In his long and sometimes stormy career as a journalist and cable-news pundit, Bill O’Reilly has occasionally mentioned his exploits in conflict zones around the world. “I’ve been there,” he once said. “That’s really what separates me from most of these other bloviators. I bloviate, but I bloviate about stuff I’ve seen. They bloviate about stuff that they haven’t.”
O’Reilly has said he has reported from Northern Ireland, where the sectarian “Troubles” resulted in nearly 4,000 deaths and thousands of injuries over 30 years — before a peace settlement was reached in 1998.
In his 2013 book, “Keep It Pithy,” the Fox News host recounted,"I’ve seen soldiers gun down unarmed civilians in Latin America, Irish terrorists kill and maim their fellow citizens in Belfast with bombs.”
On another occasion, he said, “I’ve covered four wars,” and ticked off El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s, the 1982 Falklands conflict, Northern Ireland and an unspecified conflict in Israel. “I’ve seen the best and the worst.”
But in light of a week-long controversy surrounding other comments that O’Reilly has made about his career, those statements bear closer examination.
O’Reilly travelled to Northern Ireland in 1984 to research a book about the Troubles, according to Fox News. The book was never finished, and it’s not clear whether he covered the conflict for any news organization. At the time, he was working for a Boston TV station, WCVB, but his then-boss, Philip Balboni, said that O’Reilly covered only local news and did commentary for the station.
O’Reilly didn’t mention seeing any terrorist bombings in Northern Ireland during a radio interview with syndicated host Hugh Hewitt last week. Instead, he told a milder story: “We went on a raid in Divis Flats with the police. And it was a pretty intense situation. There was stuff being thrown, arrests being made, all of that.”
“Were you in fear of physical harm?” Hewitt asked.
No, O’Reilly replied.
The long-since-demolished Divis Flats were infamous in western Belfast, occupied primarily by poor Catholic residents. The housing complex was considered a stronghold of the separatist Irish Republican Army and was the scene of many police raids during the decades of the Troubles.
Asked about O’Reilly’s statements Friday, a Fox News spokesman said that O’Reilly was not an eyewitness to any bombings or injuries in Northern Ireland. Instead, he was shown photos of bombings by Protestant police officers.
The clarification is similar to one O’Reilly made in the wake of questions raised this week about his characterization of his experiences during the Salvadoran civil war.
The liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America found two occasions on which O’Reilly claimed to have seen the murder of four American nuns in El Salvador. “I’ve seen guys gun down nuns in El Salvador,” he said on his radio program in 2005. On his Fox News program, “The O’Reilly Factor,” he said in 2012, “I saw nuns get shot in the back of the head.”
But O’Reilly arrived in El Salvador months after the brutal killings and could not have witnessed them, the group said.
O’Reilly said in a statement this week that he was describing photos of the murdered nuns, not the crimes themselves.
“While in El Salvador, reporters were shown horrendous images of violence that were never broadcast, including depictions of nuns who were murdered,” he said in the statement.
O’Reilly said he brought up the El Salvador episode on his TV program in 2012 on the day of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in a discussion on evil. “I used the murdered nuns as an example of that evil,” his statement said. “That’s what I am referring to when I say ‘I saw nuns get shot in the back of the head.’ No one could possibly take that segment as reporting on El Salvador.”
O’Reilly has spent the past eight days vigorously defending himself on a variety of statements that don’t square with other eyewitness accounts. He has blasted and even threatened those who have called his comments into question, particularly Mother Jones magazine, which touched off the examination of his record with a story about his statements regarding his role in the aftermath of the Falklands conflict. The liberal magazine compared him with Brian Williams, the NBC News anchor who has been suspended for six months because of his exaggerated statements.
Fox News has stood by O’Reilly throughout the controversy, which appears to have bolstered his TV ratings. The network released figures Friday showing that his weekly audience grew by 11 percent compared with the same period last year.
A spokesman also reiterated the network’s earlier statement of support for its star: “Bill O’Reilly has already addressed several claims leveled against him. This is nothing more than an orchestrated campaign by far-left advocates Mother Jones and Media Matters. Responding to the unproven accusation du jour has become an exercise in futility. FOX News maintains its staunch support of O’Reilly, who is no stranger to calculated onslaughts.”
Those who have worked with O’Reilly over the years attest to his diligence and integrity.
“I do not know a single instance where he conflated his background, stories, or sought to inflate his already obviously large sense of self,” said Steve Cohen, who hired O’Reilly as a reporter at WCBS in New York in the early 1980s. Cohen, now news director at KUSI in San Diego, said: “I believe the current stories are a brew of invective created to defame him by left-leaning reporters. . . . Bill did not lie, did not conflate. Perhaps he bloviated a bit, to use his favorite word, but even that is of minor consequence.”
Balboni, O’Reilly’s boss in Boston and now chief executive and founder of the GlobalPost news site, said: “I don’t really know what to make of this [controversy]. There doesn’t seem to be any real determinative evidence that he made things up. He does have a larger-than-life personality, but that goes with the territory. When you’ve had as much success as he’s had, you have a larger-than-life personality.”