A good rule of callout culture is to never target someone for the same things you do. No adulterer is more insufferable, after all, than the fire-and-brimstone minister. But when NBC anchor Brian Williams was exposed for fabricating stories of journalistic heroism, poor Bill O’Reilly just couldn’t help himself. There was Williams, that prick, garnering widespread acclaim for the kind of stories Bill had already been making up for years.
A real American doesn’t tolerate that kind of crap, and Bill O’Reilly is a real American. He has evolved into a post-fact reality, nightly defending a singular nation of fear and confabulation against all enemies foreign and domestic. He is a fiction more palpable than himself, and he can’t stop, because it’s all he has.
Some of the story is probably familiar to you. O’Reilly has lied high and low during his nearly 19 years at Fox News, but the latest round of scrutiny about his stories began with an article in The Nation questioning whether O’Reilly’s reporting aided in covering up a massacre in El Salvador in 1982. Instead of primarily focusing on whether O’Reilly acted as a stooge for murderous conservative policy 14 years before his Fox gig, the media instead latched onto O’Reilly’s claims that he’d reported from a leveled town where no one was left alive or dead, when in fact The Nation‘s article included O’Reilly’s CBS footage of a very much not-leveled town with at least eight people walking around in the background of his shots.
That article and O’Reilly’s pummeling Brian Williams inspired Mother Jones‘ David Corn and Daniel Schulman to look closely at O’Reilly’s other tales of hazardous, daring reportage, including his claims to have been in a “war zone” during the Falklands War. Despite O’Reilly’s calling Corn a “despicable guttersnipe” and attempting to handwave away the accusations as a liberal hit job, Corn and Shulman’s charges have stuck. The nearest O’Reilly — or any other American reporter — got to the war zone was 1,200 miles, and his fallback assertion that protests he “alone” covered in Buenos Aires constituted one have been debunked multiple times over by O’Reilly’s former colleagues. Worse, O’Reilly’s own footage contradicts his story that he had a gun pulled on him.
The hits keep coming. Former colleagues flatly deny O’Reilly’s story that he was attacked by rioters in the 1992 L.A. riots. His story that he witnessed bombings in Northern Ireland was denied by Fox News’ own spokesman. Further, his claim that he was on the doorstep when a friend of Lee Harvey Oswald’s committed suicide was impeached by the fact that O’Reilly was in Dallas at the time, (another) 1,200 miles away from the shooting.
This constant churning of preposterous shit runs through O’Reilly’s career like discarded picnic food through geese, a steaming heap of compensatory fantasy meeting defensive wish fulfillment. Media Matters could update daily by debunking The O’Reilly Factor alone. He claimed his tabloid show Inside Edition won two Peabody Awards. He turned a comfortable childhood in the post-war suburban planned community of Levittown (with regular Florida vacations) into an Oliver Twist-tinged struggle, to complete the Horatio Alger arc corporealizing him as the American dream: “You don’t come from any lower than I came from on an economic scale.” Those who would dare wake him from it are met with violence. “I am coming after you with everything I have,” he told the New York Times‘ Emily Steel. “You can take it as a threat.”
The dream subsumes the rest of the world. Fact has been so incorporated into the fictive in O’Reilly’s mind that he genuinely seems incapable of distinguishing between the two. When pressed to defend his Falklands story, he cited Those Who Trespass. “That was the first book that I wrote. Soup to nuts, what happened in Buenos Aires during the Falklands war.”
It’s a novel.
It’s all in there. O’Reilly’s Falklands War story appears, identical to the one he tells in real life. His coverage of the L.A. riots sends ratings “through the roof.” There are even fictional big boobs to match Andrea Mackris’ big boobs. He then explores the duality of man by making his book’s anti-hero news anchor and heroic Irish detective virtual clones of himself.
One O’Reilly grew up poor in Levittown, while another lived outside Miami. One O’Reilly, “at Boston University. . .played halfback on the varsity football team,” fulfilling the dream that real-life prevaricating Marist College club football player Bill O’Reilly wishes were true. (Through all his rugged Irish-Americanness, you can practically hear his soul screaming to be thrown the deep ball by Jack, burning past Bobby and Teddy on defense in a touch football game in Hyannis Port.) One O’Reilly covered the troubles in Northern Ireland. One has a no-nonsense street cop demeanor. Another has his successful broadcast network career thwarted by pinheads who can’t see his value, including one obvious stand-in for CBS’ Bob Schieffer, who bigfoots O’Reilly’s Buenos Aires “riots” story and, for his crimes, has this happen:
The [anti-hero Bill O’Reilly’s] right hand, now holding the oval base of the spoon, rocketed upward, jamming the stainless stem through the roof of [the Bob Schieffer stand-in’s] mouth. The soft tissue gave way quickly and the steel penetrated the correspondent’s brain stem.
When discussing his murders, his anti-hero version adopts the IRA term “sanctions” for the killing of enemies to a good Irish cause. (O’Reilly is nothing if not an American ethnic poseur.) Later, as his hero self reflects on the murders of his anti-hero — which include throwing someone off a balcony, waterboarding someone to death via a rising tide and traveling incognito by plane to slash someone’s throat with a boxcutter, like a good non-terrorist patriot — he can’t even bring himself to outright condemn them. “That’s what makes this such a tough case,” he thinks. “The people [the anti-hero Bill O’Reilly] has killed were all morally bankrupt. The dregs of the Earth.”
The first unsettling takeaway from the book is that, once laid atop the patterns of O’Reilly’s real life, one is surprised to realize that Bill O’Reilly hasn’t actually murdered anyone yet. The second is this: that the stories Bill tells as fiction are nearly identical to the fictions he tells himself and his viewers. The Nation and Mother Jones might have caught him out on the details, but he was telling us he is a vengeful, unhinged fabulist this entire time.
There are two schools of thought on what to do with this information about Bill O’Reilly. The first comes from Gabriel Sherman (on whose indispensable book I relied on for a podcast review of Those Who Trespass). It goes like this: Fox News and Bill O’Reilly are part of a larger right-wing victim complex that feeds on attack because the attacks confirm their false narrative of being besieged “truth-tellers” so dangerous to the left-wing academic-government complex that deranged libturds will try to silence them via any possible smear.
Sherman’s reading is correct, and I won’t put words in his mouth by drawing any conclusions about what action he thinks should be undertaken. That said, there is no shortage of online strategists and sages who will tell you not to bother going after O’Reilly and Fox for the same reason that people tell you, “Don’t feed the trolls.” Fuck that. This chickenshit attitude ultimately lets trolls like O’Reilly win by default. They win when they attack you, they win when you attack them, they win when you go silent. It’s the same line of thinking that tells feminist writers threatened by online rapists that they should just delete their accounts and hope their profiles go away for long enough to no longer be provocative to scum.
What consequence is there for real journalistic organizations anymore when it comes to going after O’Reilly? They get called attackers? O’Reilly calls them attackers merely for reporting facts inconsistent with his epistemic bubble. His fans aren’t going to watch or read those other sites or channels? They don’t already. By this point, O’Reilly has trained his audience to consider digesting independent news an act of race treason on par with slaveowners letting negroes learn to read.
O’Reilly needs his opponents to quail at the endurance needed for challenge. He needs them to feel too sheepish about drawing attention to themselves (and risk being flagged by endowed right-wing media watchdogs for “bias”) and to want to slink away before conspiracy can be applied to mere professionalism. The response will be the same no matter the offense, so go ahead and call Bill O’Reilly what he is. A pathological liar and a paper tiger elevated to a glass desk in front of millions of people he wants to be as scared as he is of the intruding world. Let him revel in being attacked, then keep calling him the same things, and repeating them until they’re the only Google search result anymore. What’s he going to do? Sue historicity?
O’Reilly isn’t a newsman, he’s a blue-eyed cirrhotic cyst erupting acid onto the brass rail at the Now I’ll Tell You What the REAL Problem Is Pub. He’s the guy who sits next to you and brags about how he’d kick the hell out of any thugs daring to bring violence into his neighborhood, stumbles off his barstool, goes outside, reflexively crosses the street to avoid two black kids on the sidewalk two blocks up, then drives home drunk. He’s the guy who picks a fight with you if you correct him, then refuses to throw down because he “was Gold Gloves in college and doesn’t want to end you, man,” then backs away toward his driveway while trying to make eye contact with anyone he thinks is a friend and saying, “I feel sorry for him! I have a pool in my backyard.”
Because that’s the other school of thought about Bill O’Reilly, and something that explains why he leapt on Brian Williams with a predatory recognition of common weakness. O’Reilly long ago turned up the volume on his Real American Thug schtick to drown out the fact that almost everything he has to say is either a lie, bullying or a deracinated piece of non-data. As part of that, he understood something that Brian Williams did: that there is nothing more authentic than a classic American tough guy who’s seen combat.
The only real American group virtually impervious to criticism anymore are soldiers. Of all the lessons we could have learned from Vietnam, the one we took away is that they can never fail but only be failed. Republicans fail them by omitting clear goals, exit strategies and promising only more bodies and bombs. Democrats fail them via what conservatives see as an American Dolchstoßlegende. When they fail themselves, the impact either fades away or reifies them — Lynndie England, the soldiers of Haditha and William Calley either trivialized, forgotten or lionized on the cover of Esquire in spite of everything. In every way but the dearest, they are bulletproof.
Brian Williams was a dull man whose job was telling other people’s stories and seeming essential in spite of that. He knew that the shortest route to authenticity — to appearing to have a resolute and genuine message, to confirm himself as something more solid than a haircut — was not only to be shot at like soldiers but be esteemed and given gifts by them as well. That’s how tempting the Troop Housekeeping SEAL of Approval is: Williams could have had zero original thoughts for decades and walked away with millions of dollars, and instead he needed to seem heroic to people who probably didn’t even think to ask if he wasn’t.
That same desire burns in Bill O’Reilly with an intensity that manifests as sociopathy. He’s just aware enough to know he shovels shit for a living and is lucky if he’s not contradicting himself from one day to the next. Bill O’Reilly is all ad hominem because he has nothing else. In an atmosphere devoid of facts, a legend will have to do, and those who challenge it must be shouted down, threatened or “sanctioned” to intimidate anyone else who might threaten to puncture him next.
The Falklands, Northern Ireland, the L.A. Riots, even Levittown — all falsehoods mired in death or toil — elevate him to a standard of heroism where questions aren’t allowed anymore. Like critics of all good American legends, people who insist on mentioning facts about him are losers and college students, people who lack love and loyalty, whose smartassed treason merits justice swift, uncompromising and unmerciful. If Bill O’Reilly can just prove to you that he’s seen enough combat in service of this country, then no amount of violence and no fiction is impermissible. Give him time to tell enough stories, and he may even ascend to an unassailable, ethereal plane. One of these days, Bill O’Reilly will be so real it won’t even matter if anything about him is true anymore.