Did Fox News' Bill O'Reilly inflate his own wartime reporting experiences? A piece in Mother Jones, posted on the magazine's website late Thursday, charged that — similar to Brian Williams, who has been suspended by NBC without pay for six months following a since-recanted claim about a wartime experience — O'Reilly too had inflated his stories about covering the Falklands war in 1982 for CBS News.
But unlike Williams — who remained silent after an on-air retraction — O'Reilly immediately went on the offensive, returning calls to reporters to blast the Mother Jones account and its author, David Corn, a former Fox News contributor and the magazine's Washington bureau chief.
In a call Thursday night, O'Reilly told me: "He'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."
Before I get further into this post, a quick aside: O'Reilly is a commentator for Fox News and not an anchor; Williams is an anchor for "NBC Nightly News," the most-watched news program in the country. Their roles are profoundly different. Moreover, Williams' account related to an incident in a war in which over four thousand U.S. service members were killed, many more thousands grievously wounded. As such, it remains a war that veterans still live with every day -- while Williams' account was immediately, and fatally, ridiculed as an instance of "borrowed valor."
By contrast, the Mother Jones charges relate to a long-forgotten war in which the U.S. had no involvement. Also, as is well-known in TV circles -- and O'Reilly has written about this as well -- he had a falling out with CBS News in the midst of the Falklands coverage. His reporting from that war, to my knowledge, has never been questioned until yesterday.
Nevertheless, both newsmen do claim to their respective audiences an allegiance to the truth, and so a deviation from well-known and oft-told stories represents a serious lapse. O'Reilly's quick rebuttal establishes — if anything — a recognition of that, as well as of the fact that these sorts of charges can explode quickly, as Williams' suspension proves.
The key part of the Mother Jones piece is this line: "O'Reilly has repeatedly told his audience that he was a war correspondent during the Falklands war and that he experienced combat during that 1982 conflict between England and Argentina."
It then follows with this pull-quote from an on-air comment O'Reilly made in 2013: "I was in a situation one time, in a war zone in Argentina, in the Falklands, where my photographer got run down and then hit his head and was bleeding from the ear on the concrete. And the army was chasing us. I had to make a decision. And I dragged him off, you know, but at the same time, I'm looking around and trying to do my job, but I figure I had to get this guy out of there because that was more important."
In fact, no American TV reporters covered the brief war from the ground in the Falklands.
O'Reilly told me, "Read the piece and you'll see what he's doing — trying to parse words, trying to convince readers that I said I was, but I never said I was in the Falkland islands. No American reporter was. I've said that. No one was there and I have clearly stated that I covered it from Uruguay, which I did. The field reports which went out on the air, everything that was reported, happened. That's it."
I pointed out to O'Reilly the phrasing of the pull-quote, to which he replied: "What I have reported, I have reported," adding that "everything I've reported is accurate."
The Mother Jones piece indicates O'Reilly piled on Williams in the days after the full extent of his dissembling about a helicopter forced down by an RPG became public. But my memory is that O'Reilly did not pile on, and was in fact supportive of Williams.
Of Williams, O'Reilly told me: "I've told everyone, give the guy a break. If you enjoy the sight of this guy's suffering and the dismantling of his career, then there's something wrong with you. No one should be celebrating this. He's paying for his mistake, [but] he should come back in some capacity, to help his family and himself. That's been my tack all along. I've never said a negative word about Brian Williams. I did what I could to give him a little cover."
Meanwhile, Corn and Mother Jones have now responded at length to O'Reilly's assertions, and you can read that statement here.