Fox News' dangerous game: Why conservative media will regret protecting Bill O'Reilly

Bill O'Reilly's claims are demonstrably false. Now he threatens to bring down an entire network of hacks with him

Published March 5, 2015 7:45PM (EST)

Bill O'Reilly                  (Fox News)
Bill O'Reilly (Fox News)

This article originally appeared on Media Matters.

Always viewing conflicts through the prism of partisan warfare, conservative media have been faced with a stark choice as Bill O'Reilly's long list of confirmed fabrications pile up in public view. They can defend the Fox News host no matter what, while lashing out his "far-left" critics for daring to fact-check the host. Or, conservative media outlets can let him fend for himself. (The third, obvious option of openly criticizing O'Reilly for his duplicitous ways doesn't seem to be on the table.)

Incredibly, as the controversy marches on and neither O'Reilly nor Fox are able to provide simple answers to the questions about his truth-telling as a reporter, some conservative media allies continue to rally by his side.

On Sunday, Howard Kurtz's MediaBuzz program on Fox came to O'Reilly's aid by doing everything it could to whitewash the allegations against the host.

Over the weekend at Newsbusters--a far-right clearinghouse for endless, and often empty, attacks on the media--Jeffrey Lord denounced the O'Reilly fact-checking campaign as "wrong" and "dangerous." And Fox News contributor Allen West actually told the Washington Post that all the allegations against O'Reilly had been "debunked." (Lots of attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week shared West's contention.)

What's the peril for blindly protecting O'Reilly this way? Simple: It completely undercuts the conservative cottage industry of media criticism. Because why would anyone care about media critiques leveled by conservatives who are currently tying to explain away O'Reilly's obvious laundry list of lies.

"O'Reilly's story, intended to portray him as an enterprising journalist unfazed by potential danger, is a fiction,"noted Gawker. "It is precisely the sort of claim that would otherwise earn Fox's condemnation, and draw sophisticated counter-attacks to undermine the accusers' reputation."

And how do we know that to be true? Because the entire conservative media apparatus spent last monthunleashing sophisticated counter-attacks to undermine NBC News anchor Brian Williams after doubts were raised about his wartime reporting. Today, the same conservative media are either playing dumb about Bill O'Reilly, or actually defending him.

Obviously, you can't have it both ways. You can't demand Brian Williams be fired and that Bill O'Reilly be left alone. Not if you want anyone to pause for more than three seconds when considering your press critiques.

Given its current defense of O'Reilly, look at how comically hollow previous conservative condemnations of Williams now sound:

Hubris. So many celebrities -- be they politicians, journalists, artists -- refuse to accept that the cover-up and obfuscation is always worse than the crime. Time and again, when honesty and humility beckon, they are nowhere to be found.

Noted: Conservative media critics simply cannot abide major news figures wallowing in "obfuscation" and turning a blind eye to "honesty." Unless his name is Bill O'Reilly and he works for Fox News. Given that blind support, can you imagine how utterly toothless and irrelevant the next conservative campaign is going to be if, and when, it zeroes in on a dishonest news anchor regarding fabrications?

Although to be honest, it's hard to imagine any working news host could match O'Reilly'scurrent rap sheet, viathe Washington Post:

• O'Reilly said that "many were killed" in a June 1982 Buenos Aires protest following the Falkland Islands war that he covered as a CBS News correspondent; news accounts from the time cite injuries and mayhem, but no deaths.

• O'Reilly said that he'd been nearby for the March 1977 Florida suicide of a friend of Lee Harvey Oswald; former colleagues from that time say no way.

• O'Reilly once claimed, "I've seen guys gun down nuns in El Salvador" -- a statement contradicted by ... O'Reilly.

• O'Reilly said he'd endured a bombardment of "bricks and stones" while covering the 1992 Los Angeles riots for Inside Edition; former colleagues say that's not true.

When the troubles first arose, lots of conservative sites and commentators rushed in to defend O'Reilly from the original Mother Jones allegation and to announce the whole story was "falling apart," according to USA Today columnist Glenn Reynolds.

At Mediaite, columnist Joe Concha belittled the Mother Jones "non-story," dismissed the controversy as a "nothing burger" and posted this prediction: "Come Tuesday, this story will be dead."

That was nine days ago.

At Commentary, Jonathan Tobin insisted that attempts to hold O'Reilly accountable had little to do with him and everything to do with "the antagonism that the left feels toward his network." In other words, "O'Reilly would be better off just ignoring the attacks as pinpricks from a jealous rival."

Over the last week as additional revelations poured in, Concha and Tobin wisely stayed clear of the O'Reilly car wreck. But if conservatives and Fox News friends want to be taken seriously in the future about media criticism, they have to admit they were wrong about O'Reilly and publicly call him out.

Because there's no longer a debate about O'Reilly's honesty.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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