Bill O’Reilly was predictably sanctimonious about the troubles of NBC’s Brian Williams – sanctimony shot with schadenfreude is the best kind of high for the Fox bully. So when Mother Jones charged O’Reilly with exaggerating his own war reporting record Thursday night, it didn’t take long for him to launch a counter-attack. He called story co-author David Corn a “despicable guttersnipe” and told Politico that Corn had been trying to take him down “for years.”
That in itself was a sign that the punch landed; normally O’Reilly doesn’t descend from his perch in the “no-spin zone” to debate mere mortals on platforms besides Fox. The Mother Jones story is embarrassing, but it’s probably not fatal. Most of the “reporting” on Fox has roughly the same relationship with the truth as O’Reilly’s claim to combat zone action. I can’t see him facing censure for this, but I hope I’m wrong.
If you missed the action, Corn and Daniel Schulman reported that despite O’Reilly’s claims of having “survived a combat operation” during the Falklands War, the Fox host, then with CBS, only got as close as Buenos Aires, roughly 1,400 miles away from the fighting. "Nobody from CBS got to the Falklands,” CBS’s Bob Schieffer told Mother Jones. “I came close. We'd been trying to get somebody down there. It was impossible."
There was, of course, no combat in the Argentinian capital, but there was a raucous protest, and that’s apparently what O’Reilly refers to as a “combat operation.” He also claimed he was the only CBS reporter covering the demonstration, which Schieffer likewise denies. "We were all out with our camera crews that day to cover the protest," Schieffer says. "I'd been out there with a crew too."
Likewise, his claim of having seen combat danger in El Salvador is undermined by reporting – the reporting of Bill O’Reilly himself, on the ground, in real time. In his book “The No-Spin Zone” O’Reilly tells of visiting a dangerous, “guerrilla controlled area” with a camera crew, where “I quickly did a stand-up amid the rubble and we got the hell out of there."
His real-time dispatch for CBS was different. He described touring a scene by helicopters with the Salvadoran military, and reported “these days Salvadoran soldiers appear to be doing more singing than fighting," having succeeded in "scattering the rebel forces, leaving government troops in control of most of the country." There was no mention of having to “get the hell out of there.”
The problem for people who care about the truth is that O’Reilly is not likely to be punished for shading it. He’s a serial exaggerator – remember his claim to be the product of middle-class Levittown, when he grew up in tonier Westbury? Much of the “reporting” on Fox is similarly distorted; the ratio of truth to fiction is often worse than in O’Reilly’s combat zone mythology. The made-up Fox bogeymen of the New Black Panther Party were actually less dangerous to democracy than Buenos Aires was to O’Reilly. More recently, the network’s claim of Muslim-only “no-go” zones in London was based on even skimpier evidence.
I personally got a big story wrong last year: I predicted Fox’s Sean Hannity would pay a price for hyping the cause of racist grifter Cliven Bundy, especially after Stephen Colbert flayed him for it. But he didn't. So while I hope to be wrong this time -- by underestimating Roger Ailes’s conscience, rather than exaggerating it – I don’t expect to be.
The good news is, I've covered a lot of unruly protests in my time. I'm glad to know I can now claim to have "survived a combat operation." Thanks, Bill!