* Updated with statement from Fox News (3:50 p.m.).
The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the speechfest-cum-party for right-wing America now playing out in National Harbor, isn’t really Bill O’Reilly’s crowd. He has long disavowed conservative orthodoxy and plays himself up as an untethered and incorruptible thinker. “I’m not a political guy in the sense that I embrace an ideology,” O’Reilly once told Terry Gross in a classic edition of “Fresh Air.” “To this day I’m an independent thinker, I’m an independent voter, I’m a registered independent.”
Yet on just about every edition of “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News, the host beats up on liberals, a consistent record that has endeared him to a CPAC crowd that might feel a tighter affiliation with O’Reilly’s prime-time colleague Sean Hannity, who yesterday did a remarkable job of engaging the crowd in the cavernous main ballroom of the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center. And in a highly unscientific poll conducted on the premises yesterday by the Erik Wemple Blog, attendees expressed confidence in the defenses cited by O’Reilly and Fox News to charges that the host embellished or fabricated facets of his reporting history.
A quick summary of the central allegations:
• O’Reilly said that “many were killed” in a June 1982 Buenos Aires protest following the Falkland Islands war that he covered as a CBS News correspondent; news accounts from the time cite injuries and mayhem, but no deaths.
• O’Reilly said that he’d been nearby for the March 1977 Florida suicide of a friend of Lee Harvey Oswald; former colleagues from that time say no way.
• O’Reilly once claimed, “I’ve seen guys gun down nuns in El Salvador” — a statement contradicted by … O’Reilly.
• O’Reilly said he’d endured a bombardment of “bricks and stones” while covering the 1992 Los Angeles riots for Inside Edition; former colleagues say that’s not true.
The host has responded directly to several of the charges, and Fox News issued this rebuttal statement: “Bill O’Reilly has already addressed several claims leveled against him. This is nothing more than an orchestrated campaign by far left advocates Mother Jones and Media Matters. Responding to the unproven accusation du jour has become an exercise in futility. FOX News maintains its staunch support of O’Reilly, who is no stranger to calculated onslaughts.”
CPAC attendees yesterday struck a similar tone, collectively voicing a variation on this Philippe Reines classic: “Is it possible to be quoted yawning?”
Josh Kaib, a 23-year-old self-described “new media person,” said, “Something that happened 30 years ago doesn’t change the way I think about him. Things are being blown out of proportion by people like David Corn who have a vested interest” in doing so, said Kaib, who professes to rely on O’Reilly for “entertainment and analysis.” (Disclosure: Corn is the co-author of the Mother Jones story on O’Reilly’s Argentina claims and is the boss of the Erik Wemple Blog’s wife).
Though this survey is entirely unscientific, Kaib appeared to represent a big CPAC demographic of young and college-age conservatives who are standing by the King of Cable News. Certainly the negative reports haven’t budged University of Florida student Daniel Davy. “Anybody who with honesty and an open perspective is integrous with the truth deserves respect,” said Davy. Keira Hornyak, a 20-year-old University of Florida student, compliments the host: “He stands behind what he says. … He says it as it is — I love that.” Danielle Donahue, a student at West Chester University, said, “He just said he covered the war, and he defended what he said.”
Aida Zayas of Miami, a CPAC attendee who declined to give her age, was informed of all aspects of the O’Reilly fact-checking movement — and she shouted it down on every point. On the discrepancy over the fatalities in the Argentine protest, Zayas railed, “Do we know for a fact whether there were dead bodies?” Echoing the position of Fox News and O’Reilly that the charges are politically motivated, Zayas pinned the claims on a “liberal media” that will “obsess” over such matters. “I trust that he has his heart in it and that he feels he’s looking out for us,” said Zayas.
Accompanying Zayas was a woman who made distasteful facial expressions when asked about O’Reilly and hinted that she didn’t like the man too much. But she declined to go on record with her thoughts. O’Reilly would probably call her a “coward.”
Sentiment was decidedly pro-O’Reilly among some brand-names roaming the CPAC corridors. Lou Dobbs of Fox Business was happy to address the matter: “As I’ve read it, somebody went after him and it turns out that they were wrong. … He’s the real deal. A lot of people are jealous of him, they don’t like him, hate his politics. But the reality is, he represents, in my opinion, the very best of journalism.”
Fox News contributor Allen West, a former congressman from Florida, said of the O’Reilly critique, “That’s all been debunked,” and charged that the stories were payback to the embellishing/lying scandal of now-suspended NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. “Let’s go pick on one of theirs,” said West, summing up the motivation behind O’Reilly’s detractors.
Of all the O’Reilly quippers, none quipped quite so gloriously as Newt Gingrich, a CNN commentator and former Fox News contributor. The Erik Wemple Blog asked the former House speaker whether he’d consider going on O’Reilly’s show in light of the recent charges. Gingrich wondered aloud whether we were kidding, then said, “Would I talk to a newspaper that’s had to retract an entire Pulitzer Prize-winning series?” — a reference to the three-decades-ago Washington Post scandal over Janet Cooke’s story “Jimmy’s World.”