Bill O’Reilly and Fox News seem to have decided that the best defense is a good offense. A lot of offense.
Faced with accusations that he exaggerated some of his reporting exploits over the years, the combative cable news star has gone into full battle mode, employing the public relations equivalent of the nuclear option.
Since Mother Jones magazine published its story about O’Reilly’s claims last Thursday, O’Reilly has done far more than deny the allegations. He has called the story “slander” and labeled its principal author, David Corn, “a liar” and “a guttersnipe.” In one of the numerous interviews he has done with reporters, O’Reilly suggested that Corn should be put in “the kill zone” for his story.
He’s also been pushing around the reporters reporting the fallout. O’Reilly began an interview with this newspaper last week by saying, “I’m recording this, so you’d better report this accurately.” On Monday, he made his intent explicit, warning a New York Times reporter that if the coverage was inaccurate or inappropriate, “I am coming after you with everything I have. You can take it as a threat.”
This may not be the best way to make a crisis go away. And indeed, O’Reilly may not want it to.
O’Reilly’s aggressive statements have kept the Mother Jones story in the news for several days, which may have fueled a mini-bump in his ratings. The O’Reilly-hosted “O’Reilly Factor” attracted 3.33 million viewers on Monday night after several days of headlines, a 10 percent increase over his average for the month.
But O’Reilly’s tactics have also attracted more attention to the article’s central assertion: that O’Reilly has said on various occasions that he was in “a war zone” and “in the Falklands” when he was covering the British-Argentine conflict as a CBS News reporter in 1982.
O’Reilly’s former colleagues at CBS have said he never reported from the remote islands during the war; O’Reilly has said he was referring to his coverage of a postwar demonstration in Buenos Aires that turned violent. Mother Jones, as well as O’Reilly’s former CBS colleagues, have disputed O’Reilly’s claim that the riot represented “a war zone” and that Argentine soldiers “slaughtered” civilians during the demonstration. They have also questioned O’Reilly’s repeated claim that he was “in the Falklands” when he acknowledges that the closest he came, Buenos Aires, is 1,200 miles away.
O’Reilly, of course, has begged to differ, and in no uncertain terms.
In doing so, he has reversed the usual crisis-management strategy, which is to recite the facts clearly and simply and then get out of the way, said Lanny Davis, the veteran Washington crisis manager who advised President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Redskins owner Daniel Snyder on the team’s controversial name, among a string of high-profile cases.
“I would have advised Bill to get out all the facts about what happened first before attacking,” said Davis, who has appeared many times on O’Reilly’s show and considers him a friend. “You can’t avoid the facts, so get them out there. And if you made a mistake, admit it quickly.”
Davis also advises his clients against attacking an accuser’s motives. “Even if you’re right, it looks like you’re changing the subject or avoiding the merits of the case,” he said.
Although the two situations aren’t entirely analogous, Fox’s response to the Mother Jones story is in stark contrast to NBC News’ reaction to allegations surrounding Brian Williams, its lead anchor. When first challenged late last month about the authenticity of his stories about coming under fire during the Iraq war, Williams apologized and said little else. When further allegations emerged, NBC launched an investigation, and Williams voluntarily took himself off the air. Six days after the story emerged, NBC suspended him without pay for six months, effectively putting an end to the story.
By contrast, Fox has given no indication that it intends to investigate O’Reilly’s Falklands statements, let alone discipline him for them. The network issued a one-sentence statement over the weekend: “Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes and all senior management are in full support of Bill O’Reilly.”
That suggests O’Reilly and Ailes may even view the controversy surrounding their star not as a crisis but as a brand-building opportunity, said a New York communications specialist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he works with several TV networks. The executive said O’Reilly’s attack strategy is in keeping with his pugilistic image and with Fox News’ self-promotion as the “fair and balanced” alternative to the liberal media. By making the avowedly liberal Corn and Mother Jones the issue, “Fox News has turned this into another partisan shouting match,” he said.
Fox insiders say neither O’Reilly nor Fox intended to prolong the story by making his threatening comment to New York Times reporter Emily Steel on Monday. But they said O’Reilly had no plans to apologize, either.
Nor does Corn have much hope that the network will apologize to him for O’Reilly’s suggestion that the Mother Jones writer should be in “the kill zone.” (O’Reilly has called that statement “simply a slang expression.”)
“In any other media enterprise, if [an employee] said a reporter should be ‘put in a kill zone,’ it would cause the company to review, or maybe to issue a statement distancing themselves from the comment,” said Corn, a former Fox contributor. “Can you imagine how crazy Fox would go if [CNN host] Anderson Cooper said Bill O’Reilly should be put in the kill zone?”
Added Corn: “It seems clear to me that his strategy is to throw anything he can against this and hope volume trumps the facts. I’m dealing with the facts. That’s not what they’ve chosen to do. This feels more to me like a political campaign than a truth-discerning mission.”