Newspaper article International New York Times

Fox News and Its Star Talk Show Host Are in It Together on Reporting Flap

Newspaper article International New York Times

Fox News and Its Star Talk Show Host Are in It Together on Reporting Flap

Article excerpt

The profiles of the channel and Bill O'Reilly, its star talk show host, rose together, making it unlikely that he will be punished because of the Falklands controversy.

Hours after the news broke that Brian Williams had misrepresented his account of a helicopter trip in Iraq, he issued an on-air apology. NBC News started an investigation, and within days had suspended Mr. Williams, calling his actions "wrong and completely inappropriate."

When the magazine Mother Jones reported that Bill O'Reilly had engaged in self-aggrandizing rhetoric about his coverage of the Falklands war, he called one of the authors of the article "an irresponsible guttersnipe" and used his nightly show to fight back against his accusers. His bosses at Fox News, including the chief executive, Roger Ailes, rallied to his defense.

Fox's handling of the controversy says a lot about the network. It also says a lot about its most visible star, a man who perhaps more than any other has defined the parameters and tenor of Fox News, in the process ushering in a new era of no-holds-barred, intentionally divisive news coverage.

Since dethroning CNN's Larry King as the king of cable news almost 14 years ago, Mr. O'Reilly has helped transform a start-up news channel into a financial juggernaut, with estimated annual profits of more than $1 billion. He and Fox News have risen not on the back of big interviews or high-impact investigations but on the pugnacious brand of conservatism personified by Mr. O'Reilly.

"Bill's credibility with his audience is not based on his record as a traditional journalist," said Jonathan Klein, a former president of CNN/U.S. "His credibility, in the view of his fans, is based on his trenchant analysis of the events of the day, his pulling no punches, his willingness to call it like it is."

There are other differences between the two controversies. The incident at the center of Mr. O'Reilly's occurred more than 30 years ago; Mr. Williams's happened in 2003. And his accusers are journalists, not military veterans, as they were in Mr. Williams's case. But the most meaningful point of distinction -- and the reason Mr. O'Reilly's job is almost certainly safe -- is that he is not an anchorman, with all of the cultural weight that title carries. He's a professional provocateur.

The accusations against Mr. O'Reilly, which have since been substantiated by other journalists in Argentina at the time, have played neatly into the network's narrative of being the conservative outlier in an industry dominated by liberals.

"Fox News has a market; the market is people who don't trust the news media," said Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University. "That strategy requires personalities like Bill O'Reilly to be under attack from the rest of the news media. When something like this flares up, it gets incorporated into a programming strategy."

David Corn, one of the authors of the Mother Jones article and a former Fox News contributor, said he received the tip about Mr. O'Reilly the day after NBC News announced its suspension of Mr. Williams. According to Mr. Corn's source, Mr. O'Reilly had repeatedly made false claims about his experience covering the Falklands war as a young CBS News correspondent.

Mr. Corn and Daniel Schulman, the other reporter on the article, soon discovered what Mr. Corn describes as a pattern of misrepresentation in Mr. O'Reilly's statements about his experiences in the Falklands.

Last Thursday, the two Mother Jones reporters emailed a Fox News spokeswoman a list of questions. The first one read: "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 a 'war zone' during the Falklands war when he was a correspondent at CBS News. But it appears that no American correspondents were allowed in the Falkland Islands war zone during the conflict. How does Mr. …

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