Brian Williams went down in flames from his NBC anchor position after he was caught claiming that he was almost shot down in a helicopter in Iraq, and Fox network celebrity Bill O’Reilly used the debacle to attack what he describes as liberal media outlets and demanded investigation into its other “distortions.” O’Reilly did say on his show that “we’ve made some mistakes in the past but very few … [and] take great pains to present you with information that can be verified.”
Unfortunately for O’Reilly, David Corn and Daniel Schulman followed up on O’Reilly’s dramatic stories about his war reporting and reported in Mother Jones that the conservative program host exaggerated far more than Williams did—even talking about his heroism in a war zone where he never went. He has repeatedly claimed to be a war correspondent during the Falklands war and talked about experiencing combat between the UK and Argentina. “I’ve been there,” he stated. “That’s really what separates me from most of these other bloviators.” He also bragged about it in his 2001 book, The No Spin Zone: Confrontations With the Powerful and Famous in America.
In a 2003 book, conservative journalist Tucker Carlson wrote about O’Reilly’s answer during a Washington panel discussion when he claimed to be in wars in the Falklands, Northern Ireland, the Middle East and was “almost killed three times.” He repeated this claim in 2008 and 2013, talking about how he saved his photographer after he “got run down” in the Falklands. According to Bob Schieffer, “nobody from CBS got to the Falklands,” which are islands 300 miles off the Argentine shore. The war zone included South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, more than 1,400 miles offshore.
O’Reilly did witness a riot in Buenos Aires after the Falkland war but complained that his footage was co-opted and featured Bob Schieffer instead of himself. According to Schieffer, it was common practice for CBS reporters to pool footage, and the segment lasted about a minute. Nothing matched O’Reilly’s dramatic description years later, and media accounts did not report any of the fatalities that O’Reilly now describes. Although two reporters were injured, O’Reilly’s memory by 2009 recalled that all “the other CBS news correspondents were hiding in the hotel.”
Retired CBS correspondent Eric Jon Engberg, who was with O’Reilly at the time, remembers Buenos Aires differently. He said that they stayed in a modern hotel and “never saw any troops, casualties or weapons.” Engberg saw no police attacks against demonstrators outside the palace. In addition, Engberg refuted the accusation that “the other CBS news correspondents were hiding in the hotel.” He wrote:
“If [O’Reilly] said such thing it is an absolute lie. Everyone was working in the street that night, the crews exhibiting their usual courage. O’Reilly was the one person who behaved unprofessionally and without regard for the safety of the camera crew he was leading.”
Engberg reported that O’Reilly ignored orders from CBS Bureau Chief Larry Doyle to avoiding attention and being injured by keeping camera lights off.
“According to Doyle, O’Reilly returned to the hotel in a rage over the fact that his cameraman wouldn’t turn on the lights to photograph angry crowds. Doyle defended the cameraman and chewed out O’Reilly for violating his instructions on lights.”
In The No Spin Zone, O’Reilly wrote about the civil war in El Salvador when he bravely went into a place of carnage. Yet his account on the report he filed with CBS News, which aired May 20, 1982, opened with a description of how little combat he found in the country: “These days Salvadoran soldiers appear to be doing more singing than fighting.” He reported that government troops were in control of most of the country, and a helicopter ride showed him “no signs of insurgent forces.” O’Reilly’s footage of the village which he described with no living people showed residents walking about and only one or two burned-down structures.
O’Reilly vigorously denounced the Mother Jones report and claimed, “It’s a hit piece. Everything I said about what I reported in South and Central America is true. Everything.” He said he never claimed to be on the Falkland Islands and called author David Corn a “despicable guttersnipe.” On his show, however, O’Reilly said:
“I missed Moyers in the war zones of El Salvador, the Falklands conflict in Argentina and the Middle East and Northern Ireland. I looked for Bill, but I didn’t see him.”
O’Reilly didn’t stop with the “guttersnipe” name-calling but continued with other reporters to call Corn “a liar” and “a left-wing assassin.” Then he suggested that Corn deserved to be “in the kill zone.”
Mother Jones had offered O’Reilly a full day to respond to his article before it was posted. O’Reilly admitted that he had received the offer but said, “I would never speak to the man about anything at any time. He’s a disgusting piece of garbage.”
Corn responded to the insults:
“To me, the issue here is whether a media figure and journalist like Bill O’Reilly, who claims to be a truth teller, can get away without answering questions about specific statements he’s made, and hide behind name calling. I would encourage anyone else who covers this story to get Bill O’Reilly to answer those questions–if not to me, than to anyone else.”
The editors in chief at Mother Jones went farther by expressing concern about the violent nature of O’Reilly calling for Corn to be “in the kill zone” and asking for an apology in a letter to both O’Reilly and one of Fox network’s communications execs.
On February 20, 2015, O’Reilly used his “Talking Points Memo” to address the Mother Jones article. He began by saying:
“Hi, I’m Bill O’Reilly … thanks for watching us tonight … more proof the American media is corrupt. That is the subject of this evening’s Talking Points memo. This man … 56-year-old David Corn … who works for the far left magazine … Mother Jones … smeared me, your humble correspondent, yesterday … saying I had fabricated some war reporting. Mother Jones … which has low circulation … considered by many the bottom rung of journalism in America. however … in this Internet age … the defamation they put forth … gets exposure. and so I have to deal with this garbage tonight. I’m sorry.”
In this article, Corn fact-checked O’Reilly’s narrative, point by point.
Other people are angry as well. Thomas Ruyle wrote in Stars and Stripes:
“‘Stolen Valor’ is a term applied to the phenomenon of people falsely claiming military awards or badges they did not earn, service they did not perform, Prisoner of War experiences that never happened, and other tales of military derring-do that exist only in their minds.”
This description applies to O’Reilly’s fictionalized account of his experiences during 1981-82. John Soltz, the president of the 400-member VoteVets.org, issued this statement condemning O’Reilly for lying about his war zone experiences.
“NBC acted completely appropriately in taking Brian Williams off the air and looking into claims he’s made over the years. Fox News has to do the same thing. The issue, for me, isn’t that Fox has been caught off guard, and didn’t realize O’Reilly was telling possibly false tales. That I can accept. It’s what do they do about it now? That will tell us a lot about how seriously they take their news organization.
“Men and women have fought, died, been wounded, and scarred by war. There are many journalists who actually were in the crossfire, who died, trying to bring the story to the American people. What Bill O’Reilly has done is steal their valor, and it is wrong. It makes it seem like anyone can head on over to a war zone. But honestly it is more insulting to the war reporters who never bragged about their war experience, but just kept their head down and did their job. Some of them died doing that job. In my mind, those reporters were heroes.”
After The New York Times printed an article on the controversy, O’Reilly threatened one of the reporters. “I am coming after you with everything I have,” he said.
O’Reilly showed footage from the Buenos Aires demonstrations, still trying to convince people that it vindicated him. Instead of showing people fired on in the streets and killed, the correspondent said that police used guns firing “tear gas and plastic bullets.” After several days of bullying and threatening anyone who disagreed with him, he said, “I want to stop this now.”
O’Reilly constantly talks about personal responsibility and how he loves the military and the veterans. He owes them an apology and a resignation from his post. O’Reilly said that Brian Williams “had to go” because he made up stories about dangers he faced in his reporting career. O’Reilly needs to go, along with his fictionalized biographies about Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, George S. Patton, and Jesus.