Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly, host of the highest-rated show in cable news, is under fire for reasons that are drawing comparisons to Brian Williams’ recent troubles. In case you haven’t had the time or inclination to sort through all the back-and-forth, here’s a simple guide to this affair.
* The basic charge — that O’Reilly exaggerated his record covering war — is true.
It all started with this article by David Corn and Daniel Schulman published in Mother Jones on Thursday, in which they detailed how on many occasions over the years, O’Reilly has characterized himself as a veteran of war reporting. Among the quotes they cited are times when O’Reilly said things like “I’ve reported on the ground in active war zones from El Salvador to the Falklands,” and “having survived a combat situation in Argentina during the Falklands war, I know that life-and-death decisions are made in a flash,” and “I was in a situation one time, in a war zone in Argentina, in the Falklands…” That O’Reilly said these things is not in question. But in fact, O’Reilly was never in the Falklands, and he never reported from any “combat situation.”
* O’Reilly’s defense of his original false statements is itself built on one falsehood and a bunch of claims that are questionable at best.
O’Reilly insists that everything he has said is true, because when he was working for CBS News he reported on a violent protest in Buenos Aires around the time of the Falklands war, and that constitutes a “combat situation” in a “war zone.” That part of the claim is absurd on its face; if covering a protest over a thousand miles away from where a war is being fought constitutes being in a “combat zone,” then that would mean that any reporter who covered an anti-war protest in Washington during the Iraq War was doing combat reporting.
Then there’s the matter of the protest itself. O’Reilly asserts that Argentine soldiers were “gunning people down in the streets” as evidence of how combat-esque the scene was; he wrote in one of his books that “many were killed.” But neither the story that CBS ran that evening nor any contemporaneous reporting mentions anyone being killed. The Post’s Erik Wemple has tried to substantiate O’Reilly’s claim, and been unable to do so. Former CBS reporters who were O’Reilly’s colleagues at the time have also disputed his description of the protest, which was certainly violent, but as far as we know, not actually deadly. But even if everything O’Reilly said about that protest was true, it wouldn’t mean that he had seen combat.
* O’Reilly can’t admit that he was wrong.
To the surprise of no one who is familiar with his modus operandi, O’Reilly has responded to the evidence against him with a stream of invective against anyone who contradicts him. He called David Corn a “guttersnipe liar,” and called CNN’s Brian Stelter, a media reporter whose sin was merely discussing this story, a “far-left zealot.” When a reporter from the New York Times called to get his comments on the story, he told her that if the article she wrote didn’t meet with his approval, he would retaliate against her. “I am coming after you with everything I have,” he said. “You can take it as a threat.”
So why not just say, “I may have mischaracterized things a few times” and move on? To understand why that’s impossible, you have to understand O’Reilly’s persona and the function he serves for his viewers. The central theme of The O’Reilly Factor is that the true America, represented by the elderly whites who make up his audience (the median age of his viewers is 72) is in an unending war with the forces of liberalism, secularism, and any number of other isms. Bill O’Reilly is a four-star general in that war, and the only way to win is to fight.
The allegedly liberal media are one of the key enemies in that war. You don’t negotiate with your enemies, you fight them. And so when O’Reilly is being criticized by the media, to admit that they might have a point would be to betray everything he stands for and that he has told his viewers night after night for the better part of two decades.
* The truth of the charges against him won’t matter.
Brian Williams got suspended from NBC News because his bosses feared that his tall tales had cost him credibility with his audience, which could lead that audience to go elsewhere for their news. O’Reilly and his boss, Fox News chief Roger Ailes, are not worried about damage to Bill O’Reilly’s credibility, or about his viewers deserting him. Their loyalty to him isn’t based on a spotless record of factual accuracy; it’s based on the fact that O’Reilly is a medium for their anger and resentments.
Night after night, he yells about the “pinheads” and other liberals who are destroying this great country, saying the things his viewers wish they could say and sticking it to the people they hate. If anything, this episode proves that the media are out to get him, and he has to stay strong and keep standing up to them.
* This is another demonstration of the inherent problem with the conservative media bubble.
Fox built its brand not just by convincing conservatives that it was a great place for them to get their news, but by telling them that the rest of the media can’t be trusted, so you almost have to get your news from Fox. In the last couple of years, however, what seemed like a great success of institution-building (including Fox and other media outlets) has begun to look less like a strength of the conservative movement and more like a liability. This was vividly illustrated in November 2012, when Republicans up to and including Mitt Romney convinced themselves that it was just impossible that the American electorate would grant Barack Obama a second term. Within that bubble, Obama was a failed president all right-thinking Americans rejected, and so he would of course lose badly on election day; they were genuinely shocked when the election turned out the way it did.
I haven’t yet seen any conservatives arguing that Bill O’Reilly is right, and that covering a violent protest 1,200 miles from a place where a war just ended is in fact seeing combat in a war zone (although I haven’t been watching Fox today, so maybe they have). But the farther they move from reality, the less able they are to make wise strategic decisions and find ways to persuade people who don’t already agree with them. And the more surprised they’ll be the next time they lose an election.