Scrutiny of Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly’s reporting on the 1982 Falklands war protests isn’t going away.
The story that was ignited by a Mother Jones piece titled “Does Bill O’Reilly Have a Brian Williams Problem” looked like a one-day controversy after O’Reilly aggressively countered the claims that he repeatedly misspoke about his time covering the conflict for CBS News.
Mother Jones slammed O’Reilly for loosely using the term “war zone” when recounting his Falklands experience, even though all American journalists were based in Buenos Aires, 1,200 miles away from the fighting. O’Reilly has never said he was on the islands, and maintained he was always describing his time covering the riots that followed in Buenos Aires after the Argentine military junta surrendered to the British at the end of the conflict in June 1982.
Now O’Reilly’s accounts of the riots are being challenged by Eric Engberg, a former CBS News correspondent who was also assigned to the story.
Engberg took to Facebook on Saturday to note that O’Reilly described seeing fatalities at the scene around the presidential palace in the Argentine capital, which did not appear in any reports at the time, and that his accounts of violence and chaos were overstated.
“He’s trying to build it up into a more frightening situation than it was,” Engberg told CNN on Sunday. “It wasn’t a combat situation by any sense of the situation that I know. There were no people killed. He said he saw troops fire into the crowd. I never saw that and I don’t know anybody who did. And I was there on the scene. Not only did I not hear any shots, I didn’t see any ambulances. I didn’t see any tanks. I didn’t see any armored cars."
Engberg, who was with CBS News for more than 25 years, said he saw more violence at anti-Vietnam War protests in Washington, D.C., than he did that day in Buenos Aires.
Engberg came forward, first on his Facebook page and then on the CNN program “Reliable Sources,” because he was irked by O’Reilly’s comments on a panel several years ago in which he said other CBS correspondents were “hiding” in their Buenos Aires hotel when the protests broke out.
“What he just said is a fabrication,” Engberg said. “A lie. There were five CBS News correspondents including him assigned to that bureau.” All five, with their camera operators, were sent into the streets to cover the scene, Engberg added.
While Engberg appeared on CNN, O’Reilly was interviewed on the Fox News program “Media Buzz,” where he refuted the charges. He cited a New York Times report on the rioting around the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires that mentioned shots being fired by police over the heads of the demonstrators.
O’Reilly said it was possible Engberg didn’t hear any firing because he stayed inside the hotel. He claimed Engberg’s nickname was “Room Service Eric.”
As for seeing fatalities at the scene, O'Reilly told the Los Angeles Times on Sunday: "Fatalities were reported locally - the military government refused to provide any information on injuries, arrests, etc. I saw folks hit the ground and stay there but no one could get info from the [Argentine President Leopoldo] Galtieri crew."
A Fox News spokesperson said management at the channel is supporting O’Reilly as the squabble is being played out, especially because the incidents being debated happened 33 years ago on another network.
Fox News management, especially chairman Roger Ailes, has a reputation of being exceedingly loyal to its on-air talent. O’Reilly is the host of the highest-rated program in all of cable news.
As a commentator, O’Reilly is also generally given more latitude in how he expresses himself than an anchor who delivers reports on a network newscast.
O'Reilly's reporting record is being analyzed in light of Brian Williams' problems at NBC News. Williams has been suspended for six months for having aired a report in which he said he was on a Chinook helicopter that was hit and forced down by enemy fire when he was covering the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Williams’ helicopter was not hit in the incident, and the anchor had to apologize over his inaccurate account, which he had also told anecdotally in recent years.
While Williams is off without pay, his work is undergoing an internal review to determine if there are other discrepancies.
O’Reilly will continue to cover his situation. He has invited former CBS News anchor Dan Rather and Van Gordon Sauter, the CBS News president at the time of the Falklands war, to discuss the matter on Monday’s edition of “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Engberg has also been invited to appear on O’Reilly’s program, but he declined.
“I don’t want to turn this into an argument on his turf over what he did that night,” Engberg said on CNN. “I’m simply stating the facts. If he has a response to what the facts were, let him lay them out.”