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After a long siege, the United Way’s “September 11th Fund” has finally seen the light. Like the Red Cross 90 days ago, the United Way has now done a policy reversal and will release $75 million dollars in donations to the 9-11 families just in time for Christmas.

This ends the infamous and unbelievably overblown George Clooney vs. Bill O’Reilly verbal brawl. Mr. Clooney helped raise more than $100 million for the “September 11th Fund” by getting a bunch of stars together for a TV telethon. He didn’t much like your humble correspondent investigating the fund’s distribution problems.

But the bottom line is that the families will now get about $350 million from the Red Cross and the United Way that they might not have gotten had my television program not raised major hell. But it wasn’t “The O’Reilly Factor” that persuaded the Red Cross and the United Way to change their ways – it was the American people who heard the evidence and made their feelings known to the charities.

All over non-profit land, a chill is in the air. The problems involved in getting $1.5 billion in donations to the 9-11 families are now well documented. And all the excuses in the world were not going to persuade Americans to cut the charities slack. Sixty percent of adult Americans donated money to the families – and they want that money to get to those people.

As I’ve stated before I was initially amazed that the rest of the media did not swoop in on this story. Only the New York Times and Newsweek magazine gave it significant attention. But as I thought about it, things began to add up. We are living in a time when it is dangerous for the media to directly confront powerful people and the Red Cross and the United Way have power. Economically, media revenues are soft. And most of the elite media have to do business with the government in order to expand their franchises. Few in the media want to tee off the powerful.

That’s because the big dogs have some major firepower available. They can shut down access to certain media outlets. I took grief from most of the entertainment press because George Clooney and the other stars are their life blood. Programs like “Entertainment Tonight” and magazines like “People” simply can’t afford to alienate big stars and their press agents.

The same thing is true with politicians. Say one cross word about the president and he will know about it, believe me. Attorney General John Ashcroft won’t talk to me because I criticized him for not updating the public on the Mark Rich investigation. Remember Mr. Rich? Remember his ex-wife and other pals spreading around millions to benefit the Clintons? Where exactly is that investigation, Mr. Attorney General?

New York Gov. George Pataki has 86ed me because I asked him why he wouldn’t appoint a master or a group of financial experts to oversee the charity mess. The governor did not like the question.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is mad at me because I asked him if state authorities were investigating Sami Al-Arian. He’s a professor at the University of South Florida who brought the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad – a terrorist group – to America. A few years ago, Florida taxpayers wound up paying that terrorist to lecture at USF, thanks to Sami.

Governor Bush did not want to comment on any possible investigation.

I could give you 30 more examples of the powerful getting teed off by unwelcomed questions. The press, especially TV news, has been so soft for the last decade that the powerful are actually shocked by a pointed query.

That’s what the Clooney deal was all about. He and his “people” were appalled that this “O’Reilly guy” – as David Letterman put it – would actually put the star on the spot. Would actually ask him to prod the charities to become more efficient. The thinking was “we’re not going to let some cable news guy push us around.”

In the end, though, things worked out. The money is finally flowing to the families who need it. The controversy is over and, with Christmas coming, I’m in the mood to hug a powerful person. Where is everybody?


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