Fox News host Bill O’Reilly did his utmost at week’s end to discredit a Mother Jones story on his alleged embellishments of his reporting from Argentina in 1982. After the story by David Corn and Daniel Schulman hit the Internet on Thursday afternoon, the famous TV personality spent hours on the phone with reporters blasting it. “David Corn is a guttersnipe liar,” O’Reilly told this blog. And on his show last night, he repeated the attacks.
The apparent goal of O’Reilly’s frenzy was to keep the story from breaking into the next week.
A Facebook posting by a former CBS News correspondent, however, appears likely to keep the questions flowing toward the O’Reilly camp. An extensive rant by Eric Jon Engberg, who served as a CBS News correspondent for 27 years, calls into question several of O’Reilly’s statements about the reporting — and O’Reilly’s subsequent recollections of it.
To establish his bona fides in fact-checking O’Reilly, Engberg notes, “I can provide some eyewitness information on this matter because I was one of the correspondents in Buenos Aires with O’Reilly and the rest of the rather large staff of CBS News people who were there ‘covering’ the war,” writes Engberg, noting that he and other U.S. correspondents were hundreds of miles away from the battles of the Falkland Islands war, between the United Kingdom and Argentina. For a sample of Engberg’s reporting on the conflict, click here.
The 11-paragraph posting takes issue with a couple of O’Reilly statements over the years looking back on his Argentine exploits. Here’s a breakdown:
• O’Reilly claimed that in a protest following the Argentine surrender to the British in mid-June 1982, there was so much chaos and violence that they had to come to the aid of a cameraman: “The camera went flying. I saved the tape because it was unbelievable tape. But I dragged him off the street because he was bleeding from the ear and had hit his head on the concrete. … The sound man is trying to save the camera … And then the army comes running down and the guy points the M-16. And I’m going, ‘Periodista, no dispare,’ which means, ‘Journalist, don’t shoot.’ And I said, ‘Por favor.’ Please don’t shoot…Then the guy lowered his gun and went away.”
Engberg: “The only place where such an injury could have occurred was the relatively tame riot I have described above. Neither [Larry] Doyle, who would have been immediately informed of injury to any CBS personnel, nor anyone else who was working the story remembers a cameraman being injured that night. No one who reported back to our hotel newsroom after the disturbance was injured; if a cameraman had been ‘bleeding from the ear’ he would have immediately reported that to his superiors at the hotel.” This allegation on O’Reilly’s part, alleges Engberg, is “not credible without further confirmation.” Further, he calls on O’Reilly to identify the cameraman as a way of allowing the vetting of the story.
Yesterday, the Erik Wemple Blog asked Fox News for his name, and received word that it was Roberto Moreno. According to this story in the Sun Sentinel, Moreno covered various international hotspots for CBS News in the 1980s and 1990s before leaving in 2000. Though the story recounts dicey moments from the careers of Moreno and his wife, Viviana Moreno — including from the Persian Gulf war, Russia and Nicaragua — there’s no mention of a bloody moment on the streets of Buenos Aires. The Erik Wemple Blog has spent much of the afternoon attempting to reach Moreno and will update if we break through.
• O’Reilly has written in his book “No Spin Zone” that “many were killed” in the post-surrender protest, a claim that magnifies his own courage in reporting from the melee. Neither Mother Jones nor many others, including the Erik Wemple Blog, has been able to substantiate any deaths from the protest.
The gunfire reported by O’Reilly is equally suspicious. One of our camera crews reported that they believed the Argentine police or army had fired a few rubber bullets at the crowd. That was the only report we received of weapons being fired that night. The crowd had been confined to a relatively small area around the president’s palace. It wasn’t like there were protests going on all over the city. I did see soldiers armed with rifles on guard around the presidential palace. But they did not take aim at the crowd and I heard no gunfire. No one I talked to as the crowd was breaking up told me they heard gunfire. O’Reilly’s claim that the army fired weapons into the crowd is not supported by anyone’s recollection. Had that happened, I believe, the riot would have escalated into an uncontrollable attack on government buildings all over the capital. Nothing like that happened. Actually, the military chiefs, yielding to the public outcry over the war’s outcome, were willing to give up their offices, which they did the next day.
Other parts of the Engberg post seek to advance the case that O’Reilly was a stubborn rogue, a case that needs no further corroboration. For instance, the CBS News Buenos Aires bureau chief Larry Doyle instructed the crews not to use their lights on the night of the protest, the better to avoid attracting “potentially violent people.” O’Reilly flouted the instructions, pushing his camera to use his light. “When Doyle looked at the tape shot by O’Reilly’s cameraman he saw that the video included stand-ups — on camera description by the reporter — which O’Reilly had ordered the cameraman to shoot — with his light on. Doyle was further upset by this tape, which clearly showed that his orders on lights had been unilaterally violated by O’Reilly. The issue here was safety,” writes Engberg. Anyone who’s read even a cursory biography of the King of Cable News knows that stunts just like this one vaulted O’Reilly from one TV outlet to the next over a far-flung career.
Perhaps not as far-flung as O’Reilly likes to claim, however.
For all his rips against O’Reilly, Engberg concludes that his apparent embellishments do not place him in the category of NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, who is currently under a six-month suspension for his distortions. “I don’t think it’s as big a lie as Brian Williams told because O’Reilly hasn’t falsely claimed to be the target of an enemy attack, but he has displayed a willingness to twist the truth in a way that seeks to invent a battlefield that did not exist,” writes Engberg.
Agreed. Williams appears to have laid down exaggerations and embellishments no matter the topic. O’Reilly, by contrast, appears to have an Argentina problem.
The broadside from Engberg knocks out a leg from O’Reilly’s counter-argument. In his Friday night program, he sought to stabilize himself by ripping Mother Jones and its Washington bureau chief: “This man, 56-year-old David Corn, who works for the far left magazine ‘Mother Jones,’ smeared me, your humble correspondent yesterday, saying I fabricated some war reporting. ‘Mother Jones’ which has low circulation, considered by many the bottom rung of journalism in America.” Now that a nearly three-decade CBS News correspondent has spoken up, O’Reilly will have to find a new defense.
(Disclosure: The wife of the Erik Wemple Blog works for Mother Jones).
Update: Fox News has released a statement: “The O’Reilly Factor invited Eric Engberg to appear on the program this Monday and he refused. The O’Reilly Factor has also contacted CBS news and asked them to release the footage in question. Bill O’Reilly wll address Engberg’s claims on Mediabuzz with Howard Kurtz tomorrow at 11:00 am ET.”