Did Fox News bloviater Bill O'Reilly commit Brian Williams type fabrications when he claimed he had been in a "combat situation" while working as a reporter for CBS News during the Falklands War in 1982? Did he pad his resume' as he was laying claim to personal knowledge about what happens in war? The issue has arisen because the "Mother Jones" magazine Washington bureau chief David Corn has written a story, largely based on recollections of CBS News senior staffers, comparing O'Reilly's statements about his war experience to the fabrications which sent NBC anchor Williams into a six-month suspension.
I can provide some eyewitness information on this matter because I was one of the correspondents in Buenos Aires with O'Reilly and the rest of the rather large staff of CBS News people who were there "covering" the war. To begin with "covering" is an overstatement of what we were doing. Corn is correct in pointing out that the Falkland Islands, where the combat between Great Britain and Argentina took place, was a thousand miles away from Buenos Aires. We were in Buenos Aires because that's the only place the Argentine military junta would let journalists go. Our knowledge of the war was restricted to what we could glean from comically deceitful daily briefings given by the Argentine military and watching government-controlled television to try to pick up a useful clue from propaganda broadcasts. We -- meaning the American networks -- were all in the same, modern hotel and we never saw any troops, casualties or weapons. It was not a war zone or even close. It was an "expense account zone."
O'Reilly, freshly hired by CBS, arrived in Buenos Aires a few days before the British expeditionary force defeated the Argentine occupiers. He was, as he is today, full of brio and confidence. I remember him asking me how I liked my assignment. When I said I was tired of living in a hotel and wanted to go home he said, "Call your agent." Back in those days calling your agent to complain about the company's decision-making would have been a career-ender, but he didn't seem to understand matters of the CBS internal secret wooglies, which included the rule that you did as you were told. I should have known he was headed for trouble, but I just thought he was a rookie who would learn. Yeah, right.
Within a couple of days of his arrival the British Army and Marines had completed their land assault on the Falklands capital and forced the Argentines to surrender. The Argentine public, who had been living under a murderous, corrupt military government for years, were driven into the streets of their capital by rage over the loss of a war they had been repeatedly told their army was winning. As night fell after the surrender statement, several thousand people gathered in the streets around the presidential palace to protest. All the members of the CBS reporting staff and all the two-person camera crews we had in Buenos Aires were sent in to the street. I believe there were four or five crews. The reporters, as I remember, were O'Reilly, Chuck Gomez, Charles Krause, Bob Schieffer and myself. Somewhere it has been reported that O'Reilly has claimed he was the only CBS News reporter who had the courage to go into the street because the rest of us were hiding in our hotel. If he said such thing it is an absolute lie. Everyone was working in the street that night, the crews exhibiting their usual courage. O'Reilly was the one person who behaved unprofessionally and without regard for the safety of the camera crew he was leading.
The CBS bureau chief in Buenos Aires, Larry Doyle, an ex-Marine LRRP, was something of a legend among CBSers because of his personal courage and his knowledge about how to do your job without exposing yourself to undue danger. Early that night in Buenos Aires he assembled the camera crews in our hotel newsroom and instructed them to refrain from using the lights on their cameras while around crowds. Television lights attracted potentially violent people and also made the camera-person an easier target for demonstrators throwing rocks. We all knew that the Argentine public was angry at the U.S. for supporting Britain in the war, so American journalists might become a target for mob violence. So, O'Reilly has been correct in describing the situation in Buenos Aires as somewhat dicey for reporters. If he was nervous, I can see why.
The riot around the presidential palace was actually short-lived. It consisted mostly of chanting, fist-shaking and throwing coins at the uniformed soldiers who were assembled outside the palace. I did not see any police attacks against demonstrators. According to Doyle, O'Reilly returned to the hotel in a rage over the fact that his cameraman wouldn't turn on the lights to photograph angry crowds. Doyle defended the cameraman and chewed out O'Reilly for violating his instructions on lights. When Doyle looked at the tape shot by O'Reilly's cameraman he saw that the video included stand-ups -- on camera description by the reporter -- which O'Reilly had ordered the cameraman to shoot -- with his light on. Doyle was further upset by this tape, which clearly showed that his orders on lights had been unilaterally violated by O'Reilly. The issue here was safety.
CBS was doing a late night re-cap of the Falkland's story. As always the Buenos Aires bureau had no combat video footage to offer, so our part of the special would be the demonstrations, which had been well covered by three or four camera crews, including the one working with O'Reilly. All that footage was blended into the main story, narrated by Schieffer, who had been in Buenos Aires for weeks as the anchor on the scene. When Doyle informed O'Reilly that Schieffer would be doing the report, which would not include any segment from O'Reilly, the reporter exploded. "I didn't come down here to have my footage used by that old man," he shouted. Doyle was stunned. First O'Reilly had defiantly ordered a cameraman to disregard his orders on using lights, and now he was claiming the right to do a story the producers had decided should be done by the senior correspondent on the scene, Schieffer. This confrontation led the next day to O'Reilly being ordered out of Argentina by the CBS bosses. Doyle had told them O'Reilly was a "disruptive force" who threatened his bureau's morale and cohesion.
I remember looking on a monitor at the long stand-up O'Reilly ordered his crew to shoot, which was never used on the air. He shot this description in the middle of a clearly angry, chanting crowd. As a reporter I wondered why he would think he needed video of himself standing in the middle of the crowd when his own crew and others had taken plenty of good crowd pictures that didn't have O'Reilly standing in the middle of the frame blocking the action. You don't shoot a long stand-up when you have plenty of good pictures of the event you are covering. What O'Reilly was doing was in the realm of local news. I didn't know at the time that he had also violated the bureau chief's order on use of lights, but I wondered why would any correspondent would imperil his colleagues by turning on lights during a riot.
O'Reilly has said he was in a situation in Argentina where "my photographer got run down and hit his head and was bleeding from the ear on the concrete and the army was chasing us." The only place where such an injury could have occurred was the relatively tame riot I have described above. Neither Doyle, who would have been immediately informed of injury to any CBS personnel, nor anyone else who was working the story remembers a cameraman being injured that night. No one who reported back to our hotel newsroom after the disturbance was injured; if a cameraman had been "bleeding from the ear" he would have immediately reported that to his superiors at the hotel. This part of O'Reilly's Argentina story is not credible without further confirmation, and O'Reilly should identify the cameraman by name so he can be questioned about the alleged injury.
The gunfire reported by O'Reilly is equally suspicious. One of our camera crews reported that they believed the Argentine police or army had fired a few rubber bullets at the crowd. That was the only report we received of weapons being fired that night. The crowd had been confined to a relatively small area around the president's palace. It wasn't like there were protests going on all over the city. I did see soldiers armed with rifles on guard around the presidential palace. But they did not take aim at the crowd and I heard no gunfire. No one I talked to as the crowd was breaking up told me they heard gunfire. O'Reilly's claim that the army fired weapons into the crowd is not supported by anyone's recollection. Had that happened, I believe, the riot would have escalated into an uncontrollable attack on government buildings all over the capital. Nothing like that happened. Actually, the military chiefs, yielding to the public outcry over the war's outcome, were willing to give up their offices, which they did the next day.
I am fairly certain that most professional journalists would refer to the story I have just related as "routine reporting on a demonstration that got a little nasty." O'Reilly, in defending himself yesterday against Corn's "Mother Jones" piece, said "We were in a combat situation in Buenos Aires." He is misrepresenting the situation he covered, and he is obviously doing so to burnish his credentials as a "war correspondent," which is not the work he was performing during the Falklands war. I don't think it's as big a lie as Brian Williams told because O'Reilly hasn't falsely claimed to be the target of an enemy attack, but he has displayed a willingness to twist the truth in a way that seeks to invent a battlefield that did not exist. And he ought to be subject to the same scrutiny Williams faced. He also ought to be ashamed of himself. By the way, "Old Man" Schieffer seemed to do okay as a TV journalist in the years (and there were plenty) after O'Reilly claimed to have been "big footed" by him. Maybe "Old Schieffer" called HIS agent.