The more I think about it, the clearer it is to me that the best way in this hopelessly political era to discuss the Bill O’Reilly war record controversy is to start by pointing out what shouldn’t matter.
But first, a confession – which foreshadows my conclusion. I’ve been a “Factor” fan and something of an admirer of the “King of Cable Talk” for several years. Not that he hasn’t displayed major flaws. Even if I were Christian, I think I’d find the Fox News host’s “War on Christmas” claims way over the top. O’Reilly seems to have little awareness about the special problems – and prejudices – still facing many African Americans. He seems to believe that, because he finds abortion abhorrent, mainstream contemporary feminism lacks any merit. His grasp of economics, whether it’s fiscal and monetary policy, or trade – well, there simply is none. His foreign policy views are unnecessarily moralistic – even given the unmistakably Islamic and evil terrorist threat confronting America.
At the same time, O’Reilly’s conservatism contains praiseworthy populist elements. He gets in his bones the Wall Street’s responsibility for the financial crisis. He supports raising the minimum wage. He spotlighted the pressures squeezing America’s middle class well before it became fashionable on the Right.
O’Reilly’s non-partisan impulses shouldn’t be forgotten, either. He has unsparingly criticized both Democratic and Republican party figures, and praised the former from time to time. He has strongly condemned the loony – and often prejudice-rooted – personal criticisms hurled at President Obama by many extreme conservatives. He has openly admitted being wrong about supporting George W. Bush’s Iraq War (actually, I think he’s gone overboard here) – even though he favors using (limited, he says) ground forces versus ISIS and expresses full and unjustified confidence that they can leave quickly once their mission is accomplished. And he regularly features both regulars and guests with whom he disagrees.
But none of the above really matters in connection with whether O’Reilly has falsely described his experiences as a foreign correspondent. Nor does it matter that the Mother Jones article that first questioned O’Reilly’s veracity really does look like a political hit piece aimed at retaliating against conservatives and conservative journalists following the tall tales-prompted suspension of NBC News anchor Brian Williams. I don’t even care that Mother Jones author David Corn was not renewed as a Fox News contributor a few years ago, or that some of O’Reilly’s former colleagues at CBS News may be contradicting his account of events in Argentina because they’ve been nursing personal grudges. And there’s no reason to take seriously the argument that O’Reilly shouldn’t be held to Williams-like standards because he’s not hosting a straight news program.
All that matters is whether his claims to have experienced “war zone” conditions are credible based on what we can know about the circumstances and what we can’t know. And I genuinely regret to conclude that O’Reilly has engaged in exaggeration that’s unacceptable for someone with a prominent role in America’s national public policy debate – whether they proudly claim to run a “No-Spin Zone” or not.
The best and fairest analysis I’ve seen of the events O’Reilly covered in Buenos Aires following the British-Argentine Falklands War in 1982 comes from Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple. His research into not only American sources but Argentine sources (including contemporary local newspapers) convinces me that the Fox host was reporting on a chaotic, violent, and dangerous situation. But it was not one that qualified as the “war zone” he calls it.
This isn’t a huge exaggeration. But neither is it the hair-splitting of which O’Reilly has accused his attackers. A few rounds of live ammo were fired by the police, as well as many more rubber bullets and tear gas. Injuries were suffered, and the fatalities cited by O’Reilly can’t be ruled out, although there is no positive evidence. But no heavier weapons – the kind typical of military operations – were used. The tumult O’Reilly covered lasted a single night. He was not embedded in any units of soldiers, and he didn’t accompany combat forces on his own. In short, he experienced nothing like reporters in real combat zones have experienced in genuine armed conflict for decades. (See these links for some brief descriptions of the World War II coverage of figures like Ernie Pyle, Walter Cronkite, and numerous others who spent prolonged periods on the front or in their air and naval equivalents.)
And this difference counts because O’Reilly has used his claims in efforts to distinguish himself from interlocutors who he depicts as unqualified to hold contrary opinions on military-related topics because they haven’t tasted such danger.
All of which means that O’Reilly’s exaggerations as such sound a lot like Brian Williams’ Iraq war stories. Moreover, just as Williams has been criticized for false reporting in other sets of circumstances (Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the fall of the Berlin Wall), so has O’Reilly (for his accounts of his reporting of El Salvador’s insurgency in the 1980s). For some reason, though, the critics haven’t concentrated on those characterizations – and O’Reilly hasn’t addressed them.
The only major differences I can detect entail Williams’ contrition versus O’Reilly’s vituperation, and on NBC’s decision to suspend its star and examine his record versus Fox News’ decision to ignore O’Reilly’s. Bottom line: The Williams and O’Reilly misdeeds haven’t been modern journalism’s worst by a long shot. As a result, I’m open to the argument that both deserve a second chance (at least based on what is known so far). But I agree with those who would reserve forgiveness for those who seek it. So O’Reilly has a ways to go before he qualifies.
One final point: Speaking of journalistic misdeeds, something that’s truly garbage, as O’Reilly might put it, is the implication by Mother Jones authors Corn and Daniel Schulman that the “culture of deception within the liberal media” (their words) slammed repeatedly O’Reilly is a myth. If you doubt this, check out this compilation of confessions from mainstream media journalists. Which means that the worst outcome of O’Reilly’s troubles – including his often abusive counterattacks – could well be undercutting criticisms and concerns about a much more important problem.