Can we call it a scandal? That word seems slightly hyperbolic in this case, but the ... dustup? flap? contretemps? ... over Bill O’Reilly’s accounts of his reporting while at CBS News covering the Falkland Island war in 1982 has now rolled into a second week. A report in Mother Jones, a magazine noted for investigative tenacity but also politics that make The Nation seem stodgily right wing, accused O’Reilly of exaggerating accounts of his coverage under fire during the skirmish over the Falklands.
The real rumblings, though, began as other outlets began to digest and then follow up on the report. In the wake of the sudden fall of a once-secure media figure in NBC News anchor Brian Williams, it did seem worth checking into whether O’Reilly could also have succumbed to the temptation of stretching the truth.
The Fox News host has expressed frustration with the scrutiny repeatedly on his show and then threatened a New York Times reporter over the paper’s coverage. “I am coming after you with everything I have,” he reportedly said. “You can take it as a threat.” Seemingly with the network’s full backing, he aired CBS footage on The O’Reilly Factor and then invited his accusers (including several CBS News vets) into the ring – meaning The Factor – to discuss the matter. No one has taken the bait, and the whole thing could well lose steam, especially given the historical slightness of the Falkland clash and the passage of a Cosby-esque number of decades since the events in question. Though, as James Poniewozik of Timenoted about O’Reilly’s retort, “You don’t make threats if you’re not concerned about something.”
Viewed in the context of the Williams affair, the events since the Mother Jones story broke last week have been striking in how little DNA they share with the NBC case beyond the basic outline. Much of that is the root wartime event itself – for Williams, it was a story he spun about what he said happened in the early days of the long, costly Iraq War; for O’Reilly, it centered on disputes over details such as whether troops shot into crowds of protesters, killing several, or merely over their heads during unrest that even CBS staffers recall as being some of the “chummiest” in modern history.
And unlike the Williams affair, which blew up spectacularly after a tribute at Madison Square Garden and reporting showing multiple inconsistencies, the O’Reilly case has not prompted an internal Fox News investigation. The likelihood of a smoking gun emerging — 3/4-inch videotape showing real bullets? Footage of O’Reilly doing something untoward? — seems remote. That obviously doesn’t mean there wasn’t any grey area here, and a well-compensated public figure positioned as a trusted news figure should be held accountable. But an outcome like the one Williams faced, with a forced apology tour and a long winter march to the corporate chief’s apartment to learn his fate, is not going to happen.
Instead, the result is likely to be simply more ratings and buzz for The Factor, which thrives on exactly this kind of me-against-the-pinheads dynamic, and something for the media to chew on in between actual scandals.