Fox News host Bill O’Reilly has established himself as King of Cable News in part through a second-to-none presence in front of the camera. Who knew that he was nearly as compelling over the phone?
On the Fox News program “MediaBuzz,” O’Reilly participated in a telephone blast against a former CBS News journalist who criticized the Fox News eminence in a recent Facebook post. Eric Engberg, a 27-year veteran of the network, wrote that he covered the Falkland Islands War from Buenos Aires along with O’Reilly back in 1982 and supported the critique in a Thursday story in Mother Jones that pointed to apparent discrepancies in O’Reilly’s various recollections of that coverage.
“He is misrepresenting the situation he covered, and he is obviously doing so to burnish his credentials as a ‘war correspondent,’ which is not the work he was performing during the Falklands war,” wrote Engberg.
In an extensive discussion with “MediaBuzz” host Howard Kurtz, O’Reilly cited a nickname for Engberg: “Room service Eric,” he said, by way of ripping the former correspondent.
“I don’t think he was there,” says O’Reilly. “I don’t think he knows what happened.” “There,” in this case, refers to the chaotic streets of Buenos Aires one day in mid-June 1982, right after the Argentine military government had surrendered to the British, marking the end of a pitiful attempt to save its political hide after about six years of ruinous rule.
As pointed out by David Corn and Daniel Schulman in their Mother Jones story, O’Reilly has a certain memory of the protests: “Many were killed,” writes the famous Fox host in his book “The No Spin Zone: Confrontations with the Powerful and Famous in America.” He has referred to the mayhem as a “combat situation.”
Engberg, on the other hand, called it a “relatively tame riot” in his Facebook post.
Oh yeah? asked O’Reilly, in effect, on his phoner with Kurtz. The former CBS News correspondent read extensively from a news story by Richard J. Meislin of the New York Times on June 16, 1982:
As the crowd chanted increasingly bitter invective at the Government before the speech – reflecting the sorrow, anger and disbelief of the public here over the loss – the police in riot gear moved in, firing tear-gas canisters and roaring through the Plaza de Mayo on motorcycles.
Hundreds fled to the side streets, shouting obscenities at the police as acrid gas filled the air. Others ripped down wooden street signs and set them afire in the plaza. Fires appeared in several nearby intersections as demonstrators threw wastebaskets into them and then set them ablaze to slow the police….
Chants of ”Argentina! Argentina!” and the whine of police sirens echoed off the buildings of the business district as police trucks moved in. One large gray van pulled into an intersection a block from the plaza, and policemen emerged, seizing anyone they could. One policeman pulled a pistol, firing five shots over the heads of fleeing demonstrators.
The leaders of 10 political parties, in a statement tonight, denounced the police action as ”brutal repression” and a ”flagrant violation of the public faith.”
Officials gave no arrest figures, but they appeared to number in the dozens. Several demonstrators were reported to have been injured, along with at least two reporters.
Local news agencies said three buses had been set ablaze by demonstrators and another one fired upon.
When Kurtz noted that Engberg was “suspicious” of O’Reilly’s account of the unrest, O’Reilly snapped back: “He’s suspicious of the New York Times, then. Not me. They reported that.” And with that, another iteration of what the Erik Wemple Blog calls the “New York Times Paradox” among right-leaning news outlets: When the New York Times reports something inconvenient, it’s liberal fishwrap; when it reports something convenient, hey, it’s the NEW YORK TIMES.
Following Engberg’s post on Facebook, “The O’Reilly Factor” invited him to appear on the show on Monday night. He declined. “If anybody contradicts what I have said about my reportage, they need to come on my program and look me in the eye. Eric Engberg is a coward,” said O’Reilly. True that if Engberg wants to take a big shot at O’Reilly on Facebook, he, too, should be willing to do likewise on O’Reilly’s show, the host’s reputation for harshness notwithstanding.
Wrapping things up, Kurtz asked O’Reilly this question: “Seems to me in my analysis of this, of the Mother Jones piece — ultimately if you boil it down, comes down to this semantic question: You’ve have said you covered a combat situation in Argentina during the Falklands War, you said the war zones of the Falkland conflict in Argentina. Looking back, do you wish you had worded it differently?”
O’Reilly: “No. When you have soldiers, and military police, firing into the crowd, as the New York Times reports, and you have people injured and hurt and you’re in the middle of that, that’s the definition, all right. This is splitting hairs trying anything they can to bring down me because of the Brian Williams situation. That’s exactly what it is.”
Nor is O’Reilly finished. “I got calls into Dan Rather,” he says, noting that he also wants former CBS News President Van Gordon Sauter to appear. He’s asked CBS News for the footage of the protests as well. At various points he spoke of a “smear” against him and an attempt to “impugn” his career. For good measure, he rapped Corn again, good: “He is a hatchet man, you know he is. He’s an apparatchik from the far left.” (Disclosure: The Erik Wemple Blog’s wife is a staff writer at Mother Jones).
Amid all the talk of room service and ideologically driven journalism, Kurtz and O’Reilly conveniently managed to sidestep the pivotal matter of whether there were any fatalities at the protests. O’Reilly says there were “many”; Mother Jones and others have said there were none, or at least none that were reported at the time.
How to break this deadlock? Perhaps by referring to the report that O’Reilly appears to cite as an authoritative summary: Meislin’s New York Times piece. It is titled, “THOUSANDS IN BUENOS AIRES ASSAIL JUNTA FOR SURRENDERING TO BRITAIN.” And it summarizes the human toll this way: “Officials gave no arrest figures, but they appeared to number in the dozens. Several demonstrators were reported to have been injured, along with at least two reporters.” No mention of anyone killed.
That very same New York Times account was cited in the Mother Jones story accusing O’Reilly of stretching the truth. Good to see both sides of this one coming together on something.
When we asked about the claimed deaths, O’Reilly said through a spokeswoman, “Fatalities were reported locally, the military government refused to provide any information on injuries, arrests etc. I saw folks hit the ground and stay there but no one could get info from the Galtieri crew.”