Apparently inspired by bloggers, last week Mother Jones reporter David Corn decided to dig through Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s past statements for any Brian Williams-like examples of stolen journalistic valor. Published late yesterday afternoon, the result is a huge embarrassment for O’Reilly, whose many public claims of experience ‘covering combat’ in the Falkland Islands and in El Salvador turn out to be complete falsehoods. To be clear, O’Reilly has made these claims to assert a special understanding of war even when his interlocutor is, or has served in, the military:
On his television show in 1999, O’Reilly responded to a letter from a retired Air Force colonel, who said he had flown 123 missions over Vietnam and who criticized O’Reilly for supporting military action in Kosovo, by citing his Falklands war days: “Hey, Colonel, did you ever have a hostile point an M-16 at your head from 10 yards away? That happened to me while I was covering the Falklands war.” In his 2013 book Keep It Pithy, he writes, “I’ve seen soldiers gun down unarmed civilians in Latin America.” During his radio show on January 13, 2005, he declared, “I’ve been in combat. I’ve seen it. I’ve been close to it.” When a caller questioned him about this, O’Reilly shot back: “I was in the middle of a couple of firefights in South and Central America.” O’Reilly did not specify where these firefights occurred—in The No Spin Zone, the only South America assignment he writes about is his trip to Argentina—and then he hung up on the caller.
The only war more fake than O’Reilly’s ‘War on Christmas’ turns out to be the one he imagines covering from Buenos Aires in 1982, where he actually attended a protest that was two thousand miles from the war zone. Of course, he works for Fox News, so unlike NBC there will be no suspension or internal investigation. Rather than apologize or even study his own words and actions, O’Reilly immediately blasted the source of the story with name-calling and denials.
“(Corn)’s a far-left guy trying to damage me, and timing this [story] to Williams.” He added: “Everything I’ve said about my reportorial career [in books and on TV] has been accurate. There is not one thing that has been embellished or fabricated. Not one thing.”
“These people will say and do anything because they know they can get away with it. They will report anything and they know they can do damage. I’m lucky I can fight back. Most people can’t — they get slimed.”
Predictably, O’Reilly’s fellow Fox News personality Howard Kurtz stepped in to dismissively declare that “the Mother Jones piece appears to turn on semantics, not some specific story that O’Reilly told about being in the Falklands.”
–In a 2001 book, O’Reilly said: “I’ve reported on the ground in active war zones from El Salvador to the Falklands.”
–In a Washington panel discussion, O’Reilly said: “I’ve covered wars, okay? I’ve been there. The Falklands, Northern Ireland, the Middle East. I’ve almost been killed three times, okay.”
–In a 2004 column, O’Reilly wrote: “Having survived a combat situation in Argentina during the Falklands war, I know that life-and-death decisions are made in a flash.”
But that reference—O’Reilly saying he was “in Argentina”–undercuts the thrust of the story, that he claimed to have covered the Falklands combat.
In fact, the references to Argentina show that O’Reilly knew he could never get away with claiming to have witnessed actual combat in the actual war zone because no American journalists were ever allowed to see it. Instead, O’Reilly just makes up his “combat experience” by describing a protest as if it was combat, then shoves this “experience” in the face of anyone who questions his authority as an expert on armed conflict. When did Brian Williams ever tell Vietnam veterans ‘I know better than you do because I’ve been in combat’ and then cite a protest he covered as if it was combat?
There will be no six-month suspension for O’Reilly. There will be no internal investigation of his expense accounts. Resentful denials and personal attacks against David Corn are the only response we can expect from the “No Spin Zone.” That is what accountability looks like in right wing news: when the image in the mirror fails to please, they trash the person holding it for them.