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March 3, 2006 - Drug War Chronicle (US)

Celebrity Mouth: Fox Bloviator Attacks TV News Legend Walter Cronkite over Drug War

Commentary by Drug War Chronicle editor Phillip S. Smith, (

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Walter Cronkite, the legendary CBS News anchor widely dubbed "the most trusted man in America," has joined the legions of those who have earned the scorn of Fox News television host and commentator Bill O'Reilly -- and it's all about drugs. Or is it? While Cronkite's views on drug policy were what set O'Reilly off, the talk show host strayed far from the issue, touching on everything from Cronkite's age and mental condition to the evils of secular humanism.

Cronkite appeared on O'Reilly's radar when he penned a fundraising letter for the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonpartisan group seeking a more sensible and human approach to drug issues. "Today, our nation is fighting two wars: one abroad and one at home," Cronkite wrote. "While the war in Iraq is in the headlines, the other war is still being fought on our own streets. Its casualties are the wasted lives of our own citizens. I am speaking of the war on drugs."

In the letter, Cronkite explained his reasons for opposing the current drug war policies. "And what is the impact of this policy? It surely hasn't made our streets safer. Instead, we have locked up literally millions of people... disproportionately people of color... who have caused little or no harm to others -- wasting resources that could be used for counter-terrorism, reducing violent crime, or catching white-collar criminals.

"With police wielding unprecedented powers to invade privacy, tap phones and conduct searches seemingly at random, our civil liberties are in a very precarious condition," he added. "Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on this effort -- with no one held accountable for its failure."

For O'Reilly, attacking drug reform as part of the culture wars is a favorite past-time, and he was on Cronkite like a hungry dog on a favorite bone. On the February 24 edition of the Factor, O'Reilly began by portraying Cronkite as "a very far-left guy" who lives "in the same left-wing precinct" as Bill Moyers and Tom Brokaw. Not to put too fine a point on it, Cronkite is "more far-left, he's always been that way, but he masked it."

It sounds like O'Reilly is still sore at Cronkite for telling national TV audiences the Vietnam War was a failure back in the late 1960s. The fact that Cronkite is trying to help a group that has also received funds from current conservative bete noire George Soros probably doesn't help either. In addition to funding drug reform, the Hungarian-born currency speculator and financier who helped open up the East Bloc as the Soviet Union crumbled worked hard to defeat President Bush in 2004, infuriating O'Reilly and his cultural conservative colleagues, some of whom refer to him as that rarest of all creatures, the "left-wing billionaire."

"Anyway," O'Reilly continued, "he wants to legalize drugs." Of course, Cronkite didn't say that, but for the talk show host it's "truthiness" rather than truth that counts. Worse, said O'Reilly, Cronkite "lied" by saying the war on drugs had not made our streets safer.

"That's not true, the war on drugs broke the back of the crack that was out of control in major cities all across the country," he claimed.

What really happened to the "crack wars" is a matter of serious debate, with the role of law enforcement being only one of many factors. Researchers also point to learning curves -- a crackhead is not a very enticing role model -- and the consolidation of markets as key factors. And, of course, the crack trade is still going strong.

O'Reilly also attacked Cronkite for suggesting we have locked up millions who have done no harm to others. "Listen, violent crime is induced by hard drug use, Walter," O'Reilly lectured before adding, "I don't want to be too tough on you, you're 90." But then it was back to full O'Reilly attack mode for the grand finale: "This is the kind of crazy thinking that the secular progressive movement embraces. Now Walter Cronkite, the most trusted news broadcaster in American history... [is] embracing every left-wing, crazy theory there is and now says drug dealers cause little or no harm to others. I mean, it's staggering. It is staggering!"

Actually, drug-related violent crime is much more likely to be related to drug prohibition than the psychopharmacology of illicit substances. And police arrested more than 1.5 million on drug charges last year, half of them for marijuana, and, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were about half a million people behind bars on drug charges on any given day last year.

O'Reilly would have us believe that they're all machine-gun toting Pablo Escobars, but for every drug kingpin, there are hundreds of low-level drug offenders doing years in prison for nonviolent, consensual crimes. Ask the kid from Washington, DC, doing a mandatory minimum five-year sentence for a few dollars worth of rocks. Ask the poor white guys in the Midwest doing three- or five- or ten-year sentences for a few flecks of methamphetamine. Ask the college student doing 30 days for a joint (and losing his financial aid) because he got caught in the wrong county.

It's not that O'Reilly hasn't had the opportunity to know better. In fact, dope is one of his hot-button issues, sure to get his fans all riled up as they ponder the decline of Western, Christian civilization. He has had DPA representatives on his show on several occasions, but doesn't seem able to hear what they have to say. In February 2003, he had on drug education specialist Marsha Rosenbaum, but used her mainly as a foil for his outrage over parents who had allowed teens to drink at a party they supervised.

A year earlier, in a bizarre segment with DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann, following the drug czar's cue, O'Reilly tried to paint marijuana and Ecstasy users as supporting terrorism. When Nadelmann explained that neither drug had much to do with Afghanistan or Al Qaeda and that Ecstasy was being manufactured in Holland, O'Reilly objected -- as he so often does when facts get in the way of his world view.

"No, but it's not run by the Dutch, it's run by Middle Eastern guys," O'Reilly exclaimed, challenging Nadelmann to a $100 bet when he scoffed. The next night, he gloated he had won the bet. "OK, here's what the Office of the National Drug Control Policy says, and we quote, 'Drug Enforcement Agency reporting demonstrates the involvement of Israeli criminal organizations in Ecstasy smuggling. Some of these individuals are of Russian and Georgian descent and have Middle Eastern ties.'"

So the presence of Israeli mobsters in the Ecstasy trade constitutes "Middle Eastern ties" that link ravers to Al Qaeda. Only in Bill O'Reilly's world. You know, the one where respected American newsmen and left-wing billionaires team up to wage "crazy" wars on the drug war, and undoubtedly, Christmas, too.

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