Bill O'Reilly's false claim that he witnessed the brutal 1980 murders of four American women in El Salvador -- and his excuse, after his lie was exposed, that he meant he saw photos of their bodies -- is drawing harsh criticism from journalists who covered the story and lawyers who worked with the nuns' families to bring justice in the case.
O'Reilly has recently faced scrutiny for a series of fabrications he has told over the years about his reporting career. Last week, Media Matters reported that O'Reilly had repeatedly suggested he saw nuns murdered in El Salvador while reporting for CBS News, despite the fact that the incident in question occurred before he arrived in the country. O'Reilly told his radio audience in 2005 that he'd "seen guys gun down nuns in El Salvador." More recently, he said on his Fox News program, "I was in El Salvador and I saw nuns get shot in the back of the head."
After Media Matters challenged O'Reilly's story, he told Mediaite that he merely meant he'd seen "horrendous images" of the murdered nuns while reporting from El Salvador.
His apparent effort to use the brutal murders to bolster his own history as a journalist is drawing harsh rebukes from those who represented the families of the victims in legal cases related to the murders.
"It's disgusting, it's reprehensible," said Patti Blum, an attorney who worked with the families on a civil case for the Center for Justice and Accountability. "To use the death of four women who were in El Salvador just to do good for your own self-aggrandizement is unsavory."
Scott Greathead, a founder of Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, which is now Human Rights First, spent time in El Salvador representing relatives of the nuns during the prosecution of the killers.
He said of O'Reilly's claims and his weak excuse, "I don't know why he said that and why he came to say it. I know he didn't see it and nobody saw it and anyone who knew about that incident would have known they were killed in secret. Hundreds of thousands of people have seen pictures of it and I don't know anyone else being confused about what they saw."
He later added, "I don't think anyone should be making up stories about this, to invent a story. I know from representing the families from all this time they remain very, very sensitive about what happened to their sisters and daughters. Distorting the truth is appalling."
Journalists who covered the nuns, both at the time of their murders and in the years after, also criticized O'Reilly.
Charles Krause, a former CBS News reporter who said he flew in to El Salvador with the nuns and covered their murders for the network, called out Fox News for defending O'Reilly by claiming he has been the victim of dishonest critics.
"I am outraged by the McCarthy-like smear campaign Fox News is using to try to save its bloviator from oblivion by suggesting that anyone, anyone who corrects the record regarding O'Reilly is part of some leftwing conspiracy that's out to get him," he said via email. "There is no conspiracy, leftwing or otherwise, that I am part of or aware of."
From the March 4 edition of MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show:
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Fox News' Bill O'Reilly used CNN's Christiane Amanpour's childhood in Iran to undermine her reporting after she criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to the U.S. congress.
On the March 4 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, O'Reilly highlighted Amanpour's childhood in Iran, stating that "Amanpour, herself raised in Iran, did not think much of Netanyahu's speech," to undermine her critical reporting of the Israeli Prime Minister's speech to the U.S. congress. O'Reilly emphasized Amanpour's childhood in Iran a second time, saying, "Ms. Amanpour was raised in Iran until age 11 and apparently does not believe the mullahs would act unilaterally with the nuke":
From the March 4 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
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Former Fox News contributor Ben Carson used the network to announce that he has launched an exploratory committee to run for president in 2016, following years of Fox News touting Carson as a rising star and potential presidential candidate.
On the March 3 edition of The O'Reilly Factor, Ben Carson announced that he is launching an exploratory committee to see whether "me running for president is a viable thing."
Carson became a conservative media darling after using his 2013 National Prayer Breakfast speech to attack President Obama and the Affordable Care Act. Following his speech, Fox hosts fawned over Carson calling him "fantastic," and "a star." In an interview about the speech, Fox's Sean Hannity said that he'd vote for Carson for president "in a heartbeat."
In October, 2013, Fox hired Carson as a contributor. Carson used this elevated platform to attack the Obama administration and defend his extreme rhetoric. During his tenure on Fox, the network continued to promote Carson as a presidential contender repeatedly asking whether he would run for president. During a May 2014 appearance on Hannity, Carson claimed he was seeing "record crowds" with people asking if he'd be running for president. A lead story on The O'Reilly Factor in August 2014 was about the "rumors swirling" that Carson might run.
Former Fox News contributor and journalism professor Jane Hall explained that the media should hold Fox News host Bill O'Reilly to the same standard Brian Williams faced after news broke of his multiple reporting fabrications.
Recently, O'Reilly has faced increased criticism and scrutiny following the news of various discrepancies and fabrications in stories he told about his journalistic credentials which may have wrongly benefited his career. The controversy has spurred calls from a veterans group and other organizations for O'Reilly to be held accountable for his fabrications by Fox. O'Reilly has even faced criticism from former colleagues at CBS, Inside Edition, and now Fox News.
During an interview with The Wrap, O'Reilly's former colleague at Fox, American University journalism professor Jane Hall said that media outlets should hold O'Reilly to the same standard as Brian Williams, who was suspended for six months after he acknowledged "exaggerating his role in a helicopter episode in Iraq." According to Hall:
"I think the media reporting should hold [O'Reilly] to the same standard [as Brian Williams]," former Fox News contributor and American University Journalism Professor Jane Hall told TheWrap. "He reaches how many millions of people a night? If people in the media are dismissing him as, 'he's an entertainer,' I think they're vastly underestimating his influence."
A Fox News spokesperson told The Wrap Hall's contract was not renewed and she was let go; Hall says she left of her own volition.
Hall thinks NBC News' swift response to the Williams scandal was appropriate in the context of the sober "Nightly News" brand, but emphasized O'Reilly shouldn't be let off the hook.
"He is an opinion host, but I don't think that means reporters shouldn't be writing about it given his influence and his ratings," adding that the question reporters need to ask is, "what is your audience, what is your reach, what is your political influence?"
Always viewing conflicts through the prism of partisan warfare, conservative media have been faced with a stark choice as Bill O'Reilly's long list of confirmed fabrications pile up in public view. They can defend the Fox News host no matter what, while lashing out his "far-left" critics for daring to fact-check the host. Or, conservative media outlets can let him fend for himself. (The third, obvious option of openly criticizing O'Reilly for his duplicitous ways doesn't seem to be on the table.)
Incredibly, as the controversy marches on and neither O'Reilly nor Fox are able to provide simple answers to the questions about his truth-telling as a reporter, some conservative media allies continue to rally by his side.
On Sunday, Howard Kurtz's MediaBuzz program on Fox came to O'Reilly's aid by doing everything it could to whitewash the allegations against the host.
Over the weekend at Newsbusters--a far-right clearinghouse for endless, and often empty, attacks on the media--Jeffrey Lord denounced the O'Reilly fact-checking campaign as "wrong" and "dangerous." And Fox News contributor Allen West actually told the Washington Post that all the allegations against O'Reilly had been "debunked." (Lots of attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week shared West's contention.)
What's the peril for blindly protecting O'Reilly this way? Simple: It completely undercuts the conservative cottage industry of media criticism. Because why would anyone care about media critiques leveled by conservatives who are currently tying to explain away O'Reilly's obvious laundry list of lies.
"O'Reilly's story, intended to portray him as an enterprising journalist unfazed by potential danger, is a fiction," noted Gawker. "It is precisely the sort of claim that would otherwise earn Fox's condemnation, and draw sophisticated counter-attacks to undermine the accusers' reputation."
And how do we know that to be true? Because the entire conservative media apparatus spent last month unleashing sophisticated counter-attacks to undermine NBC News anchor Brian Williams after doubts were raised about his wartime reporting. Today, the same conservative media are either playing dumb about Bill O'Reilly, or actually defending him.
Obviously, you can't have it both ways. You can't demand Brian Williams be fired and that Bill O'Reilly be left alone. Not if you want anyone to pause for more than three seconds when considering your press critiques.
The publisher of a Bill O'Reilly book in which he falsely claims to have seen terrorists kill civilians with bombs in Northern Ireland are standing behind the Fox News host despite an admission by Fox News that he only saw photos of those events.
David Drake, senior vice president and deputy publisher at Crown Publishing Group, wrote in an email to Media Matters that "Crown will continue to publish our author's book just as he wrote it."
That book is Keep it Pithy: Useful Observations In A Tough World, O'Reilly's 2013 work published under Crown Archetype, a division of Random House.
In the book, O'Reilly writes, "I've seen soldiers gun down unarmed civilians in Latin America, Irish terrorists kill and maim their fellow citizens in Belfast with bombs."
But last Friday, The Washington Post's Paul Farhi reported that Fox News admitted that O'Reilly was not an eyewitness to terrorist bombings in Northern Ireland, writing: "Asked about O'Reilly's statements Friday, a Fox News spokesman said that O'Reilly was not an eyewitness to any bombings or injuries in Northern Ireland. Instead, he was shown photos of bombings by Protestant police officers."
Drake declined to offer further comment on why the publisher would not seek to correct an obvious misleading statement.
From the March 2 edition of BBC Two's Newsnight:
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Footage newly uncovered by Mother Jones suggests that Bill O'Reilly's claim that he covered a protest in Argentina in which "many were killed" with "real bullets" is a fabrication. In the footage, which is O'Reilly's own report for CBS News from the violent incident in question, the Fox News host makes no mention of anyone dying and describes police using "tear gas," not live ammunition.
On February 19, Mother Jones wrote that O'Reilly had never reported from "a war zone, in Argentina, in the Falklands" as he's said in the past. O'Reilly responded by claiming that when he had said he reported from a "war zone," he was specifically describing a 1982 Buenos Aires protest which broke out after Argentina surrendered in the War.
O'Reilly has frequently hyped the violence at that protest to emphasize his own reporting bona fides, going so far as to call it a "combat situation." For example, O'Reilly claimed in a 2009 interview that during the riot the army shot at protesters with "real bullets," not "tear gas":
When the riots broke out in the Casa Rosada ... the army was standing between the people and the presidential palace. Here in the United States, we would do tear gas and rubber bullets. They were doing real bullets. They were just gunning these people down, shooting them down in the streets.
In his book The No Spin Zone, O'Reilly also described the protest, writing "A major riot ensued and many were killed." And on his now-defunct radio show, O'Reilly claimed:
I was in the middle of that riot when Argentine soldiers came out of the barracks and got into the streets and actually shot people dead in the street, because people were rioting. And it wasn't like warning shots or rubber bullets or teargas. They were shooting people dead.
Many of O'Reilly's former colleagues who reported from the same protest, as well as reporters from other outlets and an Argentine historian, have contradicted his claim that there were fatalities.
Mother Jones has since unearthed O'Reilly's own report from the scene, which makes no mention of live ammunition or deaths. Filed with his then-employer CBS News, O'Reilly's voice can be heard over footage of the protest specifically reporting that "police struck back, firing tear gas and rushing the crowd." He notes "some journalists" got hurt, but describes the incident as a "disturbance" and does not mention anyone dying.
According to Mother Jones, O'Reilly's report aired on local CBS affiliates at the time.
O'Reilly initially responded to criticism about his fabrications and exaggerations about his journalistic exploits by attacking his critics as partisan, but he and Fox News have largely fallen silent as evidence mounts against several of his tales.
CNN's Reliable Sources aired a new, clearer version of audio that further disproves Bill O'Reilly's claim that he personally "heard" the shotgun blast that killed a figure in the investigation into President John F. Kennedy's assassination.
O'Reilly has repeatedly claimed in his books and on Fox News that while he was reporting for a Dallas television station in 1977, he was directly outside at the exact moment that George de Mohrenschildt -- an associate of Lee Harvey Oswald -- shot himself in a Florida home. O'Reilly has offered no evidence to confirm this claim, and the police report filed at the time makes no mention of him.
Adding to the mounting evidence against O'Reilly's tale are tape recordings of a phone conversation between O'Reilly and a congressional investigator who was interviewing de Mohrenschildt before his death. On the tapes, O'Reilly can be heard asking the congressional reporter about the details of the suicide, and adding that he is not yet in Florida -- a claim that is at odds with O'Reilly's statements that he was near the home where de Mohrenschildt killed himself.
Lower-quality copies of these tapes were first posted online by former Washington Post editor Jefferson Morley in a 2013 piece for his website JFKFacts.org, as Media Matters noted in our initial report.
Now, CNN has obtained the original tapes from the congressional investigator's widow, and the audio is significantly cleaner and easier to hear. O'Reilly can clearly be heard asking the congressional investigator where the suicide took place, if a gun was used, and saying "I'm coming down there tomorrow. I'm coming to Florida ... I'm going to get in there tomorrow."
As Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter reported, "clearly this tape shows he was not there."
Stelter also interviewed Morley, who said that he previously attempted to bring this audio to Fox News' attention, but received no response.
O'Reilly has come under fire for multiple fabrications in the past few weeks, and has responded dubiously. However, O'Reilly and Fox News have so far not responded to the mounting evidence against his JFK story, instead directing inquires to the publisher of O'Reilly's book on the Kennedy assassination.
Fox News media critic Howard Kurtz failed to substantively discuss new allegations that Fox's Bill O'Reilly fabricated several details of his reporting career while offering no criticism of the embattled host.
Since the last edition of Fox's weekly media criticism program, MediaBuzz on February 22, O'Reilly has faced cascading allegations that he lied about hearing the suicide of a figure connected to John F. Kennedy's assassination, that he had falsely claimed to have witnessed the execution of nuns in El Salvador, and that he greatly exaggerated a story about being "attacked by protesters" during the L.A. riots.
But during the March 1 edition of MediaBuzz, host Kurtz failed to specifically mention any of these new allegations against O'Reilly and instead vaguely referenced "questions raised by Mother Jones and others about whether he has embellished some of his reporting," describing the allegations as a "flap." The only analysis offered by Kurtz was to read from a portion of an official Fox News statement, saying, "Fox News said in a statement that Bill O'Reilly has already addressed several claims leveled against him" before adding that "a couple media sites have noted his ratings have actually gone up in this past week, even when not talking about this controversy." He later agreed that not everybody has as large of a platform to defend themselves as O'Reilly does, but offered no criticism of his Fox News colleague:
From the March 1 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources:
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Speaking to the Associated Press, a former Fox News O'Reilly producer highlighted Bill O'Reilly's tendency to twist the truth, saying that hyperbole and exaggeration are "baked into" O'Reilly's persona and job description.
Bill O'Reilly has been embroiled in controversy after Mother Jones and Media Matters exposed numerous fabrications in O'Reilly's accounts of reporting on the Falklands War, the El Salvadoran Civil War, and the death of a figure in the investigation into JFK's assassination.
From the Associated Press on February 27:
The only way O'Reilly can be seriously damaged is if more allegations about his statements come forward from sources other than partisan organizations, said Joe Muto, a former O'Reilly producer fired by Fox after he began writing an anonymous blog as the "Fox mole."
"Ultimately, he'll survive this because he's not held -- by his bosses, or the public, or himself -- to the same standards of truth-telling as Brian Williams is," Muto said. "People expect a certain degree of hyperbole and exaggeration from O'Reilly. It's baked into the job description. It's part of his persona."
The vast majority of Americans believe Fox News host Bill O'Reilly should resign, be suspended without pay, or apologize if he lied about his experiences as a reporter who supposedly reported from combat zones, a new poll finds.
Over the last week, O'Reilly has been at the center of a media firestorm over the revelation that he has dramatically embellished aspects of his career in journalism. That criticism began with Mother Jones' report that O'Reilly had falsely suggested that he had reported from an active combat zone "in Argentina, in the Falklands" during the 1982 conflict there.
O'Reilly responded by lashing out at Mother Jones and claiming that he never meant to suggest that he was in the Falkland Islands during the war, only that he was in Argentina when a violent protest broke out. Numerous journalists who reported from that protest say that O'Reilly exaggerated how dangerous it was. For its part, Fox News has stood behind O'Reilly.
But the burgeoning scandal is damaging O'Reilly's credibility and requires a response, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted this week.
If O'Reilly "lied about his experience as a war reporter," 31 percent of respondent say he should apologize and explain himself, 21 percent say he should resign, and 18 percent believe he should be suspended for at least a month. Only 10 percent say that his actions wouldn't call for a response.
The poll also found that 37 percent have an unfavorable opinion of O'Reilly compared to 33 percent with a favorable one, and that respondents are split on whether the Fox host is trustworthy or not, 35 to 37.