Cry for Me, Argentina: In Defense of Bill O’Reilly

As the world’s leading O’Reillyologist, people are asking where do I stand, or sit, on the latest O’Reilly outrage. He is being accused of misstating, embellishing, or as my media-progressive friends prefer to call it, lying, that he was in a war zone in Buenos Aires during the Falkland Islands War of 1982, and other war stories. The air is now filled with reports of further alleged atrocities to the canons of trustworthy TV journalism, making O’Reilly the clear winner of the title exaggerator-general of the nation’s press corps.

In the interests of full disclosure and transparency, you should know that I am the author The Man Who Would Not Shut Up: The Rise of Bill O’Reilly (St. Martin’s Press, 2007), which The New York Times Sunday Book Review praised the author for “Boswellian prodigies of research,” adding, “If the book isn’t a Valentine, it is something of a mash note.”

Somehow I had managed to write what the Times implied was a fair and balanced book, to coin a phrase, about the media’s most loathed and loved loudmouth, in the sense that mine may have been the only book to say anything good about O’Reilly, except the six he had written about himself. I like to think of it now as a youthful blunder, a juvenile indiscretion, a misstep in what otherwise had been my glorious career.

While it was an “unauthorized biography,” he did give me 29 interviews. As a Long Island boy, he had grown up reading my columns in Newsday, and it was a thrill for him to have the personal attention of his local TV critic for 30 minute-a-week sessions over a two-year period, undisturbed by the cyclone-fence and storm-window ads, the other staples of Newsday’s contribution to western civilization.

My audiences with the wizard of the No-Spin Zone reminded me of what William Lamb (later to be Prime Minister Lord Melbourne) said of Macaulay, the famous British historian: “I wish I was as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything.” A maxim ran through my mind as the cable news network el bloviator supremo roamed the world of ideas and issues: Often wrong, but never in doubt.

The faithful take what O’Reilly has to say on the air as gospel, as if the words were handed down to him on the Mount. Even with the benefit of doubt, he still should be taken with a pinch of salt. I gave him the whole salt mine.

Still, I was impressed by the 25 years he had spent learning his craft, rising in the ranks from local newsman in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton market to the top of the dunghill, aka Fox News Channel. The years preceding The O’Reilly Factor were a period when young TV newspeople were more concerned about the right hairspray and Nielsen ratings than burnishing skill development. It also was unusual for a man to leave a million-dollar-a-year gig anchoring Inside Edition to enroll at the Kennedy School of Government in 1995 to complete his master’s in public administration.

Nobody likes to question the accuracy of Mother Jones — which is right up there with apple pie, mother, and the flag in icons I respect. At the risk of saying anything positive about the disgrace to trustworthy journalism, there is something amiss in the widely held inalienable truth in the Mother’s exposé on O’Reilly’s involvement in that war coverage was in his dreams, as they say.

We talked a lot about the Falklands War because I am a big fan of small wars. My favorite is USA vs. Grenada, BTW, the last war we actually won. I also like the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-1748), which featured British and Spanish empires fighting over the ear of a merchant ship captain. And O! What a lovely war was the Pig War of 1859 — British Empire vs. USA over the boundary lines in the San Juan Islands — which ended with no shots and no human casualties. Not to be confused with the Pig War of 1905 between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia over trade differences.

A rookie CBS News correspondent, O’Reilly chose to not cover the Falklands War from the bar at the Buenos Aires Sheraton Hotel as many other correspondents did. The war had ended with the Argies losing to the Brits. Excitable members of the community were screaming for the head of President General Leopoldo Galtieri; besieging the presidential mansion, the Casa Rosada; pelting police and military with rocks and epithets. The crowd was chanting Nunca la derrota (“never surrender”), hijos de putas (“sons of bitches”). As the riot heated up, O’Reilly and his camera crew were pummeled. “All of us got banged up in the panic,” O’Reilly recalled. There was tear gas.

O’Reilly had it all on tape. And expected to finally make the CBS Evening News for the first time that night. He learned the next day his exclusive network footage, instead, had been used in a piece by the superstar, Bob Schieffer.

He had been what the trade call “big-footed.”

This lesson in the truth and accuracy of TV news so outraged the rookie he grabbed his four tapes, flew to the CBS Latin American bureau in Miami, then on to Black Rock (CBS’ New York headquarters), to complain about the injustice. Dan Rather, then anchor of The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, rolled his eyes, as if to say, “Wake up, sonny boy, and smell the phoniness.”

The full details of this turning point in O’Reilly’s career are now being questioned by Schieffer’s colleagues, some of whom may have covered the entire war from the bar at the Sheraton Buenos Aires.

I will leave it to the Von Clausewitz’s of the media to determine what officially constitutes a “war zone,” but for O’Reilly, who claims he nearly died of a heart attack when a soldier pointed a gun at him, which could really get the adrenalin flowing, it was more of a war zone than the Battle of the LIE, the parking lot known as The Long Island Expressway, every morning and evening.

I was fascinated reading about Schieffer’s memories of the Falklands War, described in his memoir, This Just In: What I Couldn’t Tell You on TV. What Schieffer said he remembered most about the experience of covering that war was the cuisine of Argentina. The specialty of his favorite Buenos Aires restaurant La Mosca Blanca (The White Fly), Schieffer wrote, “was a steak called bife de lomo, a huge cut of meat that filled a platter large enough to hold the average American family’s Thanksgiving turkey.” Atop the steak, recalled soon-to-be CBS News chief Washington correspondent, moderator of Face the Nation, and anchor of The CBS Evening News Without Dan Rather, cooks would add an enormous mound of fried potatoes. Atop the fries would be two over-easy eggs. Before that they usually had barbecued ribs or some other appetizer. La Mosca Blanca was not the place to cut back at cholesterol, and why the Argentine army had not already died of heart attacks, I never understood.

Well, whom do you believe in the debate now raging between O’Reilly and his former CBS News colleagues, some of whom covered the war from the Sheraton bar? Not that it really matters. It all seems a matter of silly semantics, since O’Reilly has so many more offensive examples of perhaps wishful thinking on his rap sheet.

With all of what is currently going down against O’Reilly, do I as the scholar of his work trust the man? Compared to what?

He was a half-crazed journalist when I was doing the original research on the man at the turn of the century. In the few times I look in on The Factor he sometimes comes across as a total maniac. But I still trust him more than, say, Glenn Beck or Hannity. And even Brian Williams.

After 35 years as a critic of TV news, this is my mantra:

In god we trust

All others pay cash.

For anyone wishing to study further the life of O’Reilly as if it were the Talmud, I recommend the definitive fair-and-balanced biography, The Man Who Would Not Shut Up. A few copies are still available at fine Internet bookstores everywhere.