I am holding, in my hands, a letter addressed to me and dated Jan. 15, 1980. It has yellowed and stiffened with age, as you might imagine, but I’ve kept it all these years as a cherished heirloom. The author of the letter was very angry. The author was Bill O’Reilly.
Yes, that Bill O’Reilly. I’ll quote from his letter in a few minutes.
As you may have heard – and this is more delicious than a hot fudge sundae – the Fox News bloviator is under siege for claiming that he risked his life covering combat in war zones. He has repeatedly insisted that he did so back in the early ’80s, the claims are demonstrably false, and what makes his outed fakery so delicious is that he was oh so sanctimonious about Brian Williams just a few weeks ago. For instance: “Reporting comes with a big responsibility…the press must be honest.”
His fakery was well documented last week in a meticulous article by the left-leaning magazine Mother Jones, and it has since been confirmed by at least seven of the CBS News folks who worked with O’Reilly in the key year, 1982. But unlike Williams, who humbly apologized after his tall tales were exposed, O’Reilly has characteristically doubled down, lashing out personally at each and every critic. This time, he really has gone to war.
As a CBS News rookie in ’82, O’Reilly was sent to the short-lived Falklands war, which was triggered when Argentina tried to snatch the British-run South Atlantic Falklands Island. He has since bragged that he covered the “war zone” (from ’03: “I’ve covered wars, OK? I’ve been there, the Falklands…”), but, in reality, he never got within 1000 miles of the war zone. The fighting took place on the aforementioned island. O’Reilly never left Buenos Aires.
CBS correspondent Eric Engberg took down O’Reilly last Friday in an epic Facebook post. Engberg was similarly confined to the Argentine capital, thanks to the censorious Argentine military. On Facebook, he wrote that Buenos Aires “was not a war zone or even close. It was an expense account zone….(O’Reilly) has displayed a willingness to twist the truth in a way that seeks to invent a battlefield that did not exist. And he ought to be subject to the same scrutiny Williams faced. He also ought to be ashamed of himself.”
But shame is not in the guy’s DNA, which is why he’s perfect for the infauxtainment network.
O’Reilly said this weekend that he did cover a war zone: a street protest in Buenos Aires. He has floated that yarn in the past as well, claiming that he “survived a combat situation” in “a war zone” where “many were killed.” But the other CBS Newsers say nobody was killed – the story that aired on CBS reported no casualties – and that the garden-variety street protest (Engberg: “It consisted mostly of chanting, fist-shaking and throwing coins”) was a far cry from combat.
The CBS reporters filed their protest stories and returned to their comfy Sheraton hotel. Charles Krause recalls, “We were in no danger whatsoever.” Bob Schieffer recalls, “We had some great meals.”
Given the current weight of the evidence, a real newsman (as opposed to a Fox News man) would be tempted to display a touch of humility. Brian Williams has at least tried a number of apologies, and NBC has launched an internal investigation. But O’Reilly, whose brand is braggadocio, is busy stacking the sandbags in his rhetorical war zone. He’s always right, and everyone else is wrong – or worse.
David Corn, one of the Mother Jones reporters, is a “liar” and “guttersnipe.” Eric Engberg is “Room Service Eric.” A New York Times reporter called O’Reilly yesterday, and O’Reilly told her that if he didn’t like the story she was writing, “I am coming after you with everything I have. You can take it as a threat.” (And if you want to witness his war against underlings, check out this clip of Bill on the set, pre-Fox. It gets even better at the one-minute mark. Incoming!)
Anyway. Back to that 1980 letter.
O’Reilly was working for the CBS affiliate in Hartford, Connecticut, as a member of the TV station’s investigative “I-Team.” I was the editor of a Hartford weekly newspaper. I assigned a reporter to profile the I-Team, which was a fairly new concept at the time (at least in Hartford ). The reporter, to her surprise, quickly learned – from her interviews – that teammate O’Reilly was a personally disruptive force. I told her to focus the story on the I-Team’s mission, but that it was also important to mention the team’s internal tensions.
“Dear Mr. Polman,” said the subsequent letter, “I’m truly amazed that every reference to me is inaccurate….The reference to alienating my colleagues is nothing short of vicious and any attempt to substantiate that statement would be impossible. (The reporter) went with isolated opinions. It is indeed a shame that a person’s reputation is treated in so cavalier a fashion.”
That was our Bill, hard-wired at an early age for combat. Just not the kind he typically boasts about.