Mother Jones provocatively titled its investigative piece questioning Bill O’Reilly’s account of his war reporting during the Falklands War “Bill O’Reilly Has His Own Brian Williams Problem.” But in its aftermath, what seems far clearer is that Bill O’Reilly has a Bill O’Reilly problem.
The combative Fox News host has been characteristically aggressive in defending his reputation, feeling he has been unfairly maligned. That included a nine-minute segment on his show Monday, after which he said: “I want to stop this now. I hope we can stop it. I really do.”
At this point, however, nobody is doing more to keep the story alive than O’Reilly, as lashing out at former CBS News colleagues has merely invited more of them to dispute his version of events, just as trying to intimidate a New York Times reporter is stoking further coverage and making him look like someone who is losing control of the situation.
O’Reilly’s boss, Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, has always given his prickly star a wide berth when it comes to picking media feuds, and this appears to be no exception. Yet as angry as O’Reilly might be over the accusation that he embellished, or at the very least mischaracterized, aspects of his war reporting in the 1980s, it’s hard to see how the host, after having now given his response, benefits from pressing onward.
In interviews, O’Reilly has disputed the Mother Jones story and statements by former CBS reporters, such as Eric Engberg. (He labeled Engberg a “coward” for not agreeing to come on his show, yet has selectively spoken to only those outlets he deems worthy.)
By staying in attack mode, however, O’Reilly is inspiring more of his onetime peers to speak up about a situation that, it should be noted, none felt compelled to discuss publicly until now.
Still, therein lies the Bill O’Reilly problem. Because the host tends to filter everything through the language of politically motivated broadsides – with “guttersnipes” and “smear merchants” emerging from the shadows to criticize him – he’s reluctant to let any slight pass.
O’Reilly isn’t wrong, obviously, when he cites people on the “far left” who seek to disparage him. Where he errs is ascribing criticism from virtually any quarter to such petty, partisan motives.
At the risk of putting him on the couch, O’Reilly gives the impression of still wanting vindication for having left network news and charted his own course, at the newsmagazine “Inside Edition” and for nearly two decades at Fox News. While one might think the success he has enjoyed would be the sweetest revenge, the host’s actions have betrayed a desire for greater respect – including from the old-guard media Fox News regularly skewers – which might explain why the studio-based host is still telling war-reporting stories this many years later.
Viewed this way, the fact that many don’t feel the Mother Jones allegations rise to the level of Williams’ Iraq story doesn’t offer much comfort. Because while O’Reilly gave up the goal of objectivity for opinion a long time ago, he has never wanted to be perceived as having sacrificed any of his credibility or stature.
So while O’Reilly has gotten this far by confronting those he feels have wronged him, at this point the strategy is yielding diminishing returns. Simply put, there’s a fine line between defiantly choosing to “stand your ground,” as he stated Monday, and feeding the media’s appetite for a food fight by slinging insults and name-calling, including the Times’ report of O’Reilly threatening to “come after” one of its reporters. (Fox News did not respond to a request for comment on his statements to the Times.)
Unlike Williams, O’Reilly doesn’t look to be in any jeopardy career-wise, and Fox is adept at circling the wagons when under siege. While that might not silence his critics, he’s responded to the Mother Jones story, so whether or not the available evidence corroborates his recollection of events half a lifetime ago, what’s left to say?
Whether Ailes or anyone else can get in O’Reilly’s ear when he’s on the warpath is difficult to discern. Yet while neither of them is exactly in the target audience for animated Disney movies, to quote a certain ice princess, a friend would tell the Fox host to let it go.