Mother Jones dropped this afternoon a long story alleging that Fox News host Bill O’Reilly has his own Brian Williams problem in exaggerating his coverage of conflicts around the globe in a decades-long and peripatetic career. A key line in the story by David Corn and Daniel Schulman reads like this: “>Fox News and O’Reilly did not respond to multiple requests for comment.”
Why not? “Because David Corn is a guttersnipe liar,” O’Reilly told the Erik Wemple Blog tonight. “Is that clear enough? For years he’s been trying to get Fox News. I would never speak to the man about anything at any time. He’s a disgusting piece of garbage.”
With that preface, let’s have a look at the allegations raised in the Mother Jones piece, which center on the 1982 war in the Falkland Islands. This was a pathetic conflict born of the desperation of an Argentine military junta seeking to rally the country around its blundering rule. Amid a staggering economic crisis, the Argentines invaded the two islands in April 1982, even though they’d been under British rule for 150 years. Bad move: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wasn’t going to cede even these strategically infinitesimal holdings to these lowly and ruthless dictators. She sent troops and easily re-took the Islas Malvinas, as they’re known to Argentines.
Mother Jones and O’Reilly do not dispute that the Fox News host, then a correspondent for CBS News, was sent to Buenos Aires just before Argentine forces surrendered to Britain in the Falklands conflict. They do differ over the propriety of how O’Reilly has abridged that experience at various moments in the more than three decades since then. Mother Jones breaks down the record:
* In his 2001 book, The No Spin Zone: Confrontations With the Powerful and Famous in America, O’Reilly stated, “You know that I am not easily shocked. I’ve reported on the ground in active war zones from El Salvador to the Falklands.”* Conservative journalist Tucker Carlson, in a 2003 book, described how O’Reilly answered a question during a Washington panel discussion about media coverage of the Afghanistan war: “Rather than simply answer the question, O’Reilly began by trying to establish his own bona fides as a war correspondent. ‘I’ve covered wars, okay? I’ve been there. The Falklands, Northern Ireland, the Middle East. I’ve almost been killed three times, okay.’ ”* In a 2004 column about US soldiers fighting in Iraq, O’Reilly noted, “Having survived a combat situation in Argentina during the Falklands war, I know that life-and-death decisions are made in a flash.”* In 2008, he took a shot at journalist Bill Moyers, saying, “I missed Moyers in the war zones of [the] Falkland conflict in Argentina, the Middle East, and Northern Ireland. I looked for Bill, but I didn’t see him.”
Before proceeding further, a very important disclosure: The wife of the Erik Wemple Blog, Stephanie Mencimer, is a staff writer at Mother Jones. Her boss is David Corn, who is the magazine’s Washington bureau chief.
Mother Jones spends a good chunk of text establishing that there’s no way that O’Reilly could have witnessed any actual hostilities in the Falklands war, because precisely zero U.S. correspondents were able to establish a beachhead on these remote lands. “For us, you were a thousand miles from where the fighting was. So we had some great meals,” CBS News’s Bob Schieffer tells Mother Jones.
To which, O’Reilly says, “That’s correct. I never said I was in the Falklands.” The “combat” to which O’Reilly referred took place in Buenos Aires upon the junta’s capitulation, an event that galvanized a populace that had lived through hardships both economic and existential: This was the same string of generals, remember, who sponsored the “Dirty War,” a campaign of “disappearances” in which military personnel on the lookout for terrorists would sweep up innocent civilians, throw them into their Ford Falcons and, oftentimes, drop them from helicopters into the ocean below. An estimated 30,000 people were executed.
Of the post-war backlash, O’Reilly tells the Erik Wemple Blog that “thousands of people” stormed the streets and the Army was on the case. “A combat situation ensued,” he says. “People were shot. So were reporters.” In his book “No Spin Zone,” O’Reilly says that “many were killed” in the mayhem. Mother Jones reports a less dramatic scene, based on published accounts at the time: “[T]hese media accounts did not report, as O’Reilly claims, that there were fatalities. The New York Times noted, ‘Several demonstrators were reported to have been injured, along with at least two reporters.’ ”
In “No Spin Zone,” O’Reilly refers readers to another book he wrote under the title “Those Who Trespass: A Novel of Television and Murder.” As its title explains, “Those Who Trespass” is a work of fiction, though O’Reilly in our interview cited it repeatedly as an account that properly rebuts the claims in the Mother Jones story. The central character in “Those Who Trespass” is one Shannon Michaels, a reporter for a network named GNN. “Shannon Michaels was new to all this. He had joined the network just three months before the Falklands War broke out, having been hired by GNN after a successful six and a half year in local television news, where he had piled up four Emmy Awards for excellence in reporting.” O’Reilly, too, had a celebrated career in local news before making the bigs.
The description of the post-surrender chaos in Buenos Aires in “Those Who Trespass” includes this passage: “The mob began pelting the troops and police with rocks and coins. To Michaels, it looked like a scene out of the Middle Ages: a castle under siege — the sky full of arrows raining down on the inhabitants. And here in ‘Castle Buenos Aires,’ the ‘arrows’ were finding their targets. Scores of soldiers and police were hit. Blood flowed down their faces.”
Also this: “Shannon saw one man take a bullet squarely in the right eye. He was killed instantly.” The narrative also describes a moment when Michaels encounters a soldier who raises his M-16 to shoot him. “Journalist! Please don’t shoot,” pleads the character, successfully. That account appears to square with an anecdote that O’Reilly related on a 1999 show (highlighted by Mother Jones) as he responded to a critical letter from an Air Force colonel: “Hey, Colonel, did you ever have a hostile point an M-16 at your head from 10 yards away? That happened to me while I was covering the Falklands war.” Also, on his now-defunct radio show, O’Reilly once told a caller: “I was in the middle of a couple of firefights in South and Central America.”
Some contemporaneous news accounts corroborate certain details in O’Reilly’s account from “Those Who Trespass.” For instance, a Washington Post report from June 16, 1982, speaks of protesters heaving devalued 100-peso coins and shouting the same class of insults as outlined in O’Reilly’s novel. And a Miami Herald story on the protests opted for this description:
Authorities allowed the demonstration for a few hours, then called in riot police. Helmeted, flak-jacketed forces arrived in assault cars. Within 15 minutes the plaza was virtually deserted under a dissipating cloud of tear gas. Remnants of small fires set by the demonstrators flickered out.The police charged into isolated and retreating pockets of demonstrators, clubbing them. The officers also charged a group of about 50 journalists, beating some and trampling others. Retreating demonstrators set fire to two buses near the far end of the plaza and broke shop windows on side streets. Two news photographers were reported injured by rubber bullets fired by police.
Mother Jones hotly disputed O’Reilly’s claim that “many were killed,” and the news accounts consulted by the Erik Wemple Blog also haven’t coughed up any such reporting.
So is the Mother Jones piece a cheap shot? “It’s not a cheap shot,” replies O’Reilly. “It’s a lie.”
The thing is, he argues, no U.S. correspondents ever claimed to be on the ground in the Falklands, but they still may legitimately claim to have covered the war — albeit from Buenos Aires and other non-Falklands locales. “We were sent down there to cover the Falklands war. How else am I supposed to label it? And when you have people shooting guns, that’s combat. There isn’t any distinction to be made because I’ve never said that I was on the islands or that there was any action in that capacity. All I did was tell people what I did, and 100 percent of that is true. If you want to distort what I’ve said, as Corn does, then that is irresponsible, and that is a lie.”
In addition to witnessing the unrest in Buenos Aires after the surrender, O’Reilly speaks of covering the hostilities from Montevideo, Uruguay, where the wounded were rushed after the Argentines bombed the HMS Sheffield in May 1982. “It was an extension of the war,” says O’Reilly, who is also accused of over-remembering a report from an El Salvador war zone in 1981.
“If you want to split hairs, split hairs,” says O’Reilly, who says he’s not contemplating legal action against Mother Jones. “I’m a public figure. Why am I going to do that?”