us wondered if we hadn’t worked too hard…”

See? Franken used the pronoun “we”. Of course Al Franken was not ahead in the polls. The polls were about John Kerry. But that did not stop Franken from using the word.

But that’s okay. After all, how many people have watched the Superbowl from hundreds or even thousands of miles away and have stood up and shouted, “we won!”?

Yet Franken adamantly stands by the Reno column. At one point, he even shows a cartoon drawing of Bill O’Reilly wearing two Peabody awards around his neck (page 260, paperback).

Here is how O’Reilly responded to Reno, on March 13, 2001:

Guy says about me, couple weeks ago, O’Reilly said he won a Peabody Award. Never said it. You can’t find a transcript where I said it. You–there is no one on earth you could bring in that would say I said it. Robert Reno in Newsday, a columnist, writes in his column, calls me a liar, all right? And it’s totally fabricated. That’s attack journalism. It’s dishonest, it’s disgusting and it hurts reputations.

Franken quotes that response and comments on it, saying:

…not two weeks after conceding his error both to me and to the Washington Post, he attacked a journalist for accurately describing what he had done.

This is where the switcheroo takes place, where Franken leads his unsuspecting reader to conclude O’Reilly lied. There are so many details and nuances swirling around, Franken’s reader relies on him to sort it out. Franken exploits this fact to confuse:

I’d found four separate incidents where he had claimed to have won Peabodys, three of them in Nexis transcripts.

Franken is referring to transcripts he had already described on an earlier page. When he actually showed the quotes, he characterized them differently, saying:

So I went to my Nexis, and put in “Peabody Award” and “Inside Edition.” I did get three hits. They were all Bill O’Reilly claiming that Inside Edition had won a Peabody. Or Two.

So Franken started with O’Reilly “claiming that Inside Edition had won” and switched it to “he had claimed to have won”. The sleight-of-hand is well enough disguised that it actually seems to have fooled the vast majority of Franken’s readers. Franken’s objective was to make the response from O’Reilly to Reno seem amazingly dishonest when in reality O’Reilly accurately denied claiming to have won a Peabody.

Franken continued, saying:

So, O’Reilly had lied to cover up his “mistake,” and he had called an honest reporter a liar.

What basis did Franken have for saying he had found “four separate incidents where he [O’Reilly] had claimed to have won Peabodys“? Let’s look at the remaining three.

One of the incidents, as Franken points out, he has no transcript for. He does, however, recount his reaction:

Watching at home, I knew O’Reilly was right about one thing: The George Foster Peabody award is the most prestigious in broadcast journalism. But what on earth could Inside Edition have won a Peabody for? For its “Swimsuits: How Bare Is Too Bare?” story? Or maybe its three part series on the father of Madonna’s first baby, Carlos Leon?

If O’Reilly had claimed to have won the Peabody himself, why would Franken have wondered “…what on earth could Inside Edition have won a Peabody for?” Clearly, Franken knew O’Reilly was not claiming to have a Peabody, but Franken backed the Reno story anyway.

In the remaining two incidents, it’s obvious O’Reilly was referring to the show, not to himself: This “incident” was from May 8, 2000:O’Reilly:

Well, all I’ve got to say to that is Inside Edition has won, I– I believe two Peabody Awards.

Then this “incident” was from August 30, 1999; O’Reilly:

I anchored a program called Inside Edition, which has won a Peabody Award.

It could not have been made clearer that O’Reilly was indeed talking about the program, just as he had claimed when confronted by Franken at the expo. Yet Franken managed to pull off the switch, defending the Reno column and claiming to his readers that these were

incidents where [O’Reilly] had claimed to have won Peabodys…

Bill O’Reilly is just one of the honorable, honest people who have been smeared for political purposes.