Much like suspended NBC anchor Brian Williams, Bill O'Reilly's war stories are unraveling. His tales of reportorial derring-do – in Argentina, El Salvador, Ferguson, Northern Ireland – are turning out to be stories of derring-didn't.
O’Reilly addressed the Brian Williams controversy in a February 5 segment for The O’Reilly Factor. “You go on Letterman-- I’ve been on there many times-- and you want to please. You want to be interesting. You want to be fascinating. You want to be cool…. It is easy for me, but for some people it’s hard,” O’Reilly explained.
“He knows what he did was wrong. A lot of people exaggerate their life experience, and he got caught…. I don’t think Americans care anymore. I think they’re so used to being lied to, they’re so cynical about the media, they don’t trust the media at all,” O’Reilly added.
And O’Reilly should know, because it turns out that he’s among the people who “exaggerate their life experience.” But so far, the reports of O'Reilly's strained relationship with the truth have neglected a very important point: He doesn't just lie about his own experiences – he lies about everything. And because “everything” includes important political issues, most of his lies are much more damaging than his claims to have drawn fire in the Falklands. From a myriad of examples, we've focused on five instances where O'Reilly's not just lying, but where he demonstrably knows he's lying, and doing so to better fit a right-wing slant.
On the Iraq War and Benghazi
As evidence, let's begin with an O'Reilly contribution to the (literally) most earth-shaking policy decision of the 21st Century – the Iraq War. In 2004, law professor David Cole appeared on O'Reilly's show to discuss the bipartisan 9/11 Commission Report.
Cole reports that as the show was being taped, O'Reilly instructed his producers to edit out video of Commission Chairman Tom Keane saying that no evidence had been found of a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. O'Reilly then claimed, for the cameras, that Keane had, in fact, confirmed such a link. When Cole challenged O'Reilly's assertion, his host went “berserk,” called Cole “an SOB,” and shouted that he “would never, ever, be invited back on the show again.” When the segment aired, Cole's challenge to O'Reilly and the host's outburst had been edited out.
In an act of blatant hypocrisy, Bill O’Reilly went on to attack Rachel Maddow in February 2013 for airing doctored tape of Senator John McCain. After Maddow admitted on-air that her show played a clip that had been edited to show McCain as unsympathetic, O’Reilly asked, “So, why did the commentator use it? Why didn't NBC News check it out before they aired it?” Indeed, Mr. O’Reilly.
In fact, one of O'Reilly's favorite tricks is the editing of videotape to create a half-truth that amounts to a big lie. After O'Reilly had interviewed President Obama in February of 2014, he played a clip of the interview on his show, saying that it revealed a president refusing to call the Benghazi attack an act of terror. Malignantly, the clip ended immediately before the President said this: “Understand, by definition, Bill, when somebody is attacking our compound, that's an act of terror, which is how I characterized it the day after it happened.”
On Iraq’s Chemical Weapons
As documented by media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’s Peter Hart, it was only months before 9/11, in February 2001, that O’Reilly dismissed Saddam Hussein as a threat. "You know, I don't take Saddam Hussein all that seriously anymore as far as a world threat. Maybe I'm wrong and naive here. Should we be very frightened of this guy?"
Yet shortly after September 11, 2001, Bill O’Reilly turned hawkish. Two days later, on September 13, O’Reilly made the case that Hussein was the biggest terrorist supporter in the world: “All right, but, listen, if Bush is going to say -- and he said it at least a half-dozen times, we have to get the people who support the terrorists, there's no one in the world who supports terrorism more than Saddam Hussein.”
By September 17, he was calling for US action against Iraq: “Next, Iraq must be dealt with. Again, their infrastructure must be destroyed and the population made to endure yet another round of intense pain. I wouldn't invade Iraq. But I would put them out of every possible business.”
By February 2003, less than a month before the US invasion of Iraq, O’Reilly was marching in lockstep with the Bush administration: "This guy we know has anthrax and VX and all this stuff." In March 2003, mere days before US troops touched ground in Iraq, O’Reilly softened his stance on Good Morning America. "Here's the bottom line on this for every American and everybody in the world: Nobody knows for sure, all right? We don't know what he has. We think he has 8,500 liters of anthrax. But let's see."
In the same Good Morning America appearance, O’Reilly made a bold claim: "And I said on my program, if -- if -- the Americans go in and overthrow Saddam Hussein and it's clean, he has nothing, I will apologize to the nation, and I will not trust the Bush administration again." O’Reilly made that apology to the Good Morning America audience in February 2004. “My analysis was wrong and I’m sorry. I am much more skeptical of the Bush administration now than I was at the time.” (“I just said it,” he added. “What do you want me to do? Go over and kiss the camera?”)
Yet by October 2004, O’Reilly was again claiming that Iraq had chemical weapons. In a response to a caller on his radio show, O’Reilly blustered, “They did have ricin up there in the north -- so why are you discounting that so much?" Yet the Duelfer Report, the final report of the international intelligence coalition convened by the Pentagon and the CIA, concluded that no ricin had been produced since the early 1990s.
On Voter Fraud
Time and again, O'Reilly has made clear to his audience that voter fraud is a serious problem (when it's not) and that requiring photo identification to vote is not a serious problem (when it is). Shortly after the 2014 midterms, for example, O'Reilly and guest Eric Shawn discussed a report on photo ID by The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School. They relayed the “fact” that the report had found “twelve people in Texas” who were unable to vote because of the state's restrictive photo identification law.
And indeed, the Brennan report had told the stories of twelve Texans who were unable to vote, as examples of the problem. But here is the part of the Brennan Report O'Reilly left out: There were “more than 600,000 registered voters in Texas who could not vote this year” because they lacked the required identification.” And, “In several key races, the margin of victory came very close to the likely margin of disenfranchisement....Nate Silver estimates, based on academic studies, that such laws reduce turnout by about 2.4 percent.” (“How much of a difference did new voting restrictions make in yesterday's close races”)
On Character Assassination
O'Reilly doesn't like liberals, and he is not above lying to smear one of them. On his October 7, 2014 show, he reported that Virginia's Attorney General, Mark Herring, a “very liberal man...is now saying, 'We don't care if little girls are raped because I, the Attorney General, am too damn lazy or an ideological zealot or both, to enforce this law.'”
But as the Richmond Times-Dispatch pointed out, all Herring had actually said was that an underage pregnancy is not, by itself, evidence of parental neglect, since a child can get pregnant without a parent's knowledge or consent.
Incidentally, this is the same Bill O'Reilly says, “I have never attacked anyone personally, ever.”
On the Real Assassination of “Baby Killer” Dr. George Tiller
In May 2009, Dr. George Tiller, one of the few physicians in the country who performed late-stage abortions, was murdered by right-wing anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder. O’Reilly, who had covered Tiller for the past four years, referring to him alternately as “Tiller the baby killer” or the equally unsubtle “Dr. George Tiller, known as Tiller the baby killer,” immediately sought to distance himself from the issue. About the moniker, O’Reilly claimed in a June 2, 2009 episode of The O’Reilly Factor that “I reported what groups were calling him. I reported accurately.”
However, a 2009 investigation by Media Matters found 42 instances of O’Reilly referring to Tiller by name in the previous five years, and 24 instances in which O’Reilly had referred to Tiller as a “baby killer,” typically as “Tiller the baby killer” or “Dr. George Tiller, known as Tiller the baby killer.” At no time did O’Reilly name a source for the moniker. Perhaps he didn’t have to-- it was O’Reilly the whole time.
On Lying About Being Told to Lie
These few examples can only hint at the enormity of O'Reilly's catalog of lies. Indeed, Peter Hart of media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has filled an entire book with a staggering number of his falsehoods.
In the introduction to the book, media scholar Robert McChesney describes his own reaction to Hart's list: “What struck me most, and should bring pause to everyone who reads this book, is the cavalier manner in which O'Reilly routinely lies, exaggerates, and misstates the truth. It is one thing to make misstatements on a daily TV program; that is going to happen under the best of circumstances. But O'Reilly does so repeatedly and shamelessly. O'Reilly's disinterest in truth, in principle, in interrogating his own assumptions and in intellectual consistency is little short of breathtaking.”
But perhaps it’s not all O’Reilly’s fault. At Fox News, reporters and hosts receive daily memos from executives outlining how to distort the issues to suit Fox’s perspective-- including what stories to ignore and what language to use.
Naturally, Bill O’Reilly even lies about this. In an August 2004 CNBC debate with Paul Krugman, O’Reilly said “There is no talking points. There is no marching order. It doesn't exist.” In fact, just a month earlier, Media Matters printed 33 such memos from FOX News’ then-Senior Vice President, News Editorial John Moody and Los Angeles Bureau Chief Ken LaCoste. Former FOX News reporter Jon DuPre explicitly referred to these as “marching orders” in Salon’s review of the documentary Outfoxed.
In May 2004, shortly after the release of the Abu Ghraib photos, Moody demanded that his staff “keep the Abu Ghraeb [sic] situation in perspective” by showing a picture of a blindfolded American hostage. In June 2003, Moody instructed FOX News reporters that President Bush’s “political courage and tactical cunning ar[e] [wo]rth noting in our reporting through the day.” A month earlier, Moody wrote “[Le]t's spend a good deal of time on the battle over judicial nominations, which [th]e President will address this morning. Nominees who both sides admit are [qu]alified are being held up because of their POSSIBLE, not demonstrated, views [on] one issue -- abortion. This should be a trademark issue for FNC today and in [th]e days to come.”
In a 2003 letter to media critic Jim Romenesko, former Fox News producer Charlie Reina wrote, “To the newsroom personnel responsible for the channel’s daytime programming, The Memo is the bible. If, on any given day, you notice that the Fox anchors seem to be trying to drive a particular point home, you can bet The Memo is behind it.”
Right-Wing News Gets the Memo
Yes, Bill O'Reilly is what Ronnie Dobbs of Mr. Show fame would call an expert at lying, “a professional lieologist.” Having said that, let us add that Bill O'Reilly is not a special case of lying. In fact, in the Fox universe, he is typical. The recent, well-documented book, The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes turned a network into a propaganda machine, begins with Fox's vice president of News and Washington managing editor Bill Sammon, bragging to an audience of religious conservatives about how he had spawned the story that Barack Obama is a socialist. The funny part, Sammon let on, was that Sammon himself didn't believe the story.
It is hard to imagine a Walter Cronkite, (or even a Brian Williams!) boasting about foisting a lie on the American people, but at Fox, this is de rigueur, say David Brock and Ari Rabin-Havt in The Fox Effect: “At Fox, Ailes has ushered in the era of post-truth politics. The facts no longer matter, only what is politically expedient, sensationalistic, and designed to confirm the preexisting opinions of a large audience. It's a world where a news organization encourages people to believe that Barack Obama attended a madrassa, even though he did not; and encourages its viewers to believe the Earth is not warming, in spite of the fact that virtually every scientific authority says it is. It is an organization that consciously reports that the Democrats' health care bill contains death panels, despite the fact that it does not.”
Given this post-truth approach to news reporting, it is completely unsurprising that repeated academic studies have found viewers whose main source of news is Fox to be the most misinformed of news consumers.
But even Fox is only a symptom, not the disease. As David Brock's meticulously documented book, The Republican Noise Machine shows, the entire conservative surround-sound media system – including think tanks, talk radio, book publishers, newspapers and journals, as well as FOX – was designed not to tell the news, but to sell the views of its creators – the conservative corporate business community.
As this corporate community replaced telling the news with winning the war of ideology, winning came to be defined as winning by any means necessary, including the politics of personal attack, demonization and falsehood. The result, says Brock, has been “verifiable journalistic malfeasance… the publication of misinformation… and ethical malfeasance.”
“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance,” James Madison reassures us, “And a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” But in the same breath, he warns, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both.” Tragedy and farce. Are there better words to describe what our democracy has become under the tutelage of such as Bill O'Reilly and the right-wing mendacity machine?