Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
CBS News today posted its reports from Buenos Aires at the end of the Falklands war, in response to a request from Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, who has been seeking to counter reports that he mischaracterized his wartime reporting experience. But rather than bolstering O'Reilly's description of the anti-government protest he says he covered as a "combat situation," the tape corroborates the accounts of other journalists who were there and who have described it as simply a chaotic, violent protest.
On his Monday night show, O'Reilly broadcast clips from the CBS video and maintained that the footage proved "I reported accurately the violence was horrific." But the issue has not been whether violence occurred at the demonstration. O'Reilly had previously claimed this protest—triggered when Argentines angry at the ruling junta's surrender to the Brits in the 1982 war gathered near the presidential palace—was a massacre, with Argentine troops gunning down civilians. O'Reilly has relied on that description to support his claim that he was in a "war zone…in the Falklands." The video does not show civilians being mowed down.
O'Reilly, who was reporting on the protest as a correspondent for CBS News, has asserted that during the demonstration, Argentine soldiers fired into the crowd with "real bullets" and slaughtered "many" civilians. As he put it in a 2009 interview, "Here in the United States we would use tear gas and rubber bullets. They were doing real bullets. They were just gunning these people down, shooting them down in the street."
Mother Jonesreported that O'Reilly's account of the protest was at odds with media reports from the time, which made no mention of troops firing real bullets into the crowd or civilians killed:
Dispatches on the protest filed by reporters from the New York Times, the Miami Herald, and UPI note that thousands did take to the street, setting fires, breaking store windows, and that riot police did battle with protesters who threw rocks and sticks. They say tear gas was deployed; police clubbed people with nightsticks and fired rubber bullets; reporters were assaulted by demonstrators and by police; and a photojournalist was wounded in the legs by gunfire. But these media accounts did not report, as O'Reilly claims, that there were fatalities.
On Sunday, CNN reported that seven of O'Reilly's former CBS colleagues disputed his claim that Argentine soldiers had fired live rounds at civilians. They also questioned O'Reilly's assertion that this protest constituted "combat" and occurred in a "war zone." Former CBS correspondent Eric Engberg, who wrote a lengthy Facebook post debunking O'Reilly's Falklands claims, said Buenos Aires "was not a war zone or even close. It was an 'expense account zone.'" And Richard Meislin, the former New York Times reporter whose account of the protest was selectively quoted by O'Reilly on a Fox News show on Sunday, noted on Facebook, "As far as I know, no demonstrators were shot or killed by police in Buenos Aires that night. What I saw on the streets that night was a demonstration—passionate, chaotic and memorable—but it would be hard to confuse it with being in a war zone."
Last week, after Mother Jonespublished an article by Daniel Schulman and me reporting on Bill O'Reilly's mischaracterizations of his wartime reporting experience, the Fox News host replied with insult, denial, threatening rhetoric, and bombast.
Insult: He called me a "liar," a "despicable guttersnipe," and "garbage."
Denial: Though the story included video of O'Reilly stating he had been "in a war zone in Argentina, in the Falklands," O'Reilly insisted, "I never said I was on the [Falklands] island, ever."
Threatening rhetoric: In one of his many comments to other reporters (while continuing to ignore the questions we sent him before publication), O'Reilly declared that I deserve "to be in the kill zone."
Bombast: O'Reilly proclaimed, "Everything I said about my reportorial career—EVERYTHING—is accurate."
And that was just in the first 24 hours. Eventually, O'Reilly added another element to his arsenal: proofiness.
After nearly a day of hurling invective, O'Reilly opened his cable show Friday night with a monologue that assailed me as a smear-meister. But he also tried to win the day by producing documents that, he asserted, showed how he had been unfairly tarred. "In what I consider to be a miracle," he declared, "I found this CBS internal memo from 33 years ago praising my coverage" of a protest in Buenos Aires that happened just as the 1982 Falklands war ended.
Our article had pointed out that O'Reilly's later accounts of this protest—which he called a "combat situation"—contained significant contradictions with the factual record. He has claimed that soldiers fired into the crowd, that "many" people were killed, and that "I was out there pretty much by myself because the other CBS correspondents were hiding in the hotel." (The Mother Jones article said nothing about how O'Reilly covered the protest at the time.)
Yet O'Reilly's dramatic account is disputed by media reports of the time and by other journalists who were there—including, CNN reported Sunday, seven CBS staffers who were in Buenos Aires at the time. (Former CBS News veteran Eric Engberg posted a particularly scathing recollection of O'Reilly's short stint in Buenos Aires as a CBS News correspondent.)
So what did the "miracle" memo say? It apparently was from the CBS news desk in New York City, and the note expressed "thanks for a fine piece." It showed, in other words, that O'Reilly covered the protest—which no one disputed—and it addressed none of the issues in question.
But wait, O'Reilly found another document in his basement—a letter he sent to a CBS News executive: "The crews were great…The riot had been very bad, we were gassed, shot at, and I had the best vantage point in which to report the story." Again, the document showed what no one had disputed—that the protest turned ugly, and that police used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowd—but it provided no information backing up O'Reilly's claim that soldiers gunned down civilians and "many" were killed.
"We have rock solid proof that David Corn smeared me," O'Reilly concluded. Not really.
On Sunday, O'Reilly, speaking by phone, was a guest on Fox News' MediaBuzz, which is hosted by the network's in-house media reporter, Howard Kurtz, and he brandished a new piece of proof: a New York Times article. The story, by Richard Meislin, chronicled the protest, and O'Reilly read several paragraphs that described the violence in Buenos Aires. We cited this article in our story, and it does not say anything about soldiers shooting into the crowd, or anyone being killed. Its only reference to police or military violence is this one line: "One policeman pulled a pistol, firing five shots over the heads of fleeing demonstrators." Nothing in the story matches O'Reilly's description of soldiers mowing down protesters. (The Times dispatch did say, "Local news agencies said three buses had been set ablaze by demonstrators and another one fired upon." It did not attribute those shots to soldiers or police, and the sentence suggests this violence was committed by protesters.)
But here's the tell: As O'Reilly read from the Times story, when he reached the line about a cop "firing five shots," he omitted the rest of the sentence: "over the heads of the fleeing demonstrators." He jumped straight to the next sentence, hoodwinking the audience, for with this selective quotation, he had conveyed the impression that at least one cop had been firing on the protesters. He had adulterated his supposed proof.
Later in the show, Kurtz gently asked O'Reilly, "You've have said you covered a combat situation in Argentina during the Falklands War, you said the war zones of the Falkland conflict in Argentina. Looking back, do you wish you had worded it differently?" O'Reilly replied:
No. When you have soldiers, and military police, firing into the crowd, as the New York Times reports, and you have people injured and hurt and you're in the middle of that, that's the definition, all right.
Only that is not what the New York Times reported. O'Reilly was citing an article that disproved his point to prove his point.
And the reporter of that Times story, Richard Meislin, weighed in after the show to say O'Reilly had misled the audience about this article. On Facebook, Meislin wrote:
Bill O'Reilly cut out an important phrase when he read excerpts of my report from The Times on air Sunday to back up his claim that Buenos Aires was a "war zone" the night after Argentina surrendered to Britain in the Falklands war…
When he read it on Howard Kurtz's Media Buzz show, O'Reilly left out that the shots were "over the heads of fleeing demonstrators." As far as I know, no demonstrators were shot or killed by police in Buenos Aires that night.
What I saw on the streets that night was a demonstration—passionate, chaotic and memorable—but it would be hard to confuse it with being in a war zone.
There may be more proofiness to come. During Kurtz's show, O'Reilly announced that on his Monday night show he expected to air the footage that he and his crew gathered during the Buenos Aires protest. If he does, there's no doubt the video will present a protest that turned ugly. (Our article included video from the CBS News report on the protest—which did feature some of the footage that O'Reilly and his camera crew obtained—and that entire segment showed no troops or police firing on the protesters and slaughtering Argentines.) But unless the video O'Reilly presents on his program shows soldiers shooting into the crowd and massacring civilians, it will not likely bolster O'Reilly's case.
That doesn't mean he won't cite it as proof he's been wronged. That's how proofiness works. The assertion is more important than the evidence itself.
On Thursday, Mother Jones published an article by Daniel Schulman and me documenting how Fox News host Bill O'Reilly has mischaracterized his wartime reporting experience. It noted that he has repeatedly stated that during his short stint as a CBS correspondent in the 1980s, he was in the "war zone" during the Falklands war between the United Kingdom and Argentina in 1982. He once claimed he had heroically rescued his cameraman in "a war zone in Argentina, in the Falklands," while being chased by army soldiers. Yet no American journalist reached the war zone in the Falkland Islands during this conflict. O'Reilly and his colleagues covered the war from Buenos Aires, which was 1,200 miles from the fighting.
O'Reilly responded to the story by launching a slew of personal invective. He did not respond to the details of the story. Instead, he called me a "liar," a "left-wing assassin," and a "despicable guttersnipe." He said that I deserve "to be in the kill zone." (You can read one of my responses here.) And in his show-opening "Talking Points memo" monologue on Friday evening, he continued the name-calling.
On Thursday, Mother Jones published an article by Daniel Schulman and me that documented how Fox News host Bill O'Reilly has mischaracterized his wartime reporting experience. Most notably, he has more than once said that during his short stint as a CBS correspondent in the 1980s, he was in the "war zone" during the Falklands war between the United Kingdom and Argentina in 1982. He even once told the story of heroically rescuing his cameraman in this "war zone" while being chased by army soldiers. Yet according to O'Reilly's former CBS colleagues in Argentina and other journalists there during the war, no American journalist reached the war zone in the Falkland Islands and other territories iin the southern Atlantic Ocean during this conflict. O'Reilly and his colleagues covered the war from Buenos Aires, which was 1200 miles from the fighting.
Mother Jones sent O'Reilly and Fox News a detailed list of questions at 8:30 am on Thursday. We asked for a response by 3:00 pm. We then called Dana Klinghoffer, a spokeswoman for the network, several times to make sure the questions were received and to determine if O'Reilly and Fox would respond. She never took the call or returned the message. Shortly before 3:00 pm, we sent an email containing the questions to Bill Shine, a top exec at Fox News, saying that if O'Reilly and Fox needed more time, we would try to accommodate them. He, too, never responded. At 5:26 p.m., we posted the article.
Immediately afterward, O'Reilly granted interviews to multiple reporters. He resorted to name-calling, saying I was a "liar," a "left-wing assassin,"and a "despicable guttersnipe." He said that I deserve "to be in the kill zone." (You can read one of my responses here.) It was clear that O'Reilly had no interest in answering the actual questions about his wartime reporting claims.
Here, for the record, are the questions we sent to Fox. (We included links to his past assertions to make it easy for O'Reilly to review what he said.) Will he answer these questions?
In numerous instances—on his television and radio shows and in his book, The No Spin Zone—Bill O'Reilly has said that he was in the "war zone" during the Falklands war when he was a correspondent at CBS News. But it appears no American correspondents were allowed in the Falkland Islands war zone during the conflict. How does Mr. O'Reilly explain his comments?
In a 2004 column, Mr. O'Reilly noted, "Having survived a combat situation in Argentina during the Falklands War, I know that life and death decisions are made in a flash." What combat situation was that?
In a 2003 book, journalist Tucker Carlson reported on how Mr. O'Reilly answered a question during a Washington panel discussion about media coverage of the Afghanistan war: "Rather than simply answer the question, O'Reilly began by trying to establish his own bona fides as a war correspondent. I've covered wars, okay? I've been there. The Falklands, Northern Ireland, the Middle East. I've almost been killed three times, okay.'" Does Mr. O'Reilly have any comment on this? Can he describe his experiences in each of these locations?
On his television show on April 17, 2013, Mr. O'Reilly said, "I was in a situation one time, in a war zone in Argentina, in the Falklands, where my photographer got run down and then hit his head and was bleeding from the ear on the concrete. And the army was chasing us. I had to make a decision. And I dragged him off, you know, but at the same time, I'm looking around and trying to do my job, but I figure I had to get this guy out of there because that was more important." When and where did this happen?
In his book, The No Spin Zone, Mr. O'Reilly describes covering a protest in Buenos Aires when the military junta surrendered in the Falklands war. He wrote, "A major riot ensued and many were killed." News reports of the protest did not report any fatalities, only several injuries. And the CBS News report on the protest for which O’Reilly gathered video footage also did not refer to any deaths. Did Mr. O'Reilly report this accurately in his book. Does he have any comment on why other reports of this protest do not appear to be consistent with his?
On his radio show on January 13, 2005, Mr. O'Reilly said, "I was in the middle of a couple of firefights in South and Central America." In which countries and when did these firefights occur? Can Mr. O'Reilly describe them?
In The No Spin Zone, Mr. O'Reilly writes about an assignment he had for CBS News in El Salvador in 1982. He says that he reported from a village called Meanguera that was "leveled to the ground and fires were still smoldering. But even though the carnage was obviously recent, we saw no one live or dead. There was absolutely nobody around who could tell us what happened. I quickly did a stand-up amid the rubble and we got the hell out of there." The CBS News report that he filed and narrated and that was broadcast on the CBS Nightly News showed him in Meanguera, but there were people walking about and only two or so structures burned. Did Mr. O'Reilly report his trip to this village accurately in his book? Does he have any comment on why the CBS report does not appear to be consistent with the description in his book?
Did Mr. O'Reilly ever conduct any other reporting trips to El Salvador or Argentina or elsewhere in Central and South America other than the two described in The No Spin Zone (the trip to Argentina at the end of the Falklands war and the trip to El Salvador that included the visit to Meanguera)?
In 2008, Mr. O'Reilly said on his television show that he had been in "in the war zones of [the] Falkland conflict in Argentina, the Middle East, and Northern Ireland." Which war zones was he referring to regarding the Middle East and Northern Ireland? When was he in these war zones? Can he describe his experiences in those locations?
Did Mr. O'Reilly ever report from Montevideo, Uruguay. If so, when and what did he cover? Can he describe his experiences there?
In his book Keep It Pithy, Mr. O’Reilly writes, "I've seen soldiers gun down unarmed civilians in Latin America." Where did this occur?
After NBC News suspended anchor Brian Williams for erroneously claiming that he was nearly shot down in a helicopter while covering the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly went on a tear. On his television show, the top-rated cable news anchor declared that the American press isn't "half as responsible as the men who forged the nation." He bemoaned the supposed culture of deception within the liberal media, and he proclaimed that the Williams controversy should prompt questioning of other "distortions" by left-leaning outlets. Yet for years, O'Reilly has recounted dramatic stories about his own war reporting that don't withstand scrutiny—even claiming he acted heroically in a war zone that he apparently never set foot in.
O'Reilly has repeatedly told his audience that he was a war correspondent during the Falklands war and that he experienced combat during that 1982 conflict between the United Kingdom* and Argentina. He has often invoked this experience to emphasize that he understands war as only someone who has witnessed it could. As he once put it, "I've been there. 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."