Fox News is reportedly releasing a new “primetime 'historical' special series” produced by Bill O'Reilly. O'Reilly, who has written a series of books focused on the deaths of prominent historical figures, has been criticized by historians and critics for shoddy scholarship and ahistorical claims.
Capital New York reporter Alex Weprin writes today that Fox is planning to launch the O'Reilly-produced Legends and Lies in April. Per Fox News, the show will “recount the tales of the greatest characters of America's Wild West, including Jesse James, David Crockett, Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid” and air on Saturday and Sunday nights. Weprin explains that it “will feature interviews with historians and descendants of the people in question, paired with special effects and archival photos.”
O'Reilly, with co-author Martin Dugard, has released a series of popular history books in recent years, titled Killing Jesus, Killing Patton, Killing Kennedy, and Killing Lincoln. But Fox News giving O'Reilly a historical show comes after years of criticism of his previous work in the genre.
For example, in an opinion piece for CNN's “Belief” blog, Notre Dame New Testament and early Christianity professor Candida Moss argued, “The Holy Spirit may have inspired 'Killing Jesus,' but he didn't fact-check it.” According to Moss, O'Reilly botches several things in the book, leading her to conclude, “It's entertaining, but it's historical fan fiction, not history.”
In 2011, controversy erupted after Ford's Theatre announced that O'Reilly's Killing Lincoln would not be sold at the theater's museum bookstore (it was available in the gift shop, however) after a reviewer identified a series of mistakes in the book. According to Rae Emerson, an employee of Ford's Theatre National Historic Site, Killing Lincoln was not fit for the museum bookstore due to “lack of documentation and the factual errors within the publication.”
Killing Lincoln was also criticized in University of New Hampshire professor of history Ellen Fitzpatrick's review for The Washington Post:
“Killing Lincoln” also resurrects an old canard debunked long ago by serious historians: that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was involved in the plot to kill Lincoln, in the hope that he might ascend to the presidency. There is no credible evidence to support such an assertion, nor do O'Reilly and Dugard provide any. (In fact, “Killing Lincoln” offers no direct citations for any of its assertions. In a three-page summary under the heading “Notes,” the authors assure readers that they have consulted “hundreds” of sources; they list the secondary sources they have relied on.)
The authors acknowledge that although “clues . . . point to Stanton's involvement . . . no concrete connection has ever been proven.” In the next sentence, however, they conclude “circumstantially, he was involved” -- a rhetorical conceit that enables the authors to have it both ways. In fact, they repeatedly raise the discredited theory, hinting broadly that Stanton might have betrayed his president, hastening a downward spiral of events that changed the nation “forever.” The purported consequences of Lincoln's death are never really elaborated upon.
O'Reilly defended Killing Lincoln on his Fox News show, copping to “four minor misstatements” in the book, but nonetheless attributing the criticism to “the forces of darkness.” In an interview with USA Today addressing his critics, O'Reilly claimed, “These guys toil in obscurity their whole lives, and a punk like me comes along and sells 2 million copies. They're not happy.”
Last year, several historians and biographers of General George S. Patton objected to O'Reilly's theory -- published in Killing Patton and repeated by O'Reilly while promoting the book -- that Patton had been assassinated by the Soviet Union. (Historians mostly agree that Patton died as a result of complications from a car accident.)