We’re seeing a fascinating pair of case studies on the importance (or not) of truth, context and conflict in journalism.
It’s pretty clear that Bill O’Reilly lied as certainly as Brian Williams did about the danger they faced in covering wars. Williams apologized as quickly as he was caught in his lie and soon took himself off the air, then was suspended by NBC News. O’Reilly has responded with bluster and name-calling, and Fox News issued a statement Sunday that it was in “full support” of O’Reilly.
At the end of this post, I’ll address the documentation of the accusations against O’Reilly (and the weakness of his response, which actually underscores the case against him). But first, I want to address the issues I see in the contrast between the two situations of TV stars caught in lies.
Let’s start with the similarities:
- Each man was caught lying about his experience covering war, particularly the personal danger he faced.
- Neither man was caught the first time he lied, so he just kept repeating the lie.
- Because they are TV stars, we have actual video of what they said.
But here are some differences:
NBC News is a news organization, priding itself on accuracy and promoting Williams as a trusted news source. Set aside whether you think it meets its standard of accuracy or how much you trusted Williams. The point is that this is how NBC News defined itself, with ads featuring Williams and boasting of a “powerful thing called trust.” Williams’ exposure for lying on the air was a contradiction of the network’s news division’s identity.*
On the other hand, Fox News is a partisan news organization, posturing itself in opposition to the “liberal media.” With the documentation of O’Reilly’s lies coming from a liberal magazine, Mother Jones, it’s easy for Fox and O’Reilly’s fans to view this through the prism of conflict through which Fox views everything. The extensive documentation, including O’Reilly’s actual voice on video, doesn’t matter. In its world view, Fox is always under attack from the liberal media, so this is just another attack.
As noted, O’Reilly was busted by another media organization, and a liberal one at that. He was able to rip David Corn, co-author of the Mother Jones story, as a liar and a “guttersnipe,” rather than addressing the substance of the story by Corn and Daniel Schulman. O’Reilly took the same approach when CBS colleagues who had been in Buenos Aires, the setting for one of his lies, said he wasn’t telling the truth: name-calling, rather than addressing the substance. News outlets are an easy target, even if your whole identity isn’t being an alternative to the media you call liberal.
Williams wasn’t caught by a rival media organization, which might have given him the opportunity to go on offense. Even without the framework of ideology, he could have cast a story by another network or the print media as an attack on him as the highest-rated anchor. But Williams was busted by veterans, first by a soldier who had actually been on the helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. When the whole context of the his most recent lie was an event honoring a veteran, Williams could hardly counter-attack. America loves our vets these days. Williams couldn’t win that fight if he had tried.
Williams had two aspects to his persona: the anchor you could trust and the fun-loving, storytelling personality who appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” “30 Rock,” and late-night shows with David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and Jon Stewart. No one cared much when the storyteller slipped his lie into a Letterman show, but when the lie made the evening news, spoken by the anchor we trust, a veteran spoke up to correct him, starting the whirlwind of response that led to his suspension.
O’Reilly, on the other hand, has just one persona: a blowhard who bullies the forces of evil he saw on the left. Truthfulness is hardly an issue for him. Mother Jones was not the first organization to catch O’Reilly in a lie. Now-Sen. Al Franken documented lots of O’Reilly lies in his book Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. O’Reilly countered by calling Franken a liar. The Tampa Bay Times’ PunditFact fact-checking operation has checked 17 statements by O’Reilly and found most of them to be “mostly false” or worse. He rated one “pants on fire,” five “false” ratings and three “mostly false,” compared to only two “true” ratings (four were “mostly true” and two “half-true”). None of the statements checked related to his career, though some related to claims about what he had or hadn’t said before.
(I presume if O’Reilly has responded to PunditFact at all, it has been to dismiss it as part of the liberal media, but MSNBC’s liberal host Rachel Maddow got similar results in fact-checking: Of 24 ratings, half were “mostly false” or worse. If you’re wondering, PunditFact has not fact-checked Williams or others broadcast network news anchors.)
The point is, no one tunes in to O’Reilly to get the truth. They tune in to hear his loudly stated opinions and to hear him confirm their view of the world (or they tune in to get mad at him for those things). You can be sure he wasn’t punished for those lies that PunditFact documented, and the lies documented by Mother Jones are unlikely to change O’Reilly’s standing with his network or his fans.
I wonder if Williams would have been punished (or punished just lightly) if he had been busted after telling his story on Letterman or in one of the other contexts where he lied before the evening newscast on Jan. 30. We are more forgiving of exaggeration (when we’re forgiving, we call lies “exaggeration”) in telling war stories in the informal setting of a talk show. It feels more like a bar conversation, where we all are prone to embellish.
I think commentary needs to be based on truth, even in telling personal stories. But I suspect in the public eye and in networks deciding whether and how to punish a lying star, that commentary — especially commentary that’s delivered as bluster — isn’t regarded as seriously as a news report. Too many commentators exaggerate the facts that support their arguments or make them appear exaggerated by ignoring or minimizing facts that contradict their arguments. Some of them argue positions that are lies themselves, contradicting all scientific research or years of economic experience, or recasting world or national events to fit their political viewpoints. In the feisty context of “The O’Reilly Factor,” a lie about personal history may seem more forgivable than in the context of a news story.
What’s likely to happen?
I don’t expect anything to happen to O’Reilly based on what’s been revealed so far. But if more sources reveal more lies about his personal story, I don’t think anyone is completely invulnerable to losing credibility.
Fox’s own media reporter, Howard Kurtz, was surprisingly gentle in his initial assessment of the Mother Jones case against O’Reilly, parroting O’Reilly’s charge that Corn is a liar and a “smear merchant.” Kurtz repeated O’Reilly’s statement that “Nobody was on the Falklands and I never said I was on the island, ever,” without correcting that multiple Fox clips have him saying he was “in the Falklands.”
Kurtz was soft again with O’Reilly on Sunday’s “Media Buzz” show, interviewing O’Reilly by phone and letting his guest become the interviewer. O’Reilly practically took over the show, badgering his colleague to try to get Kurtz to join him in accusing CBS colleagues of plagiarism. Kurtz didn’t do anything as brash as to play the Fox clips of O’Reilly saying he was “in the Falklands” and asking him to explain them.
Maybe Kurtz will continue to protect his colleague, but if a tipster points him to further lies by O’Reilly, might Kurtz, who used to be a solid and independent media reporter and critic, do his own investigation and break his own scoop, that might be harder to dismiss?
Surely someone as abrasive as O’Reilly has annoyed people on the right as well as the left. Someone in the right-wing media might document other lies by O’Reilly and be harder to dismiss as an attack by liberal media.
Maybe Jon Stewart will take on O’Reilly this week (if he’s doing new shows this week), highlighting the Mother Jones work, but expanding to other statements with the devastating mix of documentation and humor that marks “The Daily Show.” Fox routinely dismisses Stewart’s documentation of its lies, but maybe a powerful “Daily Show” piece could start a snowball rolling.
An accumulation of lies, if more exposures follow, could cause some sort of Fox discipline of O’Reilly or could even force him into some personal humility or apology.
More likely, I expect that O’Reilly will skate, continuing his show unaffected by the documentation of his lies. This story has probably already peaked.
Even the New York Times, which O’Reilly sneered at on Kurtz’s show for being liberal, let O’Reilly off with a tame story that was mostly about O’Reilly’s counterattack. Times reporter Emily Steel used O’Reilly’s claim that he never said he was in the Falklands without noting (or using) the Fox clips of him actually saying that.
O’Reilly wouldn’t be the first star to escape serious punishment for dishonesty. Mitch Albom was too big a star at the Detroit Free Press to be fired after he fabricated part of a column 10 years ago and Fareed Zakaria continues to host a show on CNN despite extensive documentation of plagiarism.
Of course, another significant difference between the two cases is that Williams has admitted he was wrong and O’Reilly claims he has told the truth.
I don’t have to address the Williams lie here since he admitted it (he admitted “conflating,” not lying), but I will address some detail on O’Reilly. I’m not going to call this an allegation that he lied. It’s a lie. All you have to do is watch the clips of him saying he was in the Falklands and then listen to him saying he never said that to know it’a a lie.
Despite his general denial and his attacks on Corn, the documents he cited in his response to Mother Jones (in the video at the end of this post) actually supported the Mother Jones case.
To understand the case against O’Reilly, read the original Mother Jones story and the questions that Mother Jones sent to Fox (which he still hasn’t answered). But also read the Media Matters documentation of O’Reilly’s references to his coverage of the Falklands War, which included two references to being “in the Falklands,” directly contradicting his claim that he never said he was there.
You can see one of the clips early in this Huffington Post piece, where O’Reilly clearly says the incident where he saved the photographer was “in the Falklands.”
If you want to understand why I know O’Reilly is lying, you also should read or watch his response to Corn. Again, he repeated the lie contradicted by Fox clips: “I never said I was on the Falkland Islands.” He hasn’t admitted that he misspoke and said “in the Falklands.” He just denies saying what he very clearly said.
O’Reilly triumphantly cited documentation he had dug out of old CBS files: a 1982 cable sent from the CBS news desk in New York to the bureau chief in Buenos Aires (as close as O’Reilly got to the Falklands) and a message O’Reilly wrote to his CBS News boss about an incident he had covered in Buenos Aires after the end of the Falklands War.
O’Reilly cited the two documents as though Corn had contended that O’Reilly had never been in Buenos Aires or had not covered the event. But the Mother Jones piece accusations about the incident in Buenos Aires were:
- O’Reilly had claimed to be in a “war zone” and a “combat situation” in covering the Falklands War.
- O’Reilly claimed to drag a photographer who was bleeding from the ear to safety during the incident.
- O’Reilly claimed in 2001 “many were killed” in the incident, though neither the CBS report nor any other media reports mentioned fatalities.
The quotes O’Reilly cited from the 1982 documents didn’t support O’Reilly’s claims in any of those points:
- Rather than any reference to combat or war, both documents refer to a “riot.” A riot may be scary, but it’s not a war and it’s not combat. Imagine the scorn from O’Reilly if a “liberal media” reporter covering Vietnam protests or Ferguson demonstrations this summer had claimed combat experience.
- Neither message mentions an injured photographer.
- Neither message mentions fatalities in the riot.
In his interview with Kurtz Sunday morning, O’Reilly read from a New York Times story that described the riot as though it proved his point. But the Times story, which mentioned a few shots being fired, never described the situation as combat and referred to injuries but no fatalities.
If someone dragged you to safety in a “combat situation,” don’t you think you’d rise to that person’s defense if he were under attack for lying about it?
Well, the photographer, Roberto Moreno, declined to comment on the incident for a CNN story. Update: Moreno still has not commented. But Ignacio Medrano-Carbo has told Mother Jones he was working with O’Reilly as a cameraman the night of the Buenos Aires riot. Though they were not always physically together, Medrano-Carbo said he shot the footage used in O’Reilly’s report. Moreno was not yet a cameraman but worked as a sound technician in Buenos Aires, Medrano said. (He speculated that the similar names might have caused some confusion for O’Reilly.) Medrano-Carbo told Mother Jones he was never injured, in danger or rescued by O’Reilly. “I never fell nor was I bleeding out my ear at any time during my Buenos Aires assignment.”
But Other CBS colleagues who were in Buenos Aires contradicted O’Reilly on multiple points in the CNN story, including saying that no one was injured and no injury report was filed. Former CBS correspondent Eric Jon Engberg contradicted O’Reilly in a detailed post on Facebook.
Corn provided a detailed annotation of the O’Reilly response, but the bottom line is that O’Reilly didn’t refute a single accusation against him in the Mother Jones story.
In fact, O’Reilly hasn’t even addressed the contradiction between O’Reilly’s claims about his reporting during the El Salvador war and his own report for CBS from the war.
There’s simply no doubt that O’Reilly lied, as documented by Mother Jones. The doubt is whether that matters. Apparently, it doesn’t matter to Fox News.
* In the most notable previous illustration on NBC News’ view of itself as an organization committed to telling the truth, the 1993 incident of rigging an explosion of a pickup truck in a crash test for a “Dateline NBC” story resulted in the resignations of the NBC News president and three producers and a demotion for a correspondent.