Cronkite vs. O'Reilly: May the Most Trusted Man Win

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 came up on O'Reilly's radar when he penned a fundraising letter for the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonpartisan group seeking a more humane 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 causalities 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 is a favorite pasttime, and he was on Cronkite like a hungry dog on a juicy bone. On the Feb. 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, said O'Reilly, 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 '60s. 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 worked hard to defeat President Bush in 2004, infuriating O'Reilly and his 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." Actually, 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," O'Reilly 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 law enforcement has 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: "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. Police arrested more than 1.5 million people on drug charges last year, half of them for marijuana. 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 they're all machine-gun toting Pablo Escobars, but for every drug kingpin, there are thousands of low-level drug offenders doing years in prison for nonviolent crimes.

Ask the kid from Washington, D.C., doing a mandatory minimum five-year sentence for a few dollars worth of rock. Ask the poor white guys in the Midwest serving three- or five- or 10-year sentences for a few flecks of methamphetamine. Ask the college student doing 30 days for a joint 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 even had Drug Policy Alliance members on his show on several occasions.

In February 2003 he invited drug education specialist Marsha Rosenbaum onto the show, but used her mainly as a foil for his outrage over parents who had allowed teens to drink at a party while under adult supervision.

A year earlier, in a bizarre segment with Drug Policy Alliance 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 Qaida, and that ecstasy was being manufactured in Holland, O'Reilly objected.

"No, but it's not run by the Dutch, it's run by Middle Eastern guys," O'Reilly exclaimed, and challenged Nadelmann to a $100 bet. 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 Qaida. 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, on Christmas, as well.

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