Bill O’Reilly responded to a Mother Jones story accusing him of making false claims about his reporting on the Falklands War by calling its author a liar.
The Fox News host told me in an interview that he has always accurately described what happened during that period and that David Corn, Washington bureau chief of the left-wing magazine, “is a liar, a smear merchant, and will do anything he can to injure me and the network. Everybody knows that. Everything I’ve reported about my journalistic career is true.”
Corn, who is also an MSNBC contributor, said last night that he had tried repeatedly, through e-mails and voice mails, to obtain comment from O’Reilly or Fox.
“I’d never speak to him,” O’Reilly said.
The crux of the story involves O’Reilly’s role as a CBS correspondent in the 1982 shooting war between Britain and Argentina over the disputed islands. Referring to the press corps, O’Reilly told me: “Nobody was on the Falklands and I never said I was on the island, ever.”
Corn was a Fox News contributor, from 2001 to 2008, whose contract was not renewed.
The adversarial tone of the story he co-authored is telegraphed in the headline: “Bill O’Reilly Has His Own Brian Williams Problem.”
That clearly accuses O’Reilly of telling lies on par with the false tale that prompted NBC to impose a six-month suspension on Williams, who had to apologize for claiming that he was on a helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade over Iraq in 2003.
And yet the Mother Jones piece appears to turn on semantics, not some specific story that O’Reilly told about being in the Falklands. Among the examples cited:
--In a 2001 book, O’Reilly said: “I've reported on the ground in active war zones from El Salvador to the Falklands."
--In a Washington panel discussion, O’Reilly said: “I've covered wars, okay? I've been there. The Falklands, Northern Ireland, the Middle East. I've almost been killed three times, okay.”
--In a 2004 column, O’Reilly wrote: “Having survived a combat situation in Argentina during the Falklands war, I know that life-and-death decisions are made in a flash."
But that reference—O’Reilly saying he was “in Argentina”--undercuts the thrust of the story, that he claimed to have covered the Falklands combat.
The same phrase, “in Argentina,” also appears in some 2013 comments by O’Reilly cited by Corn:
“I was in a situation one time, in a war zone in Argentina, in the Falklands, where my photographer got run down and then hit his head and was bleeding from the ear on the concrete. And the army was chasing us. I had to make a decision. And I dragged him off…”
In the interview, O’Reilly described the scene in Buenos Aires in the aftermath of the hostilities in the Falklands: “Thousands took to the streets. Hundreds of troops surrounded the presidential palace. I was in the middle of that. A reporter was shot in the legs. People were throwing rocks, bricks, some had guns.”
So the dispute comes down to O’Reilly’s shorthand use of the Falklands and the term “war zone.”
Corn, who gained public attention when he obtained the Mitt Romney “47 percent” tape during the 2012 campaign, defended his focus on O’Reilly’s language.
“He covered a protest,” Corn said. “It might be a minor point, but the war was over. If Mr. O’Reilly wanted to make that case, he certainly could have. I would have gladly put it in the story. Instead of responding to the substance, he’s out there just calling names.”
But Corn’s own piece largely backs up O’Reilly’s account of the dangerous situation, except for O'Reilly's recollection that there were fatalities:
“Dispatches on the protest filed by reporters from the New York Times, the Miami Herald, and UPI note that thousands did take to the street, setting fires, breaking store windows, and that riot police did battle with protesters who threw rocks and sticks. They say tear gas was deployed; police clubbed people with nightsticks and fired rubber bullets; reporters were assaulted by demonstrators and by police; and a photojournalist was wounded in the legs by gunfire.”
That’s a far cry from a bogus claim of having been shot down in a helicopter, the explicit comparison made by the headline.
O’Reilly said the material he gathered for CBS led Dan Rather’s newscast and he received internal praise for his reporting. He called the Mother Jones story “total bull--.”
“There is not any way anyone on earth could say I said I was on the Falkland Islands,” O’Reilly said.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.