Fox news host Bill O’Reilly’s critics are eager to turn him into the next Brian Williams but they lack the damning evidence to do so. Their scrutiny of his coverage from Argentina during the Falklands war suggests imprecision on his part but fails to establish that he committed a Brian Williams-level whopper.
Williams told a bizarre and verifiable falsehood, which any reasonable observer would conclude wasn’t a good-faith mistake but a deliberate lie. O’Reilly’s claims about his coverage are far more murky and don’t fall neatly into the category of a deliberate lie.
It is true that O’Reilly made some arguably sloppy remarks about his coverage, but it is not clear if he intended to deceive his audience with them. “I’ve reported on the ground in active war zones from El Salvador to the Falkland Islands,” he has written. One could reasonably interpret that to mean he witnessed hostilities between British and Argentine troops on the Falkland Islands. He hadn’t. He was 1200 miles away in Buenos Aires and the “active war zone” to which he referred was not a military battle between the British and Argentines but a violent civil disturbance in the war’s immediate aftermath.
Had he spelled out his imprecise description with concretely false details, had he explicitly said that he set foot on the Falkland Islands and saw military battles, he would have a Brian Williams-style problem on his hands. But he didn’t. On the occasions he did spell out what he meant by an “active war zone,” he made it clear that he was covering a violent protest in Buenos Aires. He can be faulted for using the phrase “war zone” loosely but that’s a much less serious journalistic offense than the one Williams committed.
Unlike O’Reilly, Williams couldn’t plausibly dismiss scrutiny of his claim as ideologically motivated hair-splitting. His claim was far too specific for that defense.
O’Reilly’s critics promised more than they could deliver when they hyped his statements as a “Brian Williams problem.” If they restricted themselves to the more modest assertion that O’Reilly is guilty of misleading remarks but not an outright fabrication, they would have more credibility. They have also attacked his coverage of the violent protest in Buenos Aires, accusing him of casting it as more dangerous than the facts warranted. But this scrutiny hasn’t yielded any lies on the Brian Williams scale either. It has just raised a lot of difficult-to-resolve and not terribly interesting questions.
It is possible that O’Reilly overstated the violence at the protest. He says that the Argentine military opened fire on members of the crowd and killed some people. Other observers dispute that any fatalities occurred at the riot. But, again, his critics are falling short of establishing a fabrication. Without that, their scrutiny looks petty and unimportant. Disputes over the exact degree of violence at a protest over three decades ago or the extent of the injuries to his cameraman don’t appear to be of much consequence. But people would care if he was inventing stories out of thin air.
His critics have succeeded perhaps in making him think twice before using the phrase “active war zone” again about his coverage in Argentina. He did give them an opening by using that phrase to describe a violent protest that was connected to the war but not part of its military combat.
On his Sunday show, Howard Kurtz, O’Reilly’s colleague, asked him the sensible question: “Looking back, do you wish you had worded it differently?” O’Reilly wouldn’t make that concession: “No. When you have soldiers, and military police, firing into the crowd, as the New York Times reports, and you have people injured and hurt and you’re in the middle of that, that’s the definition, all right. This is splitting hairs trying anything they can to bring down me because of the Brian Williams situation. That’s exactly what it is.”
But Kurtz is right. O’Reilly should have labeled his experience more clearly. There is a real difference between covering a military battle and covering a dangerous civil disturbance. He could have avoided a lot of confusion and unnecessary controversy by making that distinction. Still, that doesn’t make him Brian Williams. It makes him what audiences already know that he is, an opinionated talk show host who doesn’t give an inch to his critics.