Despite Furious Objections, Bill O'Reilly's War Claims Warrant Scrutiny

Feb 23, 2015
Originally published on October 30, 2017 10:03 am

Give human invective machine Bill O'Reilly credit for consistency of performance.

Facing questions about his veracity, the nation's top-rated cable news host referred to his various critics as a "guttersnipe," a "liar," a "far-left zealot" and, in the case of one former CBS News colleague, "Room Service Eric." (That last one nickname was intended to convey that O'Reilly's former colleague Eric Engberg did not have the courage to leave the hotel during outbreaks of violence.)

The Fox News opinion host's defense of his journalism consists of going on the offensive. O'Reilly's technique transcends tactic and even strategy to become his controlling philosophy: Attack first, and if you don't, hit hardest.

O'Reilly is smart and shrewd and tough, and anyone who forgets any of those characteristics misunderstands him. His behavior is of a piece with our political age, but it stands at great odds with the journalistic pursuit of fact and truth that is supposed to undergird even the opinions ventured through major media outlets.

To be fair to O'Reilly, he was incited by the politically left-of-center magazine Mother Jones, which on Thursday posted an article under the intentionally provocative headline, "Bill O'Reilly has his own Brian Williams problem." The article, by Daniel Schulman and David Corn, argued that, like the suspended NBC anchor, O'Reilly had inflated his role as a war correspondent and the dangers he had faced in areas of conflict. That not only reflects on O'Reilly's ability to get facts right but to get them right about himself.

The case was at times tendentious; In one aspect, Mother Jones emphasized spoken remarks in which O'Reilly seemed to blur the question of the spot from which he actually covered the Falklands War.

I'll give O'Reilly a pass for imprecision on those. The combat between Argentina and the United Kingdom took place on the Falkland Islands or at sea, and O'Reilly covered it, as did most correspondents, from the relative safety of Buenos Aires and Uruguay, more than 1,000 miles away. No example has surfaced yet of O'Reilly clearly claiming he was physically on the islands. And he can call himself a war correspondent if he wants.

The claim he was in a "war zone" doesn't pass muster, but also doesn't quite inspire outrage. Argentina was at war at the time.

A Debate About Danger

More seriously, the article cast doubt on O'Reilly's boasts (they can hardly be called anything else) of the peril he encountered as a reporter.

In one interview several years ago on a television program aired in the Hamptons, O'Reilly spoke of a young Argentine soldier, perhaps 18 or 19 years old, confronting him during street protests in Buenos Aires: "He's got the M16 [rifle] pointed at my head. I thought it was over."

O'Reilly said those riots turned deadly, that many people were killed and that he saved a badly injured cameraman by pulling him to safety.

Argentines did demonstrate angrily against the ruling junta for losing the war with the British, and footage shows protesters turning hostile and even menacing foreign reporters.

Yet CNN's Brian Stelter interviewed seven of O'Reilly's former CBS News colleagues who had been present in Argentina for the network's Falklands coverage (three spoke by name, on the record), and all took issue with O'Reilly's twinned account of death and personal danger.

None of the former CBS staffers recalled police shooting into the crowd, and there is no evidence of fatalities.

Sebastián Lacunza, editor in chief of the Buenos Aires Herald, tells me he has no record of any deaths in those protests.

"I don't remember that people were killed in protests at the end of the war," Lacunza told me by phone. "I don't remember that at all."

In an email, Argentine scholar Federico Lorenz wrote that "there were some injured people, not dead victims — five buses were burnt and that was all."

The journalist Elsa Campos wrote that the defeat in Malvinas (the Argentine term for the Falklands) "meant the end of the dictatorship by all means — we had lost the fear."

The repressive military junta, which had ruled since 1976, was forced from power soon after losing the war.

Perhaps evidence of fatalities at those June protests could emerge, but it doesn't appear O'Reilly had any when making his claims.

Reading Into The Reactions

Like Williams, O'Reilly made his most questionable remarks away from his network — for example in a book in 2001, or in an interview with Marvin Kalb in 2008 at the National Press Club.

The Saturday event was packed full, and the discussion of the Falklands coverage was a dramatic and contentious exchange, Kalb says.

"He was at his rip-roaring best," Kalb says. "I think in that environment, people tend to self-aggrandize themselves. Of course, he did it in a number of other places too."

A CBS sound engineer told CNN that he'd objected to Kalb about O'Reilly's representation of his experiences. Kalb confirms that he received the complaint call but says he didn't follow it up because he was acting as an interviewer for the event, not as a journalist.

O'Reilly's dramatics appear to approach Williamsesque territory, yet the reaction of each journalist in a moment of crisis reveals something fundamental: O'Reilly wants to be respected and feared, while Williams wants to be respected and loved.

Once called out by veterans and by the military publication Stars and Stripes, Williams apologized, abjectly, to the troops who kept him safe in Iraq. NBC's unprecedented six-month suspension of its star anchor may turn into a permanent departure. Williams had been paying tribute to an Army captain on his own broadcast as he unnecessarily puffed up his own adventures; it resulted in his resignation, last week, from the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.

His failure to apologize to his viewers for misleading them stung — and damaged him with his network colleagues.

In our mind, viewers expect more of a top news anchor's journalism than that of a television commentator, even though O'Reilly probably means more to Fox News than Williams does to NBC. We grade on a curve.

But we should care about what O'Reilly's response says about him — and about Fox News. The channel's chairman, Roger Ailes, prizes tribal loyalty over journalistic precision.

While an attack on O'Reilly's credibility could reflect poorly on Fox and Ailes, that's not as big a problem as it sounds. Fox's brand is built on the conceit that the rest of the major media mislead the public. But the public's trust in the media is so tenuous that journalists can ill afford to take it lightly. (Fox executives and O'Reilly did not reply to requests for comment for this column.)

On his own program, and again Sunday in an interview on Fox's media criticism show, O'Reilly denounced Mother Jones, CNN and CBS. O'Reilly even ran roughshod over his own colleague Howard Kurtz, asking and then answering his own questions. (Kurtz did gently object to O'Reilly's claim that CBS' Bob Schieffer had plagiarized O'Reilly for incorporating some of his footage in a story for the network about the protests in Argentina. That's how broadcast journalism often works. No matter.)

On Sunday, O'Reilly read aloud at length from a New York Times article covering those June 1982 protests. He recited the line: "One policeman pulled a pistol, firing five shots."

On Monday a corrective arrived not from O'Reilly or Fox but from Rich Meislin, the former Times reporter who wrote that article.

He posted a note on his Facebook page registering an important omission: "O'Reilly left out that the shots were 'over the heads of fleeing demonstrators.' "

Meislin continued: "As far as I know, no demonstrators were shot or killed by police in Buenos Aires that night. What I saw on the streets that night was a demonstration — passionate, chaotic and memorable — but it would be hard to confuse it with being in a war zone."

To hear O'Reilly's version, there is never any confusion in the "No Spin Zone." Perhaps he mistakes such certitude for fact, but that doesn't mean that we have to.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly is facing criticism that echoes the NBC Brian Williams situation. There are claims that O'Reilly inflated his experiences covering conflict several decades ago. O'Reilly is vigorously defending himself and as NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports, the accusations against O'Reilly are more ambiguous than those against Williams.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: It's been a point of pride for Bill O'Reilly that he knows conflict, as he told a local Hamptons TV interviewer in 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

O'REILLY: That's what really separates me from most of these other bloviaters. I bloviate, but, you know, I bloviate about stuff I've seen.

FOLKENFLIK: He spoke most dramatically of his time covering of the Falklands War from Argentina. He had done so earlier at the National Press Club in 2008, talking about the angry protests that erupted in June 1982 as the war was lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

O'REILLY: So anyway, all hell breaks loose. The people start to storm the Casa Rosada. The Argentine troops shoot the people down in the street. They shoot them down. It's not like, rubber bullets or gas. People are dying, all right?

FOLKENFLIK: O'Reilly was a reporter for CBS at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

O'REILLY: It's unbelievable. I mean, people just falling - bing, bing, bing, bing, bing. Soldier runs down the street. I'm there. A photographer gets trampled, all right? So he's on the ground. I grab him and a camera, drag him into a doorway.

FOLKENFLIK: Where O'Reilly says a young soldier pointed a rifle and made him fear for his life. Now O'Reilly is in a different kind of crossfire. Mother Jones, a left-of-center magazine, challenged his accounts in these public appearances, in a book and even on his Fox News program three decades later. They interviewed CBS colleagues who said O'Reilly had greatly inflated the danger he had faced in Buenos Aires, far from where the conflict was waged. O'Reilly has not taken that challenge quietly.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR")

O'REILLY: Tonight, as you may know, some left-wing zealots have attacked me, your humble correspondent. They say I trumped-up my war experiences in the Falklands conflict and in El Salvador.

FOLKENFLIK: That, from last night's "O'Reilly Factor." In his defense, O'Reilly broadcast excerpts of CBS footage. This next voice belongs to former anchor Dan Rather.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAN RATHER: The demonstrator, as many as 5,000 of them, began screaming traitor, traitor, and, this is the end of the military dictatorship. Police moved in with clubs and tear gas. They dispersed the crowd. Some television crew members were knocked to the ground.

FOLKENFLIK: Yet, none of the footage cites fatalities or an injured CBS cameraman, as O'Reilly had stated. O'Reilly's former CBS colleagues have said they knew of no such injury to a crew member, and Argentine historians and journalists tell NPR and other news outlets that there's no record of any fatalities during those riots.

MARVIN KALB: If what he said on air, on a news program, was an exaggeration, that is bad.

FOLKENFLIK: Marvin Kalb is a former CBS and NBC correspondent. He interviewed O'Reilly in 2008 at that National Press Club event.

KALB: If what he said many years later on a talk program recalling a war situation years before and hyped it a bit here and there - well, that to me is not the end of the world.

FOLKENFLIK: Kalb said what Brian Williams did is more serious because Williams told his story on the "Nightly News" itself. Kalb argues that journalists should care about precision off the air too, but says today's connected world of social media has heightened the stakes.

KALB: You had best be supremely careful as a journalist about what it is that you report, and even it what it is that you say about what it is that you reported.

FOLKENFLIK: O'Reilly has warned his journalistic critics that they need to be careful about what they report, too. He even threatened a New York Times reporter that he would blast her with all he had if he didn't like her coverage. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.