As we reported here last week, Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly is having his Brian Williams outrage fed back to him with toxic mustard on it by Mother Jones' David Corn, who has compiled a Bill-o-pedia's worth of documentation on O'Reilly's claims about harrowing experiences as a Falklands war correspondent, among other things. The problem is, those claims are contradicted by real reporting from the time period, as well as by O'Reilly's own words.
Whatever you think of David Corn's motivations (which are quite nakedly wrapped up in the hypocrisy of O'Reilly's gleeful excoriation of Brian Williams), his piece on O'Reilly is exhaustively researched, containing quotes with citations, video of O'Reilly's various claims to have rescued a cameraman while he was "in a war zone in Argentina, in the Falklands," and video of O'Reilly's own CBS reports from the Falklands War era. Corn doesn't seem to be hiding his contempt for O'Reilly, but the reporting consists mostly of O'Reilly's own words, and facts about what reporters were actually doing at the time.
Without getting too far into the weeds (read Corn's pieces for a thorough examination of O'Reilly's war fabulism), O'Reilly is a proven liar by his own tongue. Here's just one example, the only one we need, in which O'Reilly says, with his own mouth, that he remembered rescuing his cameraman while he was in the Falklands:
"I was in a situation one time, in a war zone in Argentina, in the Falklands, where my photographer got run down and then hit his head and was bleeding from the ear on the concrete. And the army was chasing us."
But in an interview last week, O'Reilly said "I was not on the Falkland Islands," which should make this case closed. O'Reilly was lying, or misstating, or whatever Brian Williams was doing, when he claimed he was in the Falklands.
Context is important, though, so here's all of what O'Reilly said about that claim to Politico's Dylan Byers:
"I was not on the Falkland Islands and I never said I was. I was in Buenos Aires... In Buenos Aires we were in a combat situation after the Argentines surrendered."
"It was clear that I did not say I was in the Falkland Islands. I've done myriad interviews over the years and I never said that," O'Reilly told On Media.
And here's what O'Reilly told TV Newser:
"I never said I was on the Falkland Islands, nobody was."
Of course, this was only after David Corn reported that there were no American reporters in the Falklands during the war. If you're clicking on those links to get a look at how those reporters jumped all over O'Reilly for saying he never claimed to have been in the Falklands when Corn clearly showed video of him claiming that, stop wasting you time. They didn't do it. In fact, neither Politico nor TV Newser, nor any of the websites O'Reilly reached out to to trash Corn, asked him any followups about the video and documentary evidence contradicting what he was telling them. All treated the story as if it were O'Reilly's word against Corn's.
Now, I want to be clear that Bill O'Reilly should not be held to the same standard as Brian Williams; as a Fox News personality, lying is just part of a job well done. It is particularly delicious to note this specific episode in light of his attacks on Williams, but that's not my main gripe here. Just as NBC News made a mockery of itself by failing to act as a transparent news source during the Williams affair, the outlets who allowed O'Reilly to disguise a PR blitz as news interviews also undermined themselves.
Anyone with even passing familiarity with Fox News' PR shop knows that their personalities won't take a crap near a reporter without clearance (and likely explicit orders) from Fox's PR shop. O'Reilly was offered up to these outlets to launch a one-sided attack on Corn, sure in the knowledge that he would not be pressed to actually address the substance of the story. They even let O'Reilly make a fairly violent prediction about Corn, even while allowing O'Reilly to claim it was Corn who was carrying out some personal vendetta:
When everybody writes the truth, I’ve talked to about eight or nine reporters, and when they verify what I’m saying, because it’s easily verifiable, then I expect David Corn to be in the kill zone. Where he deserves to be.
Corn's publication has demanded an apology, but has not received any response from Fox News, Corn told me in an email Monday.
It's all well and good to get a "kill zone" money quote, but you also gotta follow up, ask some questions about the substance of the story. The problem is that Fox News' PR department knows there are sites that will trade access to their personalities, and to future self-serving internal leaks and sundry scoops, for the kind of coverage they want on a situation like this. Notice that they didn't call, say, Brian Stelter, or any reporter who might actually demand answers from O'Reilly. And to be fair, these reporters might actually have tried to press O'Reilly, but it is frequently customary for this sort of phone PR blitz to occur via conference call with PR flacks on the line to veto any unsatisfactory questions. You'd have to ask those reporters if this was the case, but the flacks usually negotiate to keep that stuff off the record. Corn, who used to work as a Fox News contributor from 2001-2008, told me that he hadn't had any experience with the PR shop when he was there. "I just did my job," he said.
Corn also expressed dismay at the way this story has been covered. "It is disappointing that some media outlets have allowed Bill O'Reilly to denigrate the story and answer it only with invective and threats without asking me to comment or granting a right of reply," Corn said via email. "It is also disappointing that some media outlets have treated this story as a he said/he said face-off, without evaluating all the reporting and facts (and video proof!) that was within the original article. It is further disappointing that some media outlets have done both. The article does not 'claim' there are contradictions between O'Reilly's statements about his wartime reporting and the known factual record (which includes his own real-time reporting); it reports that there are contradictions. Anyone is free to examine the reporting to determine if it holds up to scrutiny. So far, neither Bill O'Reilly or anyone else has identified any factual error within the article."
Regardless of the particular machinations, it's clear that O'Reilly and company chose well for their PR blitz last week. If anyone else does manage to get O'Reilly to talk to them again, they should also ask him for some more details about this claim that he made in 2009. that while he was covering wars in Ecuador and the Falklands, CBS News "kept telling me to throw things in that weren't news."
Maybe O'Reilly's just following orders now.