Bill O'Reilly and David Corn in the Media War Zone
This story was updated on February 19, at 6:21 p.m.
It was predictable that, as Brian Williams tumbled, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly would put on his media critic hat. With characteristic ardor, he spoke last week of the broad culture of deceit in the American news media, hammering its left-leaning faction especially for the tendency to distort. The press, O'Reilly said, needs to “stop the corruption and begin telling the truth without an agenda.”
Late Thursday afternoon, the progressive magazine Mother Jones gave a nod to these remarks when it published an article headlined “Bill O'Reilly Has His Own Brian Williams Problem.” In their report, David Corn and Daniel Schulman allege that O’Reilly’s stories of covering the Falklands war “don’t withstand scrutiny.” Corn and Schulman write that O’Reilly has claimed, multiple times—in his book The No Spin Zone, on his show, and in public appearances—to have “reported on the ground in active war zones,” that he’s “been there,” that he “survived a combat situation in Argentina during the Falklands war,” as a war correspondent for CBS in 1982. Susan Zirinsky, a longtime CBS News producer who helped to manage the station’s coverage of that war, told Mother Jones that no American reporters reached the conflict zone on the islands, during the fighting between Argentina and the United Kingdom. "Nobody," she said, "got to the war zone during the Falklands war." O'Reilly had just, on the subject of Brian Williams's misrepresentation of his experience during the Iraq war, stressed the grave responsibility attached to reporting the news. Had he himself misrepresented his experience as a reporter during war?
O’Reilly has denied wrongdoing of any kind. In an interview with Dylan Byers of Politico’s On Media blog, he called Corn a “despicable guttersnipe” (that noun is now spiking on Merriam-Webster's), and stood by his reporting. “Everything I said about what I reported in South and Central America is true. Everything.” He added, “I was not on the Falkland Islands and I never said I was. I was in Buenos Aires... In Buenos Aires we were in a combat situation after the Argentines surrendered.”
The combat situation in question seems to have been a riot in Buenos Aires after the Falklands war was over, where O'Reilly says he was caught in a stampede and a photographer was knocked to the ground. Much of the debate boils down to the specifics of that situation, what happened there, to whom, whether it could be rightly called a war zone, and whether this was a fudge (certainly) or an outright falsehood (possibly—on at least one occasion he's described the incident as "in the Falklands" and "in a war zone" with no mention of Buenos Aires).
Corn responded in turn, telling Byers that O’Reilly had resorted to bombastic name-calling rather than accounting in full for the discrepancies raised in his Mother Jones piece. “To me,” Corn said, “the issue here is whether a media figure and journalist like Bill O'Reilly, who claims to be a truth teller, can get away without answering questions about specific statements he's made, and hide behind name calling.” He detailed the publication and verification process, telling Byers that he had given O'Reilly and his network more than nine hours to respond before the article was published.
“Rather than calling anyone a liar or a guttersnipe,” Corn said, “he had ample opportunity to deal with the facts of this case. He elected not to, and instead engaged in name calling.” Corn went on, “He chose not to address the issue, he chose to throw mud. And I would say that his right to impugn others ought to be diminished until he answers the basic questions about his statements.”
Instead of answering questions, O'Reilly has escalated the conflict. Speaking with TVNewser last night, O'Reilly asserted that truth was on his side. He said, “when they verify what I’m saying, because it’s easily verifiable, then I expect David Corn to be in the kill zone. Where he deserves to be.”
The kill-zone remark inflated the contretemps even higher. The joint editors-in-chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein, called on O'Reilly to renounce his 'kill zone' remark and apologize. In a letter to Fox News, according to Byers of Politico, they said, “We are writing with alarm about Bill O’Reilly's response to our report investigating his characterizations of his reporting in 'war zones.' We welcome criticism, but calling for our reporter 'to be in the kill zone' crosses a line. Like everyone in media today, we are concerned about the safety of our staff. We'd have hoped that statements with this kind of violent tone would not come from a fellow media professional.”
Three hours before his evening program, O'Reilly posted his response online. Loaded with so many ellipses it resembled a telegram or indie-film script, he began by announcing "more proof the American media is corrupt." Lambasting Mother Jones as a far-left magazine that "couldn't care less about the truth," and Corn as a "far left zealot," he quoted an internal CBS memo from all those years ago "praising" his coverage that day. (O'Reilly wrote it was a "miracle" that he found the document last night, after "crawling around my basement covered with dust") "rock solid proof," he said "that David Corn ... smeared me ... and some websites that picked up his defamation ... did as well."
In the statement, which closed, somewhat surprisingly, with a tear at Sen. Al Franken, O'Reilly noted Mother Jones's “low circulation,” and wrote that it is “considered by many the bottom rung of journalism in America.” Yet he's reported on its findings itself—on investigative work by none other than Corn.
Corn is the Washington bureau chief of Mother Jones, and perhaps best known as the journalist responsible for publishing the video of Mitt Romney’s remarks disparaging “47 percent” of Americans as entitled. Through his reporting on Romney's record as a businessman, and a message from James Carter, grandson of the former president, Corn broke the story of Romney’s closed-door comments that almost half of the country is filled with people "who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims.”
After Corn’s exposé that time, O’Reilly did not see the reason for the fuss. Speaking on air about the “controversy over Governor Romney telling supporters that a large portion of the American population is dependent on government and most likely will not vote for him,” he shrugged. “Why is that controversial? That's true.” The Fox News host's advice, then, for the subject of Corn’s reporting? “Run with this all day long. . . Romney should be pointing a finger.”
This time, O'Reilly is taking his own advice.
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