The Dishonesty Behind O'Reilly's Late Show Fabrication Defense


Bill O'Reilly's attempt at damage control on David Letterman's show for his repeated exaggerations about his reporting career was premised on more falsehoods.  

During an appearance on The Late Show -- his first non-Fox TV interview since several stories broke exposing his pattern of embellishing his credentials as a reporter -- O'Reilly sought to defend himself from criticism by falsely suggesting that people have had to go back “38 years” to find anything to dispute. O'Reilly also suggested that his ratings received a “20 percent” boost due to the controversy. These claims are deeply dishonest: many of his remarks under scrutiny were made in the past few years and as recently as last month, and his ratings were largely flat over the month before and after the beginning of the firestorm.

During the interview, Letterman said that people have been arguing, “O'Reilly himself may have said things that were exaggerated or untrue and they had to go back, like, 30 years.” O'Reilly replied: “38 years.” 

But many of O'Reilly's tall tales about his reporting career were made in the past few years, not “38 years” ago.

  • O'Reilly repeatedly claimed to have witnessed nuns being “shot in the back of the head,” including as recently as December 2012. He later claimed he meant that he was merely shown pictures of the shootings.
  • His assertion that he's “seen” “Irish terrorists kill and maim their fellow citizens in Belfast with bombs” was made in his 2013 book. A Fox News spokesperson later claimed he was merely shown pictures of the bombings.
  • And his claim about the danger he faced while covering the 1992 Los Angeles riots was mostly recent made in February 2015.

During the same interview, O'Reilly said that his show “got even more viewers” because of the controversy, saying that his ratings had risen “20 percent up.” O'Reilly's claims were trumpeted by the media without scrutiny.   

O'Reilly did not specify the duration of the ratings shift. But actual data shows that while O'Reilly saw a brief ratings increase immediately following the controversy as viewers tuned in to see his response, he gave back that bump almost immediately, with no longer-term change.

Media Matters looked into the show's nightly ratings -- pulled from TV Newser's Scoreboard posts of cable news -- over a nine-week period between January 19 (one month before the Mother Jones article that kicked off the O'Reilly scandal) and March 20 (one month after).

The daily ratings show a slight decline over the course of the study, and weekly averages of overall viewership and the coveted 25-to-54 demographic during the time period studied appear to be flat. There was a one-day 23-percent overall increase from his show on Friday, February 20 -- the first show on which he addressed the controversy, and a night of the week that typically figures significantly lower ratings -- and Monday, February 23, when he addressed the subject for the second time. But that February 20 show saw an 11-point ratings drop from the night before, further undermining O'Reilly's argument.