The evidence is mounting that Bill O’Reilly fudged the truth of his coverage of the Falklands War, much the way Brian Williams did same regarding his time in Iraq.
Debate all you want whether one man’s words were more inaccurate than the other’s. But how they chose to react to their respective controversies is quite different, and perhaps will make all the difference in determining their fates.
Since Mother Jones first made the allegations, the Fox anchor has persistently defended his actions to anyone who would listen, whether responding directly to the the magazine article’s author, David Corn, or from the air on Fox News Channel.
As of Sunday, O’Reilly wasn’t showing any signs of backing down as more of his former CBS News colleagues continued to question his characterization of events that took place in 1982. He went on FNC’s “Mediabuzz” to fire back at a fresh round of snipes that came his way.
You can hate his politics and think he’s a liar, but the Fox personality knows how to respond when he’s in crisis.
Williams deserves this much credit: He knew to respond early and often once the allegations made against him by Stars and Stripes regarding his helicopter ride. He made prompt, multiple statements, including from his own anchor desk.
But quantity and quickness get you only so far.
Williams’ mealy-mouthed responses, which on air were delivered with little sense of the gravity of the sins he committed, practically did him in right there and then. But what was worse was the lack of specificity to his comments, barely acknowledging the circumstances in any level of detail.
That’s where O’Reilly did it right. Had he simply engaged in the kind of character assassinations he’s attempting on Corn and his former colleagues, he would have seemed just petty. But the Fox anchor has gone above and beyond the name-calling to address the specificity of the charges. Whether you believe him or not is one thing, but the fact that he’s bothering to rebut details counts.
It doesn’t matter that O’Reilly was mounting a defense while Williams was issuing an apology. Either way, it’s important to display a true reckoning with the particulars of the charges.
That said, style matters just as much as substance in crisis management, and that’s where O’Reilly excels as well. The sheer ubiquity of the man since Mother Jones leveled the charges sends a message irrespective of his words: he feels he has no wrongdoing to hide. If public figures should take away anything from his handling of the situation, it’s that.
Sadly, the way Williams chose to rise above the fray is not a countermeasure that works well in these fevered, Twitter-driven times. To suggest that you are too high and mighty to dignify allegations with anything more than a rote response is a bygone from a long-ago era.
When a celebrity in the crosshairs goes silent, it creates a vacuum more deafening than the din of the accusations being leveled. It conjures up images of backroom spin doctors helping the privileged cover up their crimes. Once that enters the picture, you’re already dead.
O’Reilly didn’t let that happen. He reacted with instant indignance. It’s as if he’s so outraged by the allegations that he can’t shut up. That’s the way to go.
O’Reilly probably won’t be the last anchor to come under the microscope. But those who come after him would do well to study how he conducted himself.