Does Bill O'Reilly really have a 'Brian Williams problem'?

Mother Jones accused Bill O'Reilly of exaggerating his experience reporting from combat zones in an article published Thursday. The Fox News host has dismissed the claim, calling the author a 'liar' and a 'guttersnipe.'

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Political commentator Bill O'Reilly attends the National Geographic Channel's "Killing Kennedy" world premiere screening reception at The Newseum, in Washington, Oct. 28, 2013. A Mother Jones article published Thursday accused the Fox News host of exaggerating his experience reporting from combat zones. Mr. O'Reilly has refuted the claim as 'garbage.'

Does Bill O’Reilly have a Brian Williams problem? That’s what the left-leaning publication Mother Jones is alleging. In a piece posted on Thursday, D.C. bureau chief David Corn claims that the Fox News host has long exaggerated the extent and dangers of his past combat reporting.

Mr. O’Reilly has said he worked in “active war zones” in the Falkland Islands and El Salvador during his stint at CBS News in the early 1980s, according to citations in Mr. Corn’s piece.

Yet during the Argentine-United Kingdom Falklands War, O’Reilly never made it to the combat zone itself. No American reporters did, at least until after the fighting was over.

O’Reilly’s experience with violence in the Falklands was limited to coverage of an anti-regime riot in Buenos Aires, after the war was over, points out Mother Jones. In El Salvador, he reported briefly from a village where several buildings had been burned by guerrilla fighters, who had fled.

That’s the extent of O’Reilly’s war zone experience, according to the Corn piece.

“Yet for years, O’Reilly has recounted dramatic stories about his own war reporting that don’t withstand scrutiny – even claiming he acted heroically in a war zone that he apparently never set foot in,” writes Corn.

O’Reilly remains unabashed. He’s reacted to these charges with fury, calling them “garbage” and Corn a “liar” and a “guttersnipe.”

As to substance, O’Reilly says he’s never claimed he made it to the Falkland Islands themselves, and that the Buenos Aires riot rated as a “war zone” because junta soldiers shot into the crowd, killing civilians. He remains adamant that at one point a soldier pointed a rifle at him from a few feet away.

“Everything I said about what I reported in South and Central America is true,” said O’Reilly in an interview with Politico. “Everything.”

Responding to this denial, David Corn says that contemporary news accounts of the Argentine riot paint a very different picture. CBS News’ own story that night said nothing about people being killed, and mentioned only that some North American news crews were “jostled.”

What’s the truth here? We await further details. Washington Post media reporter Erik Wemple has an interesting recap of the state of play here, including his own interview with O’Reilly. It includes the detail that the Fox host repeatedly cited a book of his titled “Those Who Trespass” as rebutting the Mother Jones allegations.

Those Who Trespass” is a novel which O’Reilly published in 1998. One of its characters is a United States reporter who goes through a horrific riot in Argentina. He later murders the network news figures he blames for sabotaging his career.

That said, there are a number of differences between the cases of Brian Williams of NBC News, who is on a six-month leave pending investigation of his combat exaggerations, and O’Reilly.

First, there aren’t any aggrieved US soldiers. Much of the negative emotion from the Williams case was driven by angry American troops who took to social media to rebut the NBC anchor’s tales of derring-do. O’Reilly’s opposition is a left-leaning magazine, not Army pilots.

Second, he’s a political commentator, not a news anchor. He’s not supposed to be measured. Bloviation might be judged to be part of his job. He yells and declaims on every episode of the “O’Reilly Factor.” That’s part of its appeal.

Finally, Fox News is not NBC News. Perhaps they will milk this for ratings.

Fox produces some fine journalism. But its business model is built around the creation of narratives and the evoking of emotions. This story offers all that. Fox executives appear to be standing behind O’Reilly, for now. NBC executives never offered Williams that much support.

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