There’s a good story about the hypocrisy Bill O’Reilly displayed by going after Brian Williams even though he too may have seriously exaggerated the dangers he faced covering a war. There’s a great and necessary story about the viciousness with which he’s attacking and threatening reporters who dare to write about the controversy in a way that displeases him. But understand something: In the end, all of this is for nothing. There hasn’t been a split-second during this whole thing that Fox News has considered punishing O’Reilly in any way, either for his alleged lies or the ridiculously irresponsible invective he’s spewed at reporters who have the temerity to question his claims of journalist heroics from 30 years ago. What’s more, O’Reilly’s venomous outrage and Fox News’s unsurprising refusal to even entertain the allegations against him just further the credibility of both of them with their core audience, which means that not only is O’Reilly not going to suffer because of this, he’s going to benefit. Even if the accusations are completely true, none of it will ever penetrate the hermetically sealed bubble that surrounds Fox News and its conservative viewership. To them, quite simply, the facts don’t matter anyway; Fox News’s audience wouldn’t be watching Fox News if they did.
By now the details of this story are pretty well circulated; our own Tommy Christopher has written some good primers on both the Mother Jones report that provided documentation of O’Reilly’s alleged embellishments and his reaction to it, including subtly threatening the author of the report and directly threatening a New York Times reporter who was writing about the controversy. The gist is that O’Reilly claims he saw action and was put in highly dangerous situations during his coverage of El Salvador and the Falklands War back in the early 80s — at one point saying that he’d almost been killed three times and that he was “in a war zone in Argentina, in the Falklands” — when the facts don’t appear to bear that out, certainly insofar as there were no journalists allowed on the Falkland Islands during the war. O’Reilly now says he never claimed he was actually in the Falkland Islands, but he seemed to say otherwise before being called out on it. All in all it reads as a relatively minor thing and that’s probably because we expect O’Reilly to be a pompous, self-aggrandizing bullshit artist who traffics in nonsense — no one actually thinks of him as a journalist — but the fact remains that it’s a skeleton in his closet that was only exposed when he sanctimoniously scolded someone else in TV news for doing the same thing he’s now accused of doing.
This thing has of course turned into a partisan battle, with O’Reilly and his allies dismissing his critics’ attacks as politically motivated defamation by “left-wing zealots.” (He called David Corn, the author of the Mother Jones piece, an “irresponsible guttersnipe,” confirming everyone’s suspicions about the decade he’s living in.) As if this somehow negates the facts that have been produced that challenge the story he’s been telling for years. On Monday night, O’Reilly rolled a piece of tape from 1982 that he says proves he really did see action and face danger during his time while in Argentina. In the video, former CBS correspondent Eric Engberg, who’s been a harsh critic of O’Reilly’s version of what happened, reports from Argentina that crowds there were rioting against that country’s military junta for not taking back the Falklands from the British. According to Engberg, police arrested and beat people then fired plastic bullets at them. But in a 2009 interview, O’Reilly said the police were using real bullets, gunning people down in the streets. The old footage also mentions several news crews being attacked, but O’Reilly’s CBS crew isn’t among them, even though the report comes from CBS News.
Following the 33-year-old news report, O’Reilly brought on two guests to discuss the tape, people who would no doubt agree that O’Reilly was telling the truth and that his guttersnipe attackers were simply out to get him. The first guest was former NBC News Miami Bureau Chief Don Browne, who reportedly ran the South American coverage for NBC during the war. The second guest was Mediaite columnist Joe Concha. Browne backed O’Reilly, saying that the situation in Argentina in ’82 was incredibly dangerous, although he didn’t get specific. Not only have I worked with Don Browne in the past, he was the person who recruited me for the NBC owned-and-operated station in Miami, one of the network’s busiest outposts and for a long time most respected because of Browne’s leadership. He was a hugely powerful presence within NBC, having created Dateline and been the VP of News at the network at one point. While I respect him a great deal, he did have a network-wide reputation for fearsomely strong-arming to get his way and he considered himself even more of a star than those who were on-air, often aligning them beside and underneath him to bolster his authority. He was also highly conservative in his politics, even though he didn’t announce it.
I mention this because Browne is an odd person for O’Reilly to interview or to even stumble across for an interview: a former NBC executive who just happens to back his story from more than 30 years ago. I don’t know whether Browne and O’Reilly are friends, but if they’re not there’s a possibility that former CBS News correspondent Bernie Goldberg — who’s a regular contributor to O’Reilly’s show and someone always willing to bemoan the “liberal media” — was the one who facilitated the interview, given that he and Browne are close. In other words, despite his strong credentials, Don Browne likely wasn’t brought on as some random expert who was just calling it like he saw it. (The other possibility is that Browne offered himself up as corroboration for O’Reilly, but that’s hard to imagine knowing his personality.) By no means am I accusing Browne of lying to make O’Reilly look good; he may have been a self-described bully, but he was never anything but a rock-solid newsman. However, it’s easy to see O’Reilly bringing him on to provide heft to the story he’s telling and it’s easy to see Browne speaking in broad terms that seem to square with O’Reilly’s account because it’s an ego stroke to be on a highly rated cable news program talking up his own illustrious history in the business and because he and O’Reilly happen to agree politically.
What’s really great is that Joe Concha, the guest that followed Browne, has claimed that the motive of those attacking Bill O’Reilly should be strongly taken into account. He writes about how David Korn has both a personal and political bias against O’Reilly and how Eric Engberg supposedly has a long-running feud going with Bernie Goldberg because Goldberg once called out a story of his as an egregious example of liberal bias at CBS. The problem is that that cuts both ways. Almost everybody offering an opinion on this story has some kind of political motive given that Bill O’Reilly is a political pundit for a network that’s notoriously political. The only reason Concha was on O’Reilly the other night is that he’s conservative and is willing to defend O’Reilly against his critics or at the very least give him the benefit of the doubt. Motive doesn’t mean shit if the facts are there, and each side of this seems to have presented facts that need to be considered and which certainly cloud the water when it comes to figuring out what really happened. But again, that’s the beauty of it: even the facts here don’t matter. They don’t matter because absolutely nothing will come of them one way or the other. The facts that cast O’Reilly in a negative light couldn’t possibly make his enemies dislike him more and find him more untrustworthy than they already do and they damn sure won’t get Fox News to discipline him. And the facts that might vindicate him just aren’t required by his audience anyway; he’s already innocent because it’s liberals making the accusation.
Even if there were evidence against O’Reilly that was 100% incontrovertible and thoroughly damning, Fox News is no NBC and O’Reilly is no Brian Williams in terms of journalistic expectations. When one of Fox News’s people is attacked by outsiders, certainly one as powerful as O’Reilly, it responds not like a responsible news operation but like ruthless political operatives: it circles the wagons and launches attack after attack until its enemy is destroyed. If we’re realistic, of course O’Reilly exaggerated here. At best he twisted his language just enough to make it seem like he saw direct action but not enough to where he was actually lying. At worst he’s guilty of outright self-aggrandizing, bullshit fabulism. But the end result will be exactly the same: nothing. He’s not going anywhere. He’s not going to be punished. He’s probably not even going to be forced to walk back his unconscionable attempt at threatening and bullying a real reporter because he almost certainly did so with Fox News’s sanction.
Predictably, there are brand new allegations of O’Reilly’s past lies now surfacing, lies about something other than his Argentina coverage, but even that won’t make a damn bit of difference. Steam may come out of Bill O’Reilly’s ears and he may pound his fists and shout in the faces of his accusers, but in the end he hardly has to bother. He can go right on doing his show. Those who dislike him will continue to. Those who like him will keep right on watching. Nothing will be achieved.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.