O’Reilly’s Falklands War Experiences Challenged

Bill O'Reilly

Image courtesy of Bill O'Reilly.com

O’Reilly’s Falklands War Experiences Challenged
| published February 24, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff

For conservatives and Fox News loyalists, part of Bill O’Reilly’s charm flows from his self-comfort with the facts and his seemingly unflappable certainty. Conversely, it is these exact traits which most grate on the ears and eyes of progressives, liberals, and anyone allergic to the Fox News narrative and style. Love him or hate him, it is his semi-graceful certitude that keeps him perched where he is now, near the top of the television news ratings.

But, the same thing was once said of NBC’s Brian Williams, now suffering in the wilderness of six months’ of exile after he apparently exaggerated some of his war stories from the early days of reporting on the Iraq War. Williams has often said he was riding in a U.S. military helicopter which was struck by ground fire, forcing it to land. In fact, according to many of the Marines and soldiers involved in the incident, he was nowhere near the afflicted chopper for at least 10 to 15 minutes. Williams’ suspension may end on an upbeat note if he is allowed to return this summer. But some media analysts question whether NBC Universal will want to bring Williams back at all, or whether parent company Comcast will have the patience for sorting out the issue if things get worse for Williams after NBC concludes its internal investigations.

O’Reilly too has come under ground fire for his oft-repeated statements about his time spent in the war zone of the Falkland Islands War back in 1982, when, as a young reporter for CBS News, he may or may not have witnessed members of the CBS News crew being hurt or injured. According to O’Reilly, he and a crew of videographers were covering anti-government protests in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires when the event turned violent—police firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets, protesters tossing rocks and incendiary devices at the cops. Some foreign reporters and camera crew members were injured in the melee, and according to O’Reilly’s longstanding retelling of those harrowing hours, he and his crew were among the ones affected. One camera operator was knocked to the ground, and, while bleeding, O’Reilly helped drag the photographer to safety.

That cameraman landed on the pavement and hit his head, O’Reilly said in a 2013 interview, “and was bleeding from the ear onto the concrete.” And the army was chasing us.”

That the riots and violent confrontations took place in Buenos Aires as described by O’Reilly have never been in question. Archival tapes of the CBS Evening News from that period shows then-anchor Dan Rather reporting gravely that reporters and cameramen were in the midst of the anti-Argentine-government riots, and that some members had been “jostled” and “knocked to the ground.” Contemporaneous accounts by other news agencies also repeat more or less the same retelling—that reporters and camera operators with some news services sustained minor injuries—but none of those print or taped accounts offer specifics.

O’Reilly has always maintained that he and his crew were among those physically affected by the fracas, and he has repeated on several occasions the incident in which he dragged the injured videographer to safety.

But some who are familiar with what happened in Argentina say that neither O’Reilly nor any member of his CBS crew was hurt or injured (though clearly other reporters from other countries did experience physical injury). Indeed, weeks ago, the left-leaning magazine Mother Jones reported that O’Reilly’s recounting of that episode is a patent lie. The magazine says that not only were there no injuries to any members of the CBS News crew, but that O’Reilly was never in any genuine area of danger.

Another former CBS News journalist, Eric Engberg, recently told Huffington Post that O’Reilly’s retelling of the incident is “dishonest” and “nutty.” Engberg has said he has no recollection of any CBS reporters or videographers who were injured, and has gone further—telling reporters looking into the matter that his own personal poll of cameramen working in Buenos Aires resulted in zero confirmations of what O’Reilly has described.

Definitions of the “war zones” often referred to by reporters and journalists who covered the Falklands War are a murky enough, and require flexibility. Only a handful of reporters—from any country—made it as far as the actual Islands, which sit in isolation smack in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean more than 1000 miles from Buenos Aires, and more than 1500 miles from the next nearest airports which could have served the tiny island archipelago in the 1980s. The late Bob Simon, who worked for CBS News for decades, was one of the scant few who made it to the islands, and managed to stay. He did so only by deliberately missing his flight off the islands in the days before the British Navy was due to arrive.

What most journalists saw of the war was the heavily redacted and censored British film and video footage provided at the time, or—in a few rare cases—that footage or photographs which managed to get off the islands during the actual combat. Conversely, hundreds of reporters, photographers, producers and other crew news members hunkered down in places like Buenos Aires or London, essentially watching the war unfold in a choppy series of limited bits of imagery: a ship here, and helicopter there, a fighter jet flying overhead from one point to another.

A handful of determined and ingenious reporters did manage to sneak closer to the war by boat, and one or two by employing mercenary private aviators. But such reporting offered very little save for fragmentary glimpses of war—a British battleship or air craft carrier passing along the sea, a brief glimpse of a fighter jet streaking overhead, or a big plume of smoke rising in the distance. (For context on this, just go to Google and request images of the Falklands War; there is surprisingly little in the way of “battle” imagery, but plenty of photos of columns of British troops, and several interesting images of Argentine prisoners).

O’Reilly was, therefore, in good company—covering the war about as close as one could get from the increasingly unstable capital of Argentina. Those anti-government riots in Buenos Aires were as dramatic as any image emerging from those distant, craggy islands.

But in the context of Brian Williams’ recent imbroglio, O’Reilly is now being scrutinized for what he has said about his front line reporting. On Monday, CBS News—which could be said to have a stake in the matter since it indirectly repeated some of what O’Reilly may have reported back in 1982—sought to get ahead of the story by releasing video and audio from several stories aired on CBS News. Defenders of O’Reilly have said the tapes generally vindicate his recollections of the incident, but the skeptics—of whom there are plenty—say the footage and the edited segments prove nothing, and make no direct reference to cameramen or reporters being injured. What’s left is what we already have: O’Reilly’s word on the events, and the vague pronouncements of anchorman Dan Rather, who most likely repeated what was fed to him on the studio Tele-Prompter.

CBS also released one of Engberg’s own video reports from the field that week, and in that story Engberg describes heavily-armed police and Army units firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at the protesters, and adds that there were some protesters and bystanders who were seriously injured. But Engberg’s report offers no numbers of injured, nor does it allude to members of any news crews—injured or otherwise. Print reporters (including some with the Associated Press) in mid-June 1982 filed stories describing how one large group of about 50 reporters and photographers was intimidated and dispersed when a platoon of police rushed toward the journalists, striking some with batons and shoving others to the ground. The AP also described how police and security fired rubber bullets at the reporters in an attempt to make them leave the area of the protests. Other print reports from that time describe photographers being singled out for the worst pushing and shoving by Argentine police.

But none of those reports, including those of CBS News or the Associated Press, give specifics on who was injured, pushed, or shoved to the ground. O’Reilly has been understandably eager to show that the footage and edited segments prove his side of the story: the melee was violent and dangerous, and people were hurt. His detractors, he says, are engaged in a hit job against him for his political views. But skeptics say that the material released by CBS makes little difference: O’Reilly, they argue, has invented this tale of harrowing journalistic adventurism, and there is little if any evidence that he dragged an injured cameraman to safety.

That camera operators and photographers in the midst of riots and protests get “jostled” or knocked down is routine, and good reporters by nature go to the scene of the action. But like Williams’ now infamous recounting of the Iraq War, experts are drilling down into the meat of O’Reilly’s claims about his harrowing journalistic experience in Argentina. O’Reilly has enlisted the tacit assistance of other journalists who support him, including a former NBC producer and bureau chief who spent time producing and editing much of the material coming in from the Falklands War for NBC. Browne concurs that the situation for reporters was dangerous, but offers no specific backing of O’Reilly’s description of the events. O’Reilly included Browne on Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor this week, and Browne generally backed up O’Reilly’s claims from the Falklands War.

For his part, the always popular O’Reilly says he just wants the controversy behind him so that he can move on. Perhaps justifiably, he considers the Mother Jones reporting nothing more than a personal attack, and a sloppy one at that—what conservatives regard as retribution by certain left-leaning press outlets to level the playing field in the wide wake of Brian Williams’ meltdown at NBC. Media watchers point out that Mother Jones is known for its sometimes provocative, aggressive writing style in which its investigations and reports are crafted for maximum appeal to left-leaning readers. For O’Reilly and his numerous backers, this is par for the course.

Fox News executives are, for now, backing O’Reilly. Like Williams at NBC, O’Reilly is the lynchpin of success for Fox News in the ratings wars. O’Reilly also benefits from the fact the brouhaha over his Falklands recollections has gained only a fraction of the attention Williams drew for his comments about the Iraq War. In lieu of any demonstrable evidence that O’Reilly is an outright liar, some analysts say, the matter will likely blow over, and O’Reilly may avoid the same severe punishment now being exacted upon NBC’s Brian Williams.

But other media analysts have pointed out that the O’Reilly issue could prove to be equally troubling for CBS News, which would also have to explain its reporting of riots and violent protests in Buenos Aires, including Dan Rather’s own anchor desk descriptions of the violence to reporters and photographers. As a young reporter, O’Reilly could not have had the clout to have steered the CBS News team toward reporting that was so overtly false.

On the other hand, the O’Reilly fracas exposes decades-old beefs and grievances between the Fox News star and his former colleagues at CBS News, back when O’Reilly was essentially a cub reporter working amongst the big-league players like Engberg, Rather, and Bob Schieffer. Some who worked at CBS in those days say that the impetuous, eager, headstrong O’Reilly instantly clashed with the old pros at CBS News, and that in Buenos Aires, the rivalries and tensions came to a head. Gossipy versions of those interoffice skirmishes tell of anchor and editor Dan Rather personally intervening to keep O’Reilly out of the evening news. Others suggest that personal insults and slights in Buenos Aires may have led to irreparable disagreements between O’Reilly and his colleagues at CBS, and may still fester at the heart of why competing versions of the riots and demonstrations exist even now.

Still, many media experts say that O’Reilly stands a better-then-average shot at surviving this episode. Williams’ recounting of the Iraq War collapsed as multiple versions flowed in from soldiers and Marines with direct memory of the incident with the injured helicopter; O’Reilly’s retelling may endure at least until someone comes forward with demonstrable evidence to the contrary. In the meantime, fans of Fox News will remain undoubtedly loyal to Fox, just as NBC struggles to figure out if its ratings can survive months of Williams’ absence.

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Williams Resigns From Congressional Medal Board; Thursday Review; February 20, 2015.