A disputed tale about his reporting days in Dallas could turn into a big problem for Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, who has the most-watched program on cable news. The story, as the host of “The O’Reilly Factor” has told it in his books including Killing Kennedy and Kennedy’s Last Days and on the Fox News Channel, occurred during his stint as a reporter for WFAA Channel 8 in the 1970s. Reporting on a figure in the investigation into the John F. Kennedy assassination named George de Mohrenschildt—a Russian emigre who’d befriended Lee Harvey Oswald—O’Reilly claimed that he was standing outside the house in Palm Beach, Florida, where, and when, de Mohrenschildt apparently killed himself with a shotgun blast one day in March of 1977. Wrote O’Reilly: “As I knocked on the door, I heard a shotgun blast. He had killed himself.”
But Tracy Rowlett and Byron Harris, two of O’Reilly’s former colleagues at WFAA, have come forward to refute O’Reilly’s claim, telling the website Media Matters that he was in Dallas, not Florida, on the day the suicide occurred. Said Harris: “He stole [his reporting on the suicide] out of the newspaper. … I guarantee Channel 8 didn’t send him to Florida to do that story because it was a newspaper story, it was broken by the Dallas Morning News.” Contacted for comment, an FNC spokeswoman referred us to Henry Holt, which published O’Reilly’s Kennedy books. Holt’s Patricia Eisemann hasn’t replied yet to our email.
O’Reilly’s alleged embellishment in the de Mohrenschildt story has taken on more importance in recent days, following the suspension of NBC News anchor Brian Williams earlier this month for exaggerating his experiences in the Iraq war. In the last few days, the combative, right-leaning commentator seemed to have successfully defended his reporting on the 1982 Falklands War, after it was attacked for fabrications by Mother Jones magazine and some of O’Reilly’s former colleagues at CBS News. In that instance, a good case arguably could be made for either side. But the facts in this latest flap seem more clear-cut—and therefore more of a threat to O’Reilly’s credibility and top-rated status. He’s a news commentator, not a news anchor like Williams, but he’s long touted his “no-spin,” truth-telling approach to events.
UPDATE: We’ve just heard back from Henry Holt and Co. publicity director Pat Eisemann, who writes: “We fully stand behind Bill O’Reilly and his bestseller “Killing Kennedy” and we’re very proud to count him as one of our most important authors.”