Bill O’Reilly Is No Brian Williams
The Fox News moneymaker is being accused of coming up with Brian Williams-size whoppers. But his savage rebuttals and image as an entertainer, not a journalist, mean he’ll get off easy.
Embattled Fox News star Bill O’Reilly has spent the past 36 hours scrambling from one media platform to another—including his own top-rated show, The O’Reilly Factor—in a fevered attempt to discredit a report that he’s been lying about his supposed presence in a war zone three decades ago.
On Friday’s Factor, the cable news king slammed Mother Jones magazine’s Washington bureau chief, David Corn, as “an irresponsible guttersnipe,” “a far-left zealot,” and “a liar” for Thursday’s detailed article—which Corn co-wrote with Daniel Schulman—that contradicted O’Reilly’s repeated assertions that he was “in a combat situation” while covering the 1982 war in the Falklands between Britain and Argentina.
Two of O’Reilly’s regular guests, Geraldo Rivera and Bernie Goldberg, then suggested on the air that their host was being savaged by left-wingers as retribution for the downfall of “liberal” Brian Williams. “It was the yin and the yang,” Rivera declared.
Indeed, Mother Jones headlined its article “Bill O’Reilly Has His Own Brian Williams Problem,” a reference to the NBC Nightly News anchor who last week received a six-month suspension without pay for embellishing his exploits during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and apparently telling other tall tales concerning big stories he’s covered.
While Corn, a former Fox News contributor, and Schulman are certainly not alone in conflating—to use a word of the moment—O’Reilly’s credibility gap with Williams’s troubles, the Fox News host is unlikely to be subjected to any penalty for his lapse, let alone the possibly career-ending ordeal Williams is enduring.
For one thing, O’Reilly—who has achieved cable superstardom by being a virtuosic and charismatic entertainer, not for his journalistic abilities, and makes no pretense of delivering the news “fair and balanced”—operates in a completely different universe, and by utterly different standards, than your normative network anchorman.
For another thing, the record demonstrates that Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes is understandably reluctant to kill his golden egg-laying goose; O’Reilly seems to have suffered zero consequence for falling far short of what his erstwhile Comedy Central doppelganger, Stephen Colbert, liked to call “Truthiness.”
To the contrary, O’Reilly has merrily committed what his critics count as numerous errors and whoppers over the years without shame or apology. As in this case, his modus operandi is to viciously attack his attacker. If they bring a bat, he brings a knife. If they bring a knife, he brings a gun—yet another departure from the Brian Williams example.
In an interview with The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, O’Reilly called Corn “a disgusting piece of garbage.” He told TV Newser: “I expect David Corn to be in the kill zone. Where he deserves to be.” That rather threatening metaphor, which O’Reilly later characterized as “a slang expression,” prompted an official protest from Mother Jones’s editors to Fox News execs.
On Friday’s Factor, O’Reilly referred to Mother Jones—the magazine that broke Corn’s game-changing scoop about Mitt Romney’s damaging “47 percent” remarks during the 2012 presidential campaign—as an outlet “considered by many the bottom rung of journalism in America.”
For good measure, O’Reilly lashed out at CNN’s media beat reporter, Brian Stelter—one of many journalists who picked up and commented on Mother Jones’s O’Reilly story—insulting him as “another far-left zealot masquerading as a journalist,” a description few would recognize. “CNN can do a lot better than this guy,” O’Reilly added.
Concerning the facts of his Falklands adventure, O’Reilly, then a correspondent for CBS News, arrived in Buenos Aires after hostilities ended and was 1,200 miles from the disputed islands when he covered a violent protest against Argentina’s surrender to the Brits.
O’Reilly claims that he’s never said otherwise—notwithstanding the evidence. It was undoubtedly a scary experience, with police firing rubber bullets and tear gas at an angry mob, but Mother Jones contends that O’Reilly grossly exaggerated the “carnage” of the incident when he claimed that “many were killed” during “a major riot.”
“O’Reilly’s account of the protest in Buenos Aires is at odds with news reports from the time—including the report from his own bureau,” the article asserts, adding that the CBS Evening News that night in June 1982 reported arrests and the jostling of television news crews, but “nothing about people being killed.”
Yet Stelter’s Fox News counterpart, Howard Kurtz (formerly of The Daily Beast) supported O’Reilly’s version of events in a blog post, deciding after interviewing his network’s biggest attraction—on whose money-minting program he regularly appears—that “the Mother Jones piece appears to turn on semantics, not some specific story that O’Reilly told about being in the Falklands.”
If not a conflict of interest, Kurtz’s measured defense of O’Reilly might reasonably be called a confluence of interest.
Mother Jones cited multiple instances in which O’Reilly at worst described, and at best implied, his presence in the middle of Falklands combat. In one such case, according to a 2003 book by conservative journalist (and Fox News colleague) Tucker Carlson, O’Reilly boasted to a Washington audience: “I’ve covered wars, okay? I’ve been there. The Falklands, Northern Ireland, the Middle East. I’ve almost been killed three times, OK.”
But on Friday, O’Reilly insisted on the air: “Here’s the truth. Everything I’ve said about my reportorial career—everything—is true.”
That assertion is arguably contradicted by at least one previous media melodrama in which I played a bit part. Long before Al Franken’s days as two-term U.S. senator from Minnesota, the former Saturday Night Live cast member was—for O’Reilly, at least—an annoyingly persistent gadfly.
In late February 2001, Franken phoned me at The Washington Post, where I was writing the “Reliable Source” column, to point out that O’Reilly had repeatedly claimed that the syndicated tabloid show he hosted in the early 1990s, Inside Edition, had won one and possibly two George Foster Peabody awards—the most prestigious prize in broadcast journalism.
“It seemed strange to me, but he was so adamant,” said Franken, who was at work on his best-selling critique of the conservative media, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them , with O’Reilly’s face prominently featured on the dust jacket. “I thought back and figured maybe ‘Inside Edition’ won a Peabody for its story ‘Swimsuits: How Bare Is Too Bare?’ or maybe for its three-part series on the father of Madonna’s first baby.”
Franken contacted O’Reilly, who eventually acknowledged that, oops, it was a George Polk Award—still an honor, but somewhat less coveted—and O’Reilly had nothing to do with it, since he’d left Inside Edition the year before. Later O’Reilly vehemently insisted that he had never claimed that the show won a Peabody—a flashpoint in an acrimonious debate with Franken at a booksellers convention. Franken enraged O’Reilly by reading aloud from broadcast transcripts in which his opponent made that very claim, over and over. “Shut up!” O’Reilly shouted. Their toxic encounter remains one of YouTube’s greatest hits.
O’Reilly emerged, however, without a scratch, and Corn, for one, laments the likelihood of a similar outcome in the current case. “Of course there is a difference between Bill O’Reilly and Brian Williams,” he told The Daily Beast. “O’Reilly accurately notes that he is an opinion journalist, and Brian Williams, when he was on the air, was what’s known as an objective reporter who was not supposed to share his views but simply share facts.”
Corn continued: “But just because you have an opinion about the issues of the day doesn’t absolve you of the sacred obligation of being accurate and truthful. Bill has no out in terms of accuracy and truthfulness, and he doesn’t ask for an out. This, after all, is the ‘No Spin Zone.’”