MONTPELIER – FOX News personality Bill O'Reilly has once again cast his searing eye of disapproval on Vermont, this time over last month's murder of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett.
Staff from "The O'Reilly Factor" confronted Gov. James Douglas on the streets of Philadelphia Saturday and asked questions such as, "About how many dead girls are we going to tolerate here?" and "How do you explain that to the American people?"
Douglas, a Republican, kept his cool during the short interview, telling Factor producer Jesse Watters that he is working toward putting "in place laws that deal harshly with people who commit crimes like that."
"I attended the funeral of Brooke Bennett last week and met with her family, her friends, with people in the community," Douglas said. "It's a devastating impact, and we need to be sure that we do something about it."
O'Reilly, who has repeatedly targeted states that he believes are soft on sex offenders, went on to proclaim that Vermont "is the worst in protecting the kids" and that Douglas is a "good man, but I don't think he's a strong man."
Jason Gibbs, Douglas' spokesperson, described the interview as an "ambush" by the FOX News team. He said O'Reilly has no interest in telling the truth to his viewers, only in generating controversy to boost his ratings.
"What Bill O'Reilly says and does has no influence on public policy in Vermont," Gibbs said.
This is not the first time that O'Reilly has targeted Vermont. The television personality began complaining about the state two years ago during controversy over what he viewed as a light sentence against a sex offender imposed by now-retired Vermont Judge Edward Cashman
Last year, O'Reilly's angst was focused on Rep. William Lippert, D-Hinesburg, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, for refusing to advance a committee bill on Jessica's Law, which sets up 25-year minimum sentences for those convicted of sex offenses against children.
Watters, the FOX News producer, confronted Lippert during the final days of the 2007 legislative session while the lawmaker was eating breakfast at the Statehouse. Watters questioned why Lippert was "passing bills that protect transsexual rights" instead of Jessica's Law.
Lawmakers rallied around Lippert during that confrontation and both Democrats and Republicans denounced the style of the interview. But O'Reilly has not ceased his criticism of Lippert and earlier this month called him a "villain" during a broadcast.
"And this girl who got raped and murdered, it's on Lippert, because he's the guy that led the charge against Jessica's Law," O'Reilly proclaimed on a July 8 broadcast.
That accusation is wrong, however.
As many officials in Vermont have noted (O'Reilly's own legal analyst corrects him on this point later in the broadcast), Jessica's Law would not have applied to the previous conviction of Michael Jacques, the 42-year-old uncle of Bennett accused of her kidnapping, because the victim in that case was an adult, not a child.
Erica Houskeeper, the director of communications for the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, said she doesn't believe that O'Reilly's criticisms of the state have any actual affect on tourism.
"In this case we've had a handful of e-mails expressing disappointment with Vermont and our judicial system," she said. "But as far as I know, no one has cancelled any reservations for an event here."
Gibbs agreed that threats from O'Reilly will have no affect on the Vermont economy. In fact, he thinks these assaults will backfire and turn some supporters away from the television personality.
"I think more and more Vermonters are recognizing that Bill O'Reilly is not accurately presenting what happens in Vermont," he said. "And because of that they are turning away from him. He may be gaining viewers nationally, but he's losing them in Vermont."
The tactics used by Watters in his interview – leading questions and confrontational language – is known as "ambush-style journalism," according to Traci Griffith, an associate professor of journalism and mass communications at St. Michael's College in Colchester.
"What they do is catch you off guard so that you appear to be flustered, ignorant of what is being asked of you and generally look like a fool," she explained. "It has nothing to do with truth-telling or getting to the bottom of an issue … the goal is to make you look dumbfounded."
Griffith noted that O'Reilly has a very large and supportive audience who like this style of reporting. But just as some people might see him as "standing up for the little guy," others see sensational, biased reporting centered "more on generating ratings and controversy than anything else," she said.
"This is not the kind or reporting we want our future journalists to practice," Griffith said. "There is not a lot of integrity in what O'Reilly does."
Calls to FOX News' corporate offices Wednesday were forwarded to the network's FOX Fans hotline.
Contact Daniel Barlow at Daniel.Barlow@timesargus.com.
Transcript found at www.FoxNews.com based on Bill O'Reilly's broadcast from July 14:
BILL O'REILLY: Now over the weekend there was a governor's conference in Philadelphia, where we sought out the Vermont governor because that state is the worst in protecting the kids. As you may know, 12-year-old Brooke Bennett was buried last week in Vermont after being raped and murdered there. For years, we've been suggesting that Vermont Governor Jim Douglas do something about this terrible situation. Jesse Watters confronted him on Saturday.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JESSE WATTERS, "FACTOR" PRODUCER: Hey, governor, Jesse Watters with "The O'Reilly Factor" at FOX News. How are you? GOV. JIM DOUGLAS, R-VT.: Good, good.
WATTERS: Quick question for you. Vermont seems to be out of control right now. You guys just buried 12-year-old Brooke Bennett. How do you explain that to the American people?
DOUGLAS: We're not out of control at all. We're going to do everything we can to make sure we put in place laws that deal harshly with people who commit crimes like that. I need a willing partner in the Legislature, and frankly I haven't had that.
WATTERS: About how many dead girls are we going to tolerate here? I mean, over and over again, it's another story after another story out of Vermont?
DOUGLAS: One dead girl is one too many. I attended the funeral of Brooke Bennett last week and met with her family, her friends, with people in the community. It's a devastating impact, and we need to be sure that we do something about it. As the pastor said at the funeral, Brooke's life will have meaning if we take action, and I plan to do that.
WATTERS: Do you realize how much damage this is causing the state of Vermont?
DOUGLAS: I don't know what you mean.
WATTERS: I mean, how much damage in terms of international and national reputation. And Vermont's really getting a bad name after all these cases, case after case after case.
DOUGLAS: Well, things are going quite well for us economically.
(END VIDEO CLIP) O'REILLY: Well, obviously, Governor Douglas is blaming the Legislature, but you, sir, must lead. Your voice has not been loud enough. I think he's a good man, but I don't think he's a strong man.MORE IN Central Vermont
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