From the Front Lines

The reporting was all wrong. Emma Watson (Hermione Grainger from the Harry Potter movies) is not dating Prince Harry – the Australian tabloid item got it all wrong. That tabloid has been sued before of course, but Watson was a good sport about it – because “marrying a Prince not a prerequisite for being a Princess” after all.

Emma Watson shrugged, gracefully. She’s didn’t bother to sue these people – no real harm was done – and this was Australia after all. That’s how they do things down there. That’s where the young Rupert Murdock got his start:

Following his father’s death, when he was 21, Murdoch returned from Oxford to take charge of the family business News Limited, which had been established in 1923. Rupert Murdoch turned its newspaper, Adelaide News, its main asset, into a major success. He began to direct his attention to acquisition and expansion, buying the troubled Sunday Times in Perth, Western Australia (1956) and over the next few years acquiring suburban and provincial newspapers in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and the Northern Territory, including the Sydney afternoon tabloid, The Daily Mirror (1960). The Economist describes Murdoch as “inventing the modern tabloid” as he developed a pattern for his newspapers, increasing sports and scandal coverage and adopting eye-catching headlines.

And then Rupert Murdock moved on. Here, now an American citizen, he created Fox News. In February 1996, Roger Ailes left America’s Talking (now MSNBC) to start the Fox News Channel for Rupert Murdoch, the folks who say that they alone are “Fair and Balanced” – a counterweight to CNN and certainly MSNBC, and to the three broadcast networks, and to the New York Times and Washington Post and all the rest of the liberal mainstream media that persists in questioning the wisdom of angry rich conservatives. That may be why Roger Ailes hires all those pretty and leggy and young blond women to sit around with the angry old white men – for every Bill O’Reilly a Megyn Kelly. The angry old white men get the hot chicks, and there’s a whiff of “tabloid” about the operation. Everything is always a shocking scandal, including that War on Christmas they breathlessly report on each year. No one knows what the hell they’re talking about, but they don’t seem to mind. They’re out to shock you. People are forced to say Happy Holidays, not Merry Christmas! That’s a tabloid headline. There’s nothing there, but Fox News is still surprisingly Australian. Rupert Murdock knows how to move product.

That’s why he hired Roger Ailes – the media consultant for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and for Rudy Giuliani’s first mayoral campaign – to run Fox News. Given that experience, Ailes would figure out how to shock conservative Americans in a tabloid sort of way – and Ailes in turn hired Bill O’Reilly in October 1996 to do the on-air shocking. O’Reilly is perpetually shocked about something liberals are doing and reliably rants about it. Murdock finally had his video political-tabloid, and it did wonderfully. O’Reilly is worth every penny of the eighteen million dollars they pay him each year.

That investment may have finally soured, as Paul Waldman explains:

Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly, host of the highest-rated show in cable news, is under fire for reasons that are drawing comparisons to Brian Williams’ recent troubles. In case you haven’t had the time or inclination to sort through all the back-and-forth, here’s a simple guide to this affair.

It all started with this article by David Corn and Daniel Schulman published in Mother Jones on Thursday, in which they detailed how on many occasions over the years, O’Reilly has characterized himself as a veteran of war reporting. Among the quotes they cited are times when O’Reilly said things like “I’ve reported on the ground in active war zones from El Salvador to the Falklands,” and “having survived a combat situation in Argentina during the Falklands war, I know that life-and-death decisions are made in a flash,” and “I was in a situation one time, in a war zone in Argentina, in the Falklands…” That O’Reilly said these things is not in question. But in fact, O’Reilly was never in the Falklands, and he never reported from any “combat situation.”

The defense:

O’Reilly insists that everything he has said is true, because when he was working for CBS News he reported on a violent protest in Buenos Aires around the time of the Falklands war, and that constitutes a “combat situation” in a “war zone.”

The problem:

That part of the claim is absurd on its face; if covering a protest over a thousand miles away from where a war is being fought constitutes being in a “combat zone,” then that would mean that any reporter who covered an anti-war protest in Washington during the Iraq War was doing combat reporting.

Then there’s the matter of the protest itself. O’Reilly asserts that Argentine soldiers were “gunning people down in the streets” as evidence of how combat-esque the scene was; he wrote in one of his books that “many were killed.” But neither the story that CBS ran that evening nor any contemporaneous reporting mentions anyone being killed. The Post’s Erik Wemple has tried to substantiate O’Reilly’s claim, and been unable to do so. Former CBS reporters who were O’Reilly’s colleagues at the time have also disputed his description of the protest, which was certainly violent, but as far as we know, not actually deadly. But even if everything O’Reilly said about that protest was true, it wouldn’t mean that he had seen combat.

And Emma Watson isn’t dating Prince Harry, but tabloid folks are strange people:

To the surprise of no one who is familiar with his modus operandi, O’Reilly has responded to the evidence against him with a stream of invective against anyone who contradicts him. He called David Corn a “guttersnipe liar,” and called CNN’s Brian Stelter, a media reporter whose sin was merely discussing this story, a “far-left zealot.” When a reporter from the New York Times called to get his comments on the story, he told her that if the article she wrote didn’t meet with his approval, he would retaliate against her. “I am coming after you with everything I have,” he said. “You can take it as a threat.”

Follow all of Waldman’s links and you’ll see how truly strange this is, but it comes down to this:

So why not just say, “I may have mischaracterized things a few times” and move on? To understand why that’s impossible, you have to understand O’Reilly’s persona and the function he serves for his viewers. The central theme of The O’Reilly Factor is that the true America, represented by the elderly whites who make up his audience (the median age of his viewers is 72) is in an unending war with the forces of liberalism, secularism, and any number of other isms. Bill O’Reilly is a four-star general in that war, and the only way to win is to fight.

The allegedly liberal media are one of the key enemies in that war. You don’t negotiate with your enemies, you fight them. And so when O’Reilly is being criticized by the media, to admit that they might have a point would be to betray everything he stands for and that he has told his viewers night after night for the better part of two decades.

It seems we have a special case here:

Brian Williams got suspended from NBC News because his bosses feared that his tall tales had cost him credibility with his audience, which could lead that audience to go elsewhere for their news. O’Reilly and his boss, Fox News chief Roger Ailes, are not worried about damage to Bill O’Reilly’s credibility, or about his viewers deserting him. Their loyalty to him isn’t based on a spotless record of factual accuracy; it’s based on the fact that O’Reilly is a medium for their anger and resentments.

Night after night, he yells about the “pinheads” and other liberals who are destroying this great country, saying the things his viewers wish they could say and sticking it to the people they hate. If anything, this episode proves that the media are out to get him, and he has to stay strong and keep standing up to them.

And that leads back to the original sin:

Fox built its brand not just by convincing conservatives that it was a great place for them to get their news, but by telling them that the rest of the media can’t be trusted, so you almost have to get your news from Fox. In the last couple of years, however, what seemed like a great success of institution-building (including Fox and other media outlets) has begun to look less like a strength of the conservative movement and more like a liability. This was vividly illustrated in November 2012, when Republicans up to and including Mitt Romney convinced themselves that it was just impossible that the American electorate would grant Barack Obama a second term. Within that bubble, Obama was a failed president all right-thinking Americans rejected, and so he would of course lose badly on Election Day; they were genuinely shocked when the election turned out the way it did.

I haven’t yet seen any conservatives arguing that Bill O’Reilly is right, and that covering a violent protest 1,200 miles from a place where a war just ended is in fact seeing combat in a war zone (although I haven’t been watching Fox today, so maybe they have). But the farther they move from reality, the less able they are to make wise strategic decisions and find ways to persuade people who don’t already agree with them. And the more surprised they’ll be the next time they lose an election.

Time’s James Poniewozik sees the same sort of thing, but this way:

Like Brian Williams, O’Reilly told stories about his reporting exploits that seemed to imply they were more dangerous than they were. There were differences in the particulars and the aftermath, though. Williams apologized for saying he was traveling in a helicopter that was hit by an RPG in Iraq when it was not. O’Reilly doubled down on his statements. In his telling, it became a matter of whether you think having reported “in the Falklands” is naturally assumed as meaning “in Buenos Aires at the time of the Falkland Islands war” and whether a violent protest equals a “combat situation.”

And that kind of argument – a debate over interpretation, spin – the motives of his critics – is the friendliest of grounds for O’Reilly to argue in front of his audience. Hell, it’s precisely what you watch O’Reilly for: not for news headlines but for a worldview, not for what happened but what it means – and what it means that your ideological adversaries see it as something else.

It’s no accident that O’Reilly was a chief inspiration for Stephen Colbert’s character on The Colbert Report, for whom he invented the concept of “truthiness”: that what your gut tells you is more important than what the literal facts say – that how the news feels is more important than what the news is.

That means there are no problems here:

The liberal media claims Bill lied about being in a war zone? Well, what is a “war zone” anyway? Look at the footage he showed of demonstrators in the streets! That’s combat enough for me! Case closed.

It’s almost magic.

This is a perfect example, really, of the difference between a news host whose reputation is based on objectivity and one whose reputation is based on subjectivity. You can argue what Williams or O’Reilly deserves, but in the end NBC and Fox both operate first out of practicality and self-preservation. And where it was devastating for Williams to have his veracity challenged in public, for O’Reilly to have this battle is branding.

That would explain O’Reilly once saying this:

But again, look, I mean all of us who are reporters – and I was a reporter for 24 years, even, you know – and I was in El Salvador, and in the Falkland War in Argentina, and in Northern Ireland, and in the Middle East. And I did some pretty risky things. I was single and nobody cared, but you know – a couple of girlfriends would have been – “oh, no more free dinners from Bill.”

But I did. I put myself, you know, in positions that perhaps I should not have, but I got good stories. And that’s what people do. That’s what journalists do. But I volunteered. Nobody sent me. Nobody forced me, I went it. And that’s what these guys did. And these guys were in much more danger than I was ever in, although it got a little hairy in the Falklands, that’s for sure.

Hey, he’s a daredevil hero-reporter. He put his life on line for us! That’s his story and he’s sticking to it.

Or else he’s a bully, as Salon’s Joan Wash explains:

O’Reilly went around the bend on Monday by threatening New York Times reporter Emily Steel, telling her in a phone interview that if he didn’t find her story fair, “I am coming after you with everything I have.” In case she was confused about his meaning, he added: “You can take it as a threat.”

Liberal social media went wild over O’Reilly’s threat, as though he’d crossed some obvious line of human decency or journalistic integrity and there might even be repercussions. But why? Most of us know this is O’Reilly’s MO. Normally he sends his “producer” Jesse Watters out to menace reporters who’ve displeased him; Amanda Terkel tells her 2009 story of being stalked, harassed and ambushed by Watters here; there are many others.

When I criticized O’Reilly for his violent imagery in reporting on Dr. George Tiller before his murder, he invited me on his show promising to have a reasonable debate. Instead he told me to “stop talking” and berated me for having “blood on your hands” – and over the next week, sliced and diced the interview in unflattering and unfair ways and replayed clips with a variety of flunkies (thanks, Juan Williams) agreeing about my perfidy.

But not only does O’Reilly regularly come after critics “with everything I have,” so does his boss, Roger Ailes. I don’t see how O’Reilly’s fabrications, or his threats to reporters, will get him in trouble, when that’s exactly how Ailes runs his Fox News empire. His efforts to intimidate unauthorized-biographer Gabriel Sherman are legendary. When he couldn’t frighten Sherman or his publisher, he turned his bullying on his staffers, making clear they’d pay with their jobs and reputations if they talked to Sherman.

As one Fox employee told Ailes enforcer Brian Lewis, “Look, I know you can kill me. I don’t wanna wake up tomorrow to read I’m gay and fucking sheep.” Ironically, when Ailes began to suspect Lewis himself was a Sherman source, he followed his longtime P.R. guy and tried to ruin his reputation with unproven allegations of “financial irregularities.” (Sherman recounts all of this in his excellent The Loudest Voice in the Room and Media Matters catalogs it here.)

He is a loud voice, as is Bill O’Reilly, but there’s this too:

Fox News host Bill O’Reilly has repeatedly lied about being present at the suicide of Lee Harvey Oswald associate George S. de Mohrenschildt, the left-leaning watchdog group Media Matters alleged in a new report on Tuesday.

In his book “Killing Kennedy” and in several other appearances, O’Reilly has said that as a reporter for the Dallas-based station WFAA-TV he was on the porch of de Mohrenschildt’s daughter’s house in Palm Beach, Florida, when he heard de Mohrenschildt shoot himself with a shotgun in March of 1977.

“At the time, de Mohrenschildt had been called to testify before a congressional committee looking into the events of November 1963. As the reporter knocked on the door of de Mohrenschildt’s daughter’s home, he heard the shotgun blast that marked the suicide of the Russian, assuring that his relationship with Lee Harvey Oswald would never be fully understood. By the way, that reporter’s name is Bill O’Reilly,” O’Reilly wrote in the 2012 book.

Two former colleagues of O’Reilly’s at WFAA-TV, Byron Harris and Tracy Rowlett, told Media Matters O’Reilly was in Dallas at the time of de Mohrenschildt’s suicide.

Media Matters also points to the autobiography of Gaeton Fonzi, an investigator on the House Select Committee on Assassinations, who wrote that O’Reilly called him to ask about the assassination.

Oops. And there was this:

ESPN host Keith Olbermann was only too happy to name Fox’s Bill O’Reilly his “World’s Worst Person in Sports” on Wednesday, as he dissected O’Reilly’s portrayal of himself as a former star athlete.

“This is fun,” Olbermann – who regularly blasted O’Reilly during his tenure at MSNBC – said. “This brings back memories. I’ll stick to his stories about sports and how great he was and how all his teams in high school and college were virtually undefeated.”

O’Reilly brought up his athletic prowess during a radio interview with Olbermann’s colleague Dan Le Batard on Monday, saying he played on the varsity football team at Marist College.

“We were undefeated our senior year,” O’Reilly said. “That was a pretty good deal.”

Unfortunately for O’Reilly, Le Batard pointed out that, as Olbermann reported in 2005, Marist did not field a varsity football team until 1978 – seven years after he graduated.

Oops again, but Paul Farhi, the Washington Post’s media reporter, notes the effect of the latest oops:

O’Reilly’s aggressive statements have kept the Mother Jones story in the news for several days, which may have fueled a mini-bump in his ratings. The O’Reilly-hosted “O’Reilly Factor” attracted 3.33 million viewers on Monday night after several days of headlines, a 10 percent increase over his average for the month.

It pays to do things backwards:

O’Reilly has reversed the usual crisis-management strategy, which is first to recite the facts clearly and simply and then get out of the way, said Lanny Davis, the veteran Washington crisis manager who advised President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Redskins owner Daniel Snyder on the team’s controversial name, among a string of high-profile cases.

“I would have advised Bill to get out all the facts about what happened first before attacking,” said Davis, who has appeared many times on O’Reilly’s show and considers him a friend. “You can’t avoid the facts, so get them out there. And if you made a mistake, admit it quickly.”

Davis also advises his clients against attacking an accuser’s motives. “Even if you’re right, it looks like you’re changing the subject or avoiding the merits of the case,” he said.

Forget that:

Fox has given no indication that it intends to investigate O’Reilly’s Falklands’ statements, let alone discipline him for them. The network issued a one-sentence statement over the weekend: “Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes and all senior management are in full support of Bill O’Reilly.”

That suggests O’Reilly and Ailes may even view the controversy surrounding their star not as a crisis, but as a brand-building opportunity, said a New York communications specialist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he works with several TV networks. The executive said O’Reilly’s attack strategy is in keeping with his pugilistic image and with Fox News’ self-promotion as the “fair and balanced” alternative to the liberal media. By making the avowedly liberal Corn and Mother Jones the issue, “Fox News has turned this into another partisan shouting match,” he said.

Fox insiders say neither O’Reilly nor Fox intended to prolong the story by making his threatening comment to New York Times reporter Emily Steel on Monday. But they said O’Reilly had no plans to apologize, either.

The tabloid folks never apologize. They run the headlines:

Elvis Is Alive and Running for President!

Computer Virus Spreads to Humans!

Alien Bible Found! They Worship Oprah!

Abraham Lincoln Was A Woman!

Those actually appeared on the rack in the checkout line at supermarkets. Bill O’Reilly was a daredevil hero-reporter! Why not? No one takes these things seriously. And then there are those who watch Fox News.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to From the Front Lines

  1. Rick says:

    I do find it pretty strange that a sizable number of Americans get their news from someone who thinks that truth is an overrated concept.

    A great story I sort of recall about O’Reilly was, I think, when some interviewer in Canada, on air, questioned his accuracy about mistakenly saying something was from the Bible, and he immediately threatened to rally all his followers to boycott Canadian goods, or something — a threat, he mentioned, he successfully pulled off against France! Which, it was then pointed out to him, he didn’t. Coincidentally, France’s sales to America actually went up after his threat.

    And on the Daily Show last night, Jon Stewart half-heartedly defended O’Reilly falsely claiming he was in a war zone, by showing a photo of O’Reilly in front of the title of his show, “No Spin Zone”, and rhetorically asking, so what’s the big deal? “Misreprenting the zone he’s in is kind of his hook!”

    But hey, remember the Columbia University riots? Back when I worked for NBC News, I was in the middle of all that! (Actually, I was riding in the car of a radio reporter friend of mine who was reporting back from the scene, although we never actually saw any violence, per se. I think maybe that happened the day before.)

    Hey, wait! I was also at Kent State! Remember those shootings? (Although I was there several years before the shootings, touring the campus because I was applying to go there. They eventually rejected me, with my mediocre high school grades, since I was from out of state and Kent was an Ohio state school.)

    But I’m 70, and so O’Reilly’s audience is actually older than I am?

    And what does it mean when they say that “the median age of his viewers is 72” anyway? Maybe, at the lower-end, some busy mother leaves her newborn in the bouncy, aimed toward O’Reilly, while somewhere else, at the higher-end, there’s some 144-year-old, sleeping in the TV room of a nursing home?

    To me, that doesn’t seem that far out, since I’ve always figured whoever is watching him has no more clue what he’s talking about than I do.

    Rick

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