It's a dangerous time to be on television. Big-time TV stars are keeling over, left and right. First, NBC's Brian Williams, caught in a lie. And now Fox News' Bill O'Reilly. With one big difference: Nobody suspected Williams was a liar; everybody knew O'Reilly was.
If nothing else, Bill O'Reilly, the arrogant, loud-mouth bully and host of "The O'Reilly Factor," is a television phenomenon. The heart of Fox News' nightly lineup since 1996, "The Factor" is consistently, year in and year out, the highest-rated program of all three cable news networks, averaging 3 million viewers. But now, thanks to good, old-fashioned investigative reporting by David Corn and Daniel Schulman of Mother Jones magazine, we've learned that O'Reilly, who excoriated Brian Williams for exaggerating his combat experience, "has his own Brian Williams problem."
First reported by Mother Jones on Feb. 19, O'Reilly has repeatedly, on air and in print, told two big lies about his previous experience as a correspondent for CBS News: claiming he once reported from a "war zone," and claiming he had lived through "combat experience." That's what distinguished him from other reporters, he bragged: "I've been there. That's really what separates me from most of these other bloviators. I bloviate, but I bloviate about stuff I've seen. They bloviate about stuff that they haven't." But for O'Reilly, the problem is: Neither statement is true.
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Did O'Reilly, as he has repeatedly claimed, report from the "war zone" during the 1982 conflict between England and Argentina over the Falkland Islands? No! In fact, no American correspondents did. As reported by Corn and Schulman, O'Reilly, like every other American reporter, spent all his time in Buenos Aires, 1,200 miles away from the fighting. Their account is confirmed by former CBS producer Susan Zirinsky and "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer, also stuck in Buenos Aires. Said Schieffer, "For us, you were a thousand miles from where the fighting was. So we had some great meals." It was not a war zone, but an expense account zone.
What about his second bragging point? Did O'Reilly have any direct combat experience? No, again. O'Reilly describes covering an anti-military protest in Buenos Aires as the equivalent of combat experience because, he says, it turned so violent. In his book, "The No Spin Zone," he recounts: "A major riot ensued and many were killed." He told another interviewer that soldiers "were just gunning these people down, shooting them in the streets with real bullets." On Fox News, O'Reilly read from what he said was a New York Times account of the event: "One policeman pulled a pistol, firing five shots."
Again, sounds bad, but it never happened. Yes, there was a riot. Yes, there were rocks thrown, a couple of buses torched and some windows broken. But there was no evidence of live ammunition being used by police, and no reports of fatalities. Fellow CBS correspondent Eric Engberg, in Buenos Aires with O'Reilly, described it as "the chummiest riot anyone had ever covered." And the Times reported that its original story actually read: "One policeman pulled a pistol, firing five shots over the heads of fleeing demonstrators." O'Reilly somehow left out the key phrase "over the heads of fleeing demonstrators."
Mother Jones is right. Bill O'Reilly does have his own Brian Williams problem. But, oh what a difference between them. When he was busted for lying, Williams immediately apologized, NBC launched an internal investigation, and Williams was suspended for six months without pay.
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Caught in his own lie, O'Reilly refused to apologize. Instead, he insisted that every word he said about reporting from the war zone was true. And he launched a barrage of attacks against his critics: calling Corn a "liar," a "left-wing assassin" and a "despicable guttersnipe," who deserved "to be in the kill zone"; deriding Mother Jones as representing "the bottom rung of journalism in America" and warning New York Times reporter Emily Steel: "I am coming after you with everything I have. You can take it as a threat."
What fate awaits Bill O'Reilly? Will he also be suspended without pay, or at least scolded, for lying to his audience? Don't hold your breath. O'Reilly will skate. He might even be rewarded with a bonus. And we all know why. Because, unlike Brian Williams, O'Reilly is not a news anchor, he's a cable-TV professional provocateur. And because, unlike NBC, Fox News is not a news organization, it's a propaganda machine.