In Letterman appearance, O'Reilly repeated false claim that school changed "Silent Night" lyrics

››› ››› SAM GILL & ANNA DIMOND

On CBS' Late Show with David Letterman, Bill O'Reilly resurrected his false claim that a Wisconsin elementary school banned the singing of the Christmas hymn "Silent Night," erroneously attributing the school's changed lyrics to political correctness. In fact, the new lyrics were merely part of a 1988 Christmas play called The Little Tree's Christmas Gift. Later in the interview, Letterman admonished O'Reilly, asserting, "I have the feeling about 60 percent of what you say is crap."

On the January 3 edition of CBS' Late Show with David Letterman, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly appeared as a guest and resurrected his false claim that a Wisconsin elementary school banned the singing of the Christmas hymn "Silent Night." As he discussed his Christmas crusade with Late Show host David Letterman, O'Reilly told Letterman that the school "[k]nocked out the words [to "Silent Night"] and told the little kids to sing" alternative lyrics. According to O'Reilly, this incident "proves there are pinheads at the Ridgewell [sic] Elementary School in Wisconsin. That's what it proves."

But as the weblog Think Progress first noted, O'Reilly and others have falsely attributed the changed lyrics to political correctness. For example, on the December 9 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, O'Reilly stated that Ridgewood Elementary School in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, "forced the kids to sing" the different lyrics. The conservative legal group Liberty Counsel condemned what it called the "secularized rendition" of the song, which it claimed "mocks one of the world's best-known Christmas songs," and threatened to sue the school district.

In fact, the new song lyrics are part of a 1988 Christmas play called The Little Tree's Christmas Gift, in which a scraggly Christmas tree is informed it may not be sold and will instead become firewood, prompting it to croon the revised version of "Silent Night" while lamenting its situation. Think Progress further explained that the play's creator, Dwight Elrich, is the musical director of the New Covenant Singers at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles -- which a December 20 Washington Post article noted was "former president Ronald and Nancy Reagan's church in California" -- and his play has been performed by churches across the country. According to Elrich's website, his products "make it easy for you to produce a fantastic Kids Christmas Musical Program." Elrich told the Post: "I'm just flabbergasted. I'm a choir director in a church! I perform 'Silent Night' 40 or 50 times each year! I thought the play was a really charming, wonderful, positive story about love and acceptance ... removing it from the Christian tradition was something I never thought anyone could ever come up with. We were telling a story about a little tree, so we used a familiar tune to help the kids get it."

A December 27 article in the Wisconsin State Journal by columnist Susan Lampert Smith reported that the uproar over the adapted lyrics, spurred on by Moral Majority Coalition founder and chairman Jerry Falwell and Liberty Counsel, ultimately forced the school to sing the original version of "Silent Night." For the winter concert, the elementary students performed "Silent Night" along with other Christmas carols and then, during the play, the child playing the sad tree merely recited the changed lyrics.

Later in the interview, Letterman admonished O'Reilly, asserting "I have the feeling about 60 percent of what you say is crap. ... I don't think that you represent an objective viewpoint," to which O'Reilly replied, "I respect your opinion, you should respect mine." But O'Reilly had apparently been aware of Letterman's unrelenting style. In a 2001 column titled "The Letterman Experience," O'Reilly praised Letterman's interviewing abilities:

The late-night program hosted by David Letterman is the toughest interview show on television.

That's because Mr. Letterman is a smart guy who can spot a phony with telescopic accuracy and expects his guests to bring something to the table. If a guest begins to sink on this show, the bottom is a long way down.

From the January 3 edition of CBS' Late Show with David Letterman:

LETTERMAN: I -- I wasn't aware that this had happened.

O'REILLY: You weren't aware of the big giant controversy over Christmas?

LETTERMAN: Well, I ignore stuff like that. It doesn't really affect me. I go ahead and do what I want to do. And, you know, I say, "Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, Happy Hanukkah."

O'REILLY: Here's why it matters. You with me on this?

LETTERMAN: Yeah.

O'REILLY: OK. Ridgewood Elementary School in Dodgeville, Wisconsin. Song, "Silent Night." "Silent Night," you know? Knocked out the words and told the little kids to sing, "Cold in the night. No one in sight. Winter winds whine and bite. How I wish I was happy and warm. Safe with my family out of the storm." They replaced the words to "Silent Night" with that. Now, with all due respect, I think even think the baby Jesus would say, "Give me a break." You know? You want another one?

LETTERMAN: No. But what I don't --

O'REILLY: Whoa, whoa. Great tradition --

LETTERMAN: But what does this prove? It proves that one can --

O'REILLY: It proves there are pinheads at the Ridgewell [sic] Elementary School in Wisconsin. That's what it proves.

LETTERMAN: Right, right.

O'REILLY: Here's another one. Do you want another one, or are you bored with this?

LETTERMAN: I'm -- kind of think we should move on. I mean, but isn't this the kind of thing where, like, once or twice every 20 years somebody gets outraged and says, "Oh, my god, we've got to put diapers on horses"? Isn't it just about, is this like, "So what? Let it go. It'll take care of itself"?

O'REILLY: No. There, there is a movement in this country by politically correct people to erode traditions. And this Christmas tradition is the most cherished in the country. Look, how absurd is it --

LETTERMAN: But I don't, for some reason -- I don't -- I don't --

O'REILLY: That you can't go to a department store --

LETTERMAN: I don't feel threatened.

O'REILLY: No, it's not a matter of feeling threatened --

LETTERMAN: I don't -- I don't think this is an actual threat. I think this is something that happened here and it happened there, and so people like you are trying to make us think that it's a threat.

O'REILLY: Wrong.

LETTERMAN: Because nobody said "Happy Holidays" to me and then said, "Oh, Merry Christmas. Oh, I can't say Merry Christmas."

[...]

LETTERMAN: I'm not smart enough to debate your point to point on this, but I have the feeling -- I have the feeling -- I have the feeling about 60 percent of what you say is crap. But I don't know that for a fact.

PAUL SHAFFER (Late Show music director): Sixty percent.

LETTERMAN: Sixty percent, that's just a -- I'm just spitballing here now.

O'REILLY: Listen, I respect your opinion, you should respect mine.

LETTERMAN: Well, I -- I -- OK.

O'REILLY: Our analysis is based on the best evidence we can get.

LETTERMAN: Yeah, but I think there's something, this fair and balanced, I'm not sure that it's -- I don't think that you represent an objective viewpoint.

O'REILLY: You have to give me an example if you're going to make those statements.

LETTERMAN: Well, I don't watch your show, so that would be impossible.

O'REILLY: Then why would you come to that conclusion if you don't watch the program?

LETTERMAN: Because of things that I've read, things that I know.

O'REILLY: You're going to take things that you've read? Do you know what they've said about you? Come on. Watch it for -- look, look, watch it for a half an hour, you'll get addicted, you'll be a Factor fan. We'll send you a hat.

LETTERMAN: They'll send me a hat. Yeah, well, send [anti-war protester] Cindy Sheehan a hat.

O'REILLY: I'd be happy to.

LETTERMAN: Bill, it's always a pleasure.

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