A lot of people are conflating Bill O'Reilly and Brian Williams and the brouhahas over whether these two familiar (or once familiar, Williams is already starting to fade from memory a bit) TV talking heads had a penchant for exaggerating at best, or out-and-out lying at worst, about their alleged exploits reporting from dangerous combat zones.
On one level that's a little silly, I guess. Bill O'Reilly is a late-night commentator for Fox News, a.k.a. bloviator, and an avowed conservative. Williams is, or was, a TV news anchor, supposedly objective, and has had a much longer career in news reporting than O'Reilly, who didn't become well-known until his stint as an anchor on a puffy entertainment-and-gossip show. Now that they're brothers-in-scandal, I've heard folks suggest that O'Reilly is the right-wing scalp and that Williams was the left-wing one. But I'm still trying to figure out what's "liberal" about Williams, who seemed to tattoo his love of NASCAR and "the troops," real or invented, on his sleeve.
The O'Reilly allegations heated up over the weekend. As reported by Mother Jones and others, the Fox News host has stated or implied on multiple occasions that he covered combat on the Falkland Islands when Argentina and the United Kingdom waged their strange little war in 1983. But that's provably not so -- only one U.S. reporter ever reached the Falklands (not O'Reilly, who was with CBS News at the time) and that was before the shooting had started. It's agreed that O'Reilly, stationed with other CBS staffers at a swank hotel in Buenos Aries, did cover a street protest after the war ended; Bill O. has made it sound in the re-telling like Kent State, while others suggest it was mostly just a lot of yelling. O'Reilly's version does seem silly -- would covering a 1968 protest in Berkeley make you a "Vietnam war correspondent"?
Some people have suggested that O'Reilly should be suspended like Williams or otherwise punished. That won't happen. First of all, conservatives don't roll that way -- O'Reilly is aggressively fighting back. And don't forget -- a chunk of O'Reilly's credibility was already loofahed away, with no career consequences. I'm bothered by the lies, but I remain more bothered by the "why."
According to Mother Jones, O'Reilly used his supposed experience as "a war reporter" to justify his ability to write and to make commentaries about the Iraq War or to criticize liberal journalists with no combat experience. "I've covered wars, okay?," he reportedly told a 2003 panel on media coverage of Afghanistan. "I've been there. The Falklands, Northern Ireland, the Middle East. I've almost been killed three times, okay.'
But I think O'Reilly, like Williams, were desperately seeking the gravitas, the mythology of World War II's "The Greatest Generation" that took fire and never had its moral authority questioned. Perhaps this was tempered by guilt. When Williams finished high school in the late-middle '70s, there was no U.S. war to fight, or cover, even if the young New Jerseyan had so desired. O'Reilly is different; he could have gone to Vietnam after graduating high school in 1967, but instead he headed for college and a series of deferments, like many of his generational cohorts. They used their freedom to chase their career dreams, but when they found themselves in an anchor chair in an era of renewed militarism, they wanted it both ways.
I think often of the title of a book published a few years ago by the journalist Chris Hedges: War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. It certainly gave meaning -- a feeling they were part of something bigger -- that some people like Williams and O'Reilly want to glom onto, and frankly I think a lot of the news business glorifies war and militarism in ways that are completely unhealthy. I've drastically cut back on cable news so far this year, but when I do watch, the top 20 minutes, even on "liberal" MSNBC, is always "the war with ISIS."
Last time I checked, we weren't at war with ISIS (although that's exactly what ISIS wants, interestingly); the group is a venal gang of murderous hoodlums -- they threaten increased instability in the Middle East and pose a threat to Western journalists and aid workers in the war zone. The U.S. should be part of an international coalition to stop them -- but that's not enough for some commentators. Especially Bill O'Reilly. The other night, he called on America to lead "a holy war" in the Middle East.
"This is now a so-called holy war between radical jihadists and everybody else including peaceful Muslims," O'Reilly told his Fox News viewers. "The Holy War is here and unfortunately it seems the President will be the last one to acknowledge it."
Bill O'Reilly needs a holy war to give his life meaning. That's kind of bizarre -- you'd think that addressing millions of people nightly, making millions of dollars, getting your name, somehow, on best-selling books, etc. -- would be enough. But, no, his short time on this planet would be meaningless without the great clash of civilizations, a clash that he was a voice of...albeit from a heavily guarded studio 8,000 miles away. I guess reporting nightly on people's struggle for meaningful work and a living wage would diminish a Great Man like Bill O'Reilly. And he knows. He's seen combat. He's told us many times.