Over the past 10 days, the Erik Wemple Blog has written two posts questioning a key passage in the 2015 book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, “Killing Reagan.” The passage posited that then-ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson confronted President Ronald Reagan at a photo op on Aug. 1, 1984, at his Rancho del Cielo in California. In classic “Killing”-series hyperbole, the authors wrote that after Reagan stumbled a bit on a question, Donaldson “smells blood” and then moves to “full confrontational mode.”
An Oct. 15 post on this blog noted that Donaldson claims he wasn’t there for this alleged confrontation. Instead, he was in Santa Barbara with other members of the press corps; a small pool of journalists were at the ranch for the photo op. Charles Bierbauer, who covered Reagan for CNN, told this blog that he was the fellow asking these “confrontational” questions of Reagan. Then, last Thursday, we posted another item with video of the incident plus an ABC News transcript from 1984 supporting Donaldson’s recollection that he wasn’t there for the Q & A session, let alone its protagonist.
On Friday night, O’Reilly addressed the matter on his Fox News program “The O’Reilly Factor,” a moment that was paired with a written response from co-author Dugard on the website of the book’s publisher. Through it all, the Erik Wemple Blog was able to glean a full-fledged Bill O’Reilly Code of Journalistic Ethics. Here goes:
Rule No. 1: Deprive your viewers of details, the better to keep them in the dark. On his show Friday night, O’Reilly said the following about this issue:
And finally tonight, “The Factor” “Tip of the Day”: Recently I told you, it’s better to ignore small, annoying stuff. Remember that? So now, I’m following my own advice. The Washington Post pays a guy to blog who simply attacks Fox News all day long. All right? They pay the guy to do that. But the problem is, sometimes his garbage — and it’s garbage — [gets] picked up by other outlets. Latest is an attack on “Killing Reagan.” And I’m ignoring it but Martin Dugard, my co-author is not ignoring it. So, if you care it all, and I’m sure you don’t, you can go to BillOReilly.com, and link on over to the Marty’s response which is publishers website.
Who’s this “guy”?
Rule No. 2: Stonewall for as long as possible. We began seeking comment from O’Reilly & Co. on Oct. 14. No response. We published the first post on Oct. 15. No response. Five days later, we published a new post with the video. Other outlets picked up on it. Finally, O’Reilly responds, though not directly to the Erik Wemple Blog. The pattern? Ignore unwelcome and unflattering attention until it becomes impossible.
Rule No. 3: Conspiracy theories always beat actual reporting. In his letter to O’Reilly responding to the allegations, Dugard supposes that the Erik Wemple Blog is doing the bidding of Washington Post Publisher Fred Ryan Jr., who is chairman of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, “a body dedicated to the veneration of Ronald Reagan.” “Killing Reagan” argues that the March 1981 assassination hobbled the president for the rest of his life, a contention that Reagan scholars and backers have contested. Accordingly: Dugard writes of this blog’s motivations: “No doubt the focus of his reportage is either directed by, or an attempt to pander to” Ryan.
Had Dugard contacted the Erik Wemple Blog, he might have discovered the real provenance of this blog post: A phone chat with Donaldson that started out with a focus on coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign, only to drift into “Killing Reagan” territory.
Rule No. 4: One anonymous source is more reliable than two on-the-record sources and documentary evidence. We have two on-the-record sources plus an ABC News transcript to show that Donaldson was, in fact, not the fellow who was asking questions of Reagan on that long-ago summer day. Here’s the sourcing for “Killing Reagan,” as articulated in Dugard’s letter: “As for who asked the questions, I take full responsibility for naming Sam Donaldson as the interviewer. My source is a well known veteran journalist. I will not drag this individual into this, knowing Mr. Wemple will only utilize that to further pursue an attack on Killing Reagan that is trivial at best, and at least a year past its expiration date,” writes Dugard.
As for the bolded part, don’t worry, Dugard: O’Reilly & Co. generate enough idiocies every week to keep this blog plenty occupied.
Rule No. 5: Obfuscate. In the session with journalists, Reagan had no answer for Bierbauer’s questions, at which point Nancy Reagan suggested one sotto voce. A mic picked up her words, and Reagan repeated them verbatim. This part of the episode is explained accurately in “Killing Reagan,” and this blog has never taken issue with that aspect of things; we’ve only contested the assertions in “Killing Reagan” that Donaldson was asking the questions and that it was an out-for-blood exchange. Even so, Dugard attempts to cloud the issue: “To be clear: This incident occurred. I am not sure if Mr. Wemple is trying to prove President Reagan did not have a slip, or that the moment never took place, but the video is irrefutable proof.”