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NEW YORK — The shooting death of abortion provider George Tiller has put Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly in the media spotlight because of stories he did about the Kansas doctor over the past few years.
Liberal commentators have questioned whether O’Reilly’s words, including calling the doctor “Tiller the baby killer,” were too incendiary. O’Reilly condemned Tiller’s killing and said his opponents are exploiting the murder to attack Fox and stifle criticism of people like Tiller.
Tiller was gunned down Sunday while at church services in Wichita. He had operated a clinic that was one of three in the nation to perform abortions after the 21st week of pregnancy, when the fetus is considered viable, and had survived a previous shooting.
O’Reilly said on his first show after the killing that “quick-thinking Americans” should condemn it.
“Anarchy and vigilantism will assure the collapse of any society,” he said. “Once the rule of law breaks down a country is finished.”
Before Tiller’s death, O’Reilly had talked about him on his top-rated “The O’Reilly Factor” some 29 times since February 2005, according to Salon magazine Monday.
Twice he sent producers to Kansas to report on the story. In June 2007, Fox’s Porter Barry confronted Tiller in the street and asked, “they call you Tiller the baby killer. Is that appropriate?” Tiller was shown calling 911 and saying he was being accosted by an O’Reilly producer. Last July, Fox’s Jesse Waters followed then-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in the street to ask about Tiller.
Salon’s Gabriel Winant wrote that “O’Reilly didn’t tell anyone to do anything violent, but he did put Tiller in the public eye, and help make him the focus of a movement with a history of violence against exactly these kinds of targets.”
Frank Schaeffer, who with his father Francis in the 1980s said that force could sometimes be justified in fighting abortions, wrote in the Huffington Post that he and the religious right “all contributed to this killing by our foolish and incendiary words. I am very sorry.”
O’Reilly’s frequent foil, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, cited Schaeffer’s column Monday night and said Fox News also deserves part of the blame. He called for people to ask managers to change the channel when Fox News is played in bars, restaurants or waiting rooms, and to explain why they are walking out if they don’t.
“We must again make the world safe for people who are condemned by Fox News Channel,” he said on the air.
This year so far, O’Reilly averages 3.3 million viewers each weeknight, while Olbermann has 1.3 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.
A Fox News spokeswoman didn’t respond to requests for comment about Olbermann’s call for a Fox “quarantine.”
When he heard about the Tiller murder, O’Reilly said on his show Monday that he “knew that pro-abortion zealots and Fox News haters would attempt to blame us for the crime and that’s exactly what happened.” An example he cited was Kansas City Star columnist Mike Hendricks, who wrote on Sunday that anyone who called Tiller a “baby killer” was an accomplice to the murder. Hendricks’ online post did not mention O’Reilly or Fox specifically.
O’Reilly said that he had never incited people to do anything, and that he wished he heard more compassion expressed by some of these critics for the aborted fetuses.
“I’m coming at it from a factual point of view,” O’Reilly said. “The man aborted 60,000 fetuses, potential human beings, all right? Human beings to some, not human beings to others but to everyone 60,000 potential human beings were aborted by the man who made millions doing it. To me, that’s unconscionable. As an American, I have a right to say that.”
The issue drew considerable public comment on Web sites.
The Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz wrote about the commentary that O’Reilly bears some responsibility for the killing but said he wasn’t going to join the attack.
“It is perfectly fair to hold the Fox News host accountable for his words and to question whether he has gone too far in personally assailing Tiller time and time again,” he wrote. “But is it his fault if some abortion hating-fanatic decides to kill another human being?”
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