Did Bill O'Reilly Really Witness A “Firefight” In El Salvador?

Bill O'Reilly has told inconsistent stories about a reporting trip he took to El Salvador during that country's civil war in the early 1980s. While O'Reilly has suggested on his radio show that he witnessed a “firefight” with “guerrillas all over the place” and “people just shooting everywhere,” in describing what appears to be the same reporting trip in two of his autobiographies, O'Reilly makes no mention of these dramatic details. The alleged episode was also absent from the segment CBS News aired based on O'Reilly's reporting in the region.

O'Reilly has recently faced intense scrutiny for repeatedly embellishing his experiences as a reporter. The Fox News host has made dubious claims about witnessing deaths during a riot in Argentina, even though numerous other journalists present at the incident dispute that anyone was killed. He repeatedly said he “heard” the gunshot that killed a figure linked to the investigation of John F. Kennedy's assassination, despite voluminous evidence to the contrary. O'Reilly also suggested he “saw nuns get shot in the back of the head” while reporting in El Salvador, even though the incident in question took place months before he arrived in the country. He claimed to have seen “Irish terrorists kill and maim their fellow citizens” while reporting from Northern Ireland, another apparent falsehood.

Defending his comments about Northern Ireland and the nuns in El Salvador, O'Reilly and a spokesperson have implausibly claimed that when boasting of having seen these events, he merely meant he had seen images of them.

O'Reilly has also apparently been inconsistent in describing another of his supposed “combat” experiences, this time regarding a reporting assignment for CBS News in El Salvador.

In 2006, a caller to his radio show invoked the story of Rachel Corrie, an American college student who was killed trying to stop an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip. O'Reilly responded by explaining that he “admire[s] people who will go out and demonstrate for peace,” but “if you put yourself in a war zone, you're gonna get hurt.” He continued, telling the caller that the “first time I saw combat, all right, was in El Salvador.”

O'Reilly then recounted how during a reporting trip to the Morazán province to investigate a town that had supposedly been decimated in the conflict, “there was a firefight in a town called San Francisco Gotera.” In O'Reilly's telling, “when you see what happens when people start to shoot at each other, it is nothing like the movies. It's nothing like -- it's just sheer panic. All right? People just shooting everywhere, running everywhere. Screaming, noise, chaos.”

OREILLY: First time I saw combat, all right, was in El Salvador. And I was assigned to go up to a place called Morazán, which is way up in the mountains abutting Nicaragua. And my assignment was to go to a town and to find out what happened in that town because nobody had heard from anybody in the town. Now, subsequently, I got to the town after a long, long odyssey, and everybody was dead in the town. And nobody knew who killed them because it was impossible to say.

Anyway, while I was on that assignment, there was a firefight in a town called San Francisco Gotera, which were a big Salvadorian army base, a government army base there, and there were guerrillas all over the place. And it was -- and when you see what happens when people start to shoot at each other, it is nothing like the movies. It's nothing like -- it's just sheer panic. All right? People just shooting everywhere, running everywhere. Screaming, noise, chaos. All right?

And the people who keep their heads, win, and the people who lose their heads, die. Now, if you're in the middle of that as a civilian, you're gonna get hurt. All right? Now, all the journalists who were down in El Salvador, and subsequently in the Falklands War -- I went there afterward -- I mean, we were trained what to do. But even then, even then, I mean, I had cameramen who panicked and who were hurt. And, I mean, it is unbelievably intense.

And all of you war veterans listening know what I'm talking about here. That you were trained to do it. You're trained to be there, keep your composure under unbelievable stress. There isn't anything more stressful in the whole world than that. That's the most stressful condition you can ever be in, close-quarter combat.

San Francisco Gotera was the scene of numerous battles over the years that were extensively reported. But O'Reilly's account of what seems to be the same reporting trip in his book The No Spin Zone excludes any mention of having been present for an intense firefight while at the fort.

In the 2001 book, O'Reilly extensively details his El Salvador trip, describing how he went to the Morazán province to investigate a possible massacre in Meanguera and made a stop in San Francisco Gotera. He mentions seeing an officer whipping soldiers for falling asleep on duty in San Francisco Gotera -- and later details being stopped on the road by a group of armed men, who turn out to be government soldiers. But O'Reilly does not describe a violent conflict taking place at the fort the way he did on the radio. From The No Spin Zone:

A few weeks after taking the CBS job I was flown to El Salvador to report on the war going on there at the time. I drew an assignment that sent me to the Morazán province in the mountainous northeastern part of that beautiful country. This was “Indian country,” a place where the communist guerrillas ("los muchachos") operated with impunity. It was a dangerous place, and my crew -- driver, producer, and cameraman -- was not thrilled to be going there.

It took us a full day to drive to Morazán from San Salvador, the capital city, because all the bridges had been blown up and we had to ford the rivers in our van. This was slow going, making us easy targets. Our only protection was a message painted in black letters over and over again on the sides of the van: Periodistas -- no dispare (Journalists -- don't shoot). None of us had much confidence that the message would be heeded.

After about eight hours on the “road” we rolled into the small town of San Francisco Gotera, the last village in the province held by the U.S.-backed government troops. The soldiers were housed in an old-style fort complete with wooden walls. As we drove through the gates, we saw three men hanging from hooks by their tied wrists. They were being whipped. We thought they were captured guerrillas.

We were wrong. It turned out that they were Salvadoran soldiers who had fallen asleep on guard duty the night before. The captain in charge of the garrison cheerfully told me that he would have shot the men except they were under age sixteen. But the next time they did not fulfill the assignment, he would shoot them pronto. Nobody doubted his word.

El capitán also gave us the local war news. The "muchachos" had wiped out a small village called Meanguera a few miles to the south because its mayor was deemed friendly to the government. The atrocity had not been confirmed, though, because nobody in his right mind would go into the guerrilla-controlled area.

When I told the captain that my assignment was to check the story out, he rolled his eyes, smiled, and said, "Vaya con Dios" (Go with God).

God was good, and after traversing the worst road I have ever seen, we arrived in Meanguera without incident a few hours later. The place was leveled to the ground and fires were still smoldering. But even though the carnage was obviously recent, we saw no one live or dead. There was absolutely nobody around who could tell us what happened. I quickly did a stand-up amid the rubble and we got the hell out of there.

As we were making our way back to the safety of the fort, a group of heavily armed men suddenly appeared in the road ahead of us and waved for us to stop. This is one of the worst things that can happen in any out-of-control war zone. Slowly, and I mean slowly, we got out of the van with our hands up. The leader of the group, a teenager, had a bullet belt crisscrossing his chest. All the teens were wearing bandanas. Who the hell were these guys?

After eyeing us for about two minutes, the leader stepped forward and identified himself as a sergeant in the Salvadoran Army. It turned out that he and his boys were government soldiers on a reconnaissance patrol. I quickly mentioned the captain's name and that we had been up to Meanguera. They all had a big laugh over that, saying we had cojones. Within a few minutes we were back on the wretched but welcomed road to San Salvador.

The next day I filed my report. I explained that while a scorched-earth policy was clearly in effect in remote villages -- the evidence was right there on tape -- it was impossible to say just who was doing the scorching. Could be the muchachos, could be the government. The ninety-second package contained great video and a fairly impressive “on the scene in a very bad place” stand-up by yours truly. I was looking forward to seeing Dan Rather introduce your humble but now “macho” correspondent on CBS Evening News.

O'Reilly describes no other assignments in El Salvador in his book and writes that he left to report from Argentina soon after.

That report O'Reilly filed for CBS News from El Salvador -- unearthed last month by The Nation -- includes O'Reilly's reporting from Meanguera. It too makes no mention of O'Reilly having witnessed an intense combat situation. To the contrary, O'Reilly opens the report by saying, “these days, Salvadoran soldiers appear to be doing more singing than fighting, even here in the northeast, the heart of rebel country.”

O'Reilly adds that a military helicopter took O'Reilly and a CBS News crew on a tour of areas formerly held by rebels, and they saw “signs of war -- houses destroyed and dead animals -- but no signs of insurgent forces.” O'Reilly's description in No Spin Zone of seeing Meanguera “leveled” with “no one alive or dead” is inconsistent with the segment, which apparently shows unharmed civilians walking through the wreckage of the damaged village, as both The Nation and Mother Jones have detailed.

To sum up: In all three accounts, O'Reilly reports that he visited a military fort and the village of Meanguera, which he says was damaged by guerillas. But only in the 2006 radio segment does he mention seeing a “firefight.” He does not mention seeing fighting in his book, and he explicitly said he saw “no signs of insurgent forces” during the CBS News segment. And while O'Reilly said that “everybody was dead” in Meanguera during the radio segment and writes that the village was “wiped out” in his book, his CBS segment apparently shows unharmed civilians walking among the wreckage of destroyed buildings.

O'Reilly provides what appears to be a more condensed account of the same assignment in his 2008 book A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity, describing his El Salvador trip as the “first time I entered a war zone.” While he mentions being worried about being in “heavily forested mountains, with all kinds of armed bad guys roaming around and no law in sight” -- and that “occasionally” “soot hit the fan” -- he does not detail a massive firefight at San Francisco Gotera. From the book [emphasis added]:

As I progressed as a news reporter, the fear factor ratcheted up. The first time I entered a war zone, I did get a bit spooked. It was El Salvador, 1981, and as the Air Florida plane from Miami dropped out of the clouds, I looked out the window and saw tanks ringing the San Salvador airport. This was not a movie set. Less than two hours prior, I had been safe in south Florida. Now all that had changed. Real war, guns, and death lay before me. It was sobering, to say the least.

But, again, I relished the challenge and banished the fear from my mind. When the CBS News bureau chief asked for volunteers to check out an alleged massacre in the dangerous Morazán territory, a mountainous region bordering Nicaragua, I willingly went. And I'll freely admit it was damn frightening in those heavily forested mountains, with all kinds of armed bad guys roaming around and no law in sight. But I learned a tremendous amount about the conflict and about myself. I could face a high-risk situation. It was a huge confidence builder.

However, I should tell you one very important thing: I was never stupid. I never took foolish chances. I did my job and calculated the safety factor all the time. Once in a while, I made a mistake. But, generally, I kept my head down when the soot hit the fan, as it occasionally did.

O'Reilly has made other vague references to being present for a firefight at San Francisco Gotera. During a damage-control appearance last month on Hugh Hewitt's radio show, O'Reilly was asked by Hewitt whether he has “been in combat.” O'Reilly responded by saying that “you have to define what the situation is. I've been shot at a couple of times, once in Argentina. We were in a fort in San Francisco Gotera that took fire in El Salvador.” 

On his Fox News show in 2012, O'Reilly told a guest who said she had left El Salvador as a war refugee, “when you left El Salvador in 1982 I was there getting shot at.”