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Is Bill O'Reilly a Right-Wing Gonzo Journalist?

Reported by Marie Therese - March 1, 2005

Before your read the transcript of tonight's O'Reilly Factor on the subject of alleged copyright infringement by Ward Churchill, I suggest you go to CBS 4 Denver and check out the two pieces of art at issue.

Please be aware that the "original" artwork by now-deceased artist Thomas Mails shown on CBS 4's web site is not in fact "original" at all, but is a PHOTO of a REPRINT from a book by Mails entitled "The Mystic Warriors of the Plains."

As you can see, the Mails pen and ink drawing has no horizon line and it is clear the artist intended to show the figures against the snow only. Churchill's serigraph, on the other hand, has a BLUE SKY and a definite horizon line. The Mails reprint is black and white. Churchill's serigraph is in COLOR and was painted in 1981.

During the Factor interview CBS 4 reporter, Raj Chohan, admitted that Churchill came out a few minutes later and spoke with them. However, for some strange reason, the "fair and balanced" FOX News Channel did not broadcast the second part of the interview, the one in which Churchill claims that he told people at the time that the painting was an homage to Mails and at the time told that to the people who bought it.

While transcribing this segment, I was reminded of that poor lawyer in Oregon, Brandon Mayfield, who was slimed by the Department of Justice and the media based on a bad fax copy of a Spanish fingerprint report that erroneously tagged him as a participant in the Madrid bombings. What's the difference here? O'Reilly and CBS 4 Denver have accused Churchill of copyright infringement based on a photo taken of a reprint contained in a book!

For the past week, the right wing media has been laughing in it's sleeve, claiming that the suicide of Hunter S. Thompson means the era of self-indulgent left-wing gonzo journalism is dead.
According to Wikipedia:

Gonzo journalism is a journalistic style, most famously used by Hunter S. Thompson. The name was coined by Bill Cardoso. Central to Gonzo journalism is the notion that journalism can be more truthful without strict observance of traditional rules of factual reportage. The best work in the genre is characterized by a novelistic twist added to reportage, with usual standards of accuracy subjugated to catching the mood of a place or event.

Gonzo journalism is an extension of the New Journalism championed by Tom Wolfe, Lester Bangs, and George Plimpton. "I don't get any satisfaction out of the old traditional journalist's view - 'I just covered the story. I just gave it a balanced view,'" Thompson said in an interview for Atlantic Unbound. "Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long. You can't be objective about Nixon. How can you be objective about Clinton?"


When I read this, I realized that "gonzo journalism" is a very accurate description of what we've been monitoring on the FOX News Channel for the past year. Reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated! It's alive and well and thriving on The O'Reilly Factor!

Here's my transcript of the interview.

O'REILLY: The pressure on radical University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill mounting. Reports say the University may try to buy him out and last week he had a confrontation with a Denver reporter.

VIDEO CLIP of Churchill in a narrow school hallway near his office. Also present are CBS 4 Denver's Raj Chohan and an unidentified cameraman. (If you have Windows Media Player you can view the original video at the CBS 4 link above.)

CHOHAN: I'd like to ask you about your ...

CHURCHILL (cuts him off, angry): Get that camera out of my face!!

Churchill then covers the lens of the camera with some newspapers he has in his hand. Screen goes black.

CHOHAN (audio only): This is an artwork you got called "Winter Attack." It looks like it was based on a Thomas Mails painting. Looks like ya' ripped it off. Can you tell us about that?

Churchill removes papers from lens. He then lashes out with his arm at something or someone off screen.

CHOHAN (calmly): Sir, that's assault. You can't do that.

Churchill turns his back and walks down the hallway to his office door.

CHOHAN: Can I ask you about this? It looks [like] you copied the artwork.

CHURCHILL: I was grabbed by the arm! (He puts papers over the lens again briefly then removes them) and that (pointing to camera) gets outta my face!

CHOHAN (matter of fact): Sir, he's allowed to - we're allowed to take these pictures. This is a public space.

CHURCHILL: He's not allowed to grab me by the arm!

CHOHAN: He didn't touch you, sir. We've got it all on tape.

CHURCHILL: [indecipherable] witnessed.

Churchill enters his office and closes the door.

CHOHAN (speaking through the door): This is called "Winter Attack." It's a serigraph by you. It looks like it was copied from a Thomas Mails artwork. [End clip.]

O'REILLY: Alright, joining us now from the mile high city is Raj Chohan, the reporter involved and Craig Silverman, who's following the case for KHOW radio. [NOTE: O'Reilly did not mention that KHOW also carries his own show, The Radio Factor.] Alright, Raj, we're goin' with you. I mean, what were you - what did you want to know from Churchill? He copied a painting and sold it. Is that what the deal was?

CHOHAN: Yeah. We had some pretty strong evidence of a possible copyright infringement involving a piece of art that Ward Churchill created years ago and it looked like it was copied from a Thomas Mails painting. That's a famous western artist, a guy who's now deceased and a piece of work - a pen and ink drawing, a sketch, that was created approximately late 60's, early 70's, and, if you look at the two pieces of art, they really look like mirror images of each other.

VIDEO CLIP of the two drawings.

O'REILLY: Yeah. We're looking at 'em - we're lookin' at 'em now. And so you believe or you have evidence - and here it is - that Churchill copied this Mail [sic] painting and then sold it. Is that what he did?

CHOHAN: Yeah. He made about 150 copies of it. Made serigraphs, essentially, at the time. The guy I talked to had bought one for about a hundred buck and this was years ago and we can only assume that he sold the others. We're not sure, of course, but I know that, while we were reporting on this story, there was at least one other serigraph - it's called "Winter Attack" - that was also for sale on Ebay at the time.

O'REILLY: Right. Now the reason you did this story is that he had in the past plagiarized other people's work or done things that weren't academically legitimate, correct?

CHOHAN: Yeah. I think so. This was a story that spoke to the issue of integrity and so we, we went back and we looked at - when we first heard about this possible case, we went and took a real close look at it and we showed the two pieces to some copyright attorneys. We also got in touch with the Mails family to get their thoughts on all this. And at the end of the day we thought we had a pretty strong case here and that's why we took it to Churchill and, obviously, as you saw from the tape, he was not that happy to see us.

[COMMENT: The copyright attorneys must also have informed the station that (a) copyright infringement is very hard to prove and (b) in the unlikely event a case could be brought, the statute of limitations expired 15 years ago!]

O'REILLY: Now, did he ever get back to you with any information or anything else?

CHOHAN: Yeah. In fact a few minutes after our confrontation, he came out of his office and was willing to talk to us. I think he hd realized that he had probably snapped and thought about it for a minute and then came out and talked to about - talked to us about it. His contention was that he gave Mails credit at the time he released the edition of the serigraph. He said it was based or done after Thomas Mails but he did not provide us with any evidence. We had asked for the documentation and he refused.

[COMMENT: Let's see. How many people could produce documentation of sales transactions made 20 years ago, with five minutes notice, while being ambushed in a hallway near their office by a reporter and a cameraman? Certainly not me - or anyone else! But, Chohan cleverly paints Churchill as a liar because he can't show documented proof. This is NOT real journalism. It is harassment and character assassination!]

O'REILLY (overtalks the last 3 words): I got it. Now, Craig, this isn't the first time he's been in trouble with this kind of stuff, correct?

SILVERMAN: Right. And it all goes to the issue of integrity or the lack thereof and it's one of the things that the Chancellor [of the University of Colorado] should be looking at. Of course, we don't know what all they're looking at. Last week on KHOW we played some powerful tape we obtained from August 10, 2003 in Seattle, when he was talking about the 9/11 attacks and he told a group of American kids "Why, by the way, did it take Arabs to do what people here should have done a long time ago?" and then a kid gets up and says "You know, I'm so far to the left I'm coming up on the right, what can I do to make it happen?" and then he gets [sic] him specific instructions saying "You're a white guy. You can lead the charge. You carry the weapon. You cut your hair. You shave your beard. You put on a banker's suit and you can go to downtown Seattle or Wall Street." Pretty shocking stuff.

O'REILLY: Alright. Now do you expect -- we have a minute left, Craig - do you expect the Chancellor to take action - what - next week on this?

SILVERMAN: Yes, I think so. His job is to determine whether or not to issue a notice of intent to terminate. If he does that, then it goes to a faculty senate, winds up in the lap of President Betsy Hoffman, and ultimately the Regents. But, if the Chancellor says there's no case, that could be the end of it. But there would be quite an outcry here in Colorado.

O'REILLY: Yeah, I'll say. And we might point out to everybody that 9% of the [University of Colorado] faculty has signed a statement, an advertisement, supporting Churchill. That's not very much, 9%. Gentlemen, thanks. We appreciate your point of view tonight. We'll, of course, follow the story.

[If you have Windows Media Player you can access the audio tapes on KHOW's web site. You will need to register to log in. I'd love to get your feedback on the stuff on this site. I just bought a computer and haven't had time to download a Mac-compatible version of the Player yet.]

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