Fox News host Bill O’Reilly did his best last night to disappear the controversy over his recollections of reporting he did on the Falkland Islands War in 1982. Like much stuff on “The O’Reilly Factor,” it was nicely produced and persuasive on its face. Yet it fell short of releasing the popular host from a factual vise that he himself is cranking tighter and tighter with each news cycle.
As first reported by Mother Jones last week (Disclosure: The wife of the Erik Wemple Blog is a Mother Jones employee), O’Reilly on various occasions has spoken of his reporting for CBS News in Argentina as “war zone” action and a “combat situation.” And he has also written that “many were killed” in a riot that occurred after the country’s military rulers surrendered to British forces after the Falklands debacle.
Last night’s segment included input from Don Browne, a former NBC News Miami bureau chief who oversaw the network’s coverage of various Latin American hotspots. In response to some leading questions from O’Reilly, Browne confirmed that the situation in Argentina itself — not to mention the faraway Falkland Islands — was tense and violent. Browne told the host:
As the war went badly, there were demonstrations every day. There were tanks in the street. It was a country at war. At first, it was casual. And it became more and more serious. And, as the military were losing badly, the populace began to turn on the military leadership.
Good commentary, if a bit irrelevant to the issues in front of O’Reilly. Though the footage aired by CBS News at the time — and re-aired last night on O’Reilly’s show — shows violence and a scary degree of civil unrest, it does not show what O’Reilly claimed in various interviews: that civilians were getting killed by security forces. In this 2009 interview, for example, the host said, “They were doing real bullets, they were just gunning people down in the streets.”
No account sampled by the Erik Wemple Blog corroborates such a telling. Numerous correspondents who were also in Buenos Aires at the time have also disputed O’Reilly’s version of a killing zone in Buenos Aires after the surrender. In his chat with Browne, O’Reilly addressed these discrepancies. “We couldn’t get casualty numbers because, as you know, it was a military dictatorship, and they don’t give that to you. But I saw people hit the ground hard,” said O’Reilly. “I saw them hauled off, put into ambulances and police vehicles. And the local reportage was that there were fatalities. We have not been able to say how many, all right? But I believe there were.”
The part about local reportage on fatalities repeats what O’Reilly told the Erik Wemple Blog over the weekend, though the famous host has yet to cite an actual local report that claims deaths from the confrontations. We consulted an Argentine historian likely to be familiar with the reporting of the local media. “There were incidents at May Square … and people slightly injured due to [gases] and anti riot munition, but not dead people,” wrote Federico Lorenz in an e-mail.
The Erik Wemple Blog last night asked Fox News whether O’Reilly could cite the outlets that reported the fatalities and how he knew about these reports if he left Buenos Aires shortly after the protests, as accounts have claimed. Fox News didn’t respond right away.
A far less consequential, but no less telling, anecdote relates to another towering claim by O’Reilly. In that 2009 interview, he says, “I was out there pretty much by myself because the other CBS News correspondents were hiding in the hotel.” That boast alone served to do two things: 1) Enlarge O’Reilly’s image as a heroic and fearless reporter at the expense of his then-colleagues; 2) Ensure that those former colleagues would go on the record to rebut the claim. Former CBS News correspondent Eric Engberg, for example, wrote in a recent Facebook post, “Somewhere it has been reported that O’Reilly has claimed he was the only CBS News reporter who had the courage to go into the street because the rest of us were hiding in our hotel. If he said such thing it is an absolute lie. Everyone was working in the street that night, the crews exhibiting their usual courage.”
On his show last night, O’Reilly softened his hotel-hideout claim a tad, asserting that he wasn’t certain that Engberg was not in the Plaza de Mayo when the commotion was unfolding. Noting that he was covering the protests “all day,” O’Reilly went on to say of Engberg, “ When I left the hotel, he was in the hotel. And when I ran the video back to feed to the Rather program, he was in the hotel.”
With that, O’Reilly reveals a great deal about his deductive sophistication. For all we know, Engberg was on the street before, while and after O’Reilly was gathering his protest string. We don’t really know for sure — and neither does O’Reilly. But that didn’t stop him from tossing out this extravagant allegation.