Wrapping up a guest appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s “The O’Reilly Factor” program last night, Fox News host/political commentator Megyn Kelly joked that he had become a real “sweetheart” during the last week, and she wryly wondered why. Kelly was right: the usually combative, right-leaning cable news host has appeared more subdued than usual lately, chastened even. The reason, I believe, is the still-unresolved, ticking time bomb over a story O’Reilly seems to have made up involving his work as a reporter in the 1970s at Dallas’ WFAA Channel 8, about the suicide of a figure in the JFK assassination probe. It’s a tale he needs to come clean about publicly—or else relinquish his top-rated news commentary show.
As those who’ve followed this controversy know, O’Reilly’s been under attack for a series of exaggerations he’s made over the years involving everything from witnessing nuns being shot in El Salvador (turns out he only saw photos of that) to watching terrorists “kill and maim their fellow citizens” in Northern Ireland with bombs (oops; he just saw pictures of that, too). Because some of these charges originated with left/liberal news sources (Mother Jones magazine, Media Matters for America), O’Reilly and the FOX News Channel have been able to write them off as predictable, politically-driven smears. The thing is, though, the suicide story is different. Dallas’ Hugh Aynesworth told Jim Schutze the other day it never happened. So, this one isn’t a hit job by some commie hipster who doesn’t love America—but an apparent outright lie spun by O’Reilly himself. And for those in the news business, making stuff up is a major sin. Ask NBC’s Brian Williams. Or Stephen Glass of The New Republic. Or Jayson Blair of The New York Times.
Some say this flap doesn’t matter because O’Reilly is just an “entertainer,” even a “performance artist.” Others say who cares, because Fox is really “Faux” News, and they fabricate all the time. As a longtime fan, I disagree. Fox is a right-of-center counterbalance to CNN (moderately left of center) and MSNBC (much further to the left) and other elite national media (NYT, etc.), many of whose reporters and editors are hostile to traditional heartland values. FNC speaks to a big part of the country, and of course they’re not all saber-rattling, goose-stepping goobers, as many on the left (and the Ron Paul right) would have you believe. Besides its dominating ratings the channel boasts many solid journalists (Ed Henry, Catherine Herridge, James Rosen, Bret Baier), in addition to its nighttime lineup of news-based opinion hosts like Kelly and O’Reilly. With their continuing stubborn silence on the suicide story, though, O’Reilly and FNC are tarnishing their brand, drip by drip by drip.
Besides O’Reilly himself—whose “no spin” stock-in-trade is supposedly “looking out for the folks” by speaking truth to power—others losing credibility over O’Reilly’s Big Lie include FNC’s allegedly objective media critic Howard Kurtz. While CNN’s Brian Stelter of “Reliable Sources” was addressing the JFK tale head-on Sunday—granted, they’re not without a dog in the fight—Kurtz never mentioned it once during his “Media Buzz” hour, an oversight that was disingenuous at best. The irony is that, for O’Reilly, the solution to his JFK problem is simple: Either come forward with proof that he really was in Florida that March day in 1977; or ‘fess up to concocting the tale, ask the public for forgiveness, and try to move on. Until he does, he’s fair game to be hounded about it during every interview he gives and every public appearance he makes.