Fact-checkers get ready, there's a new Bill O'Reilly book arriving in stores this week. If Killing Reagan is anything like his previous forays into the historical genre, and if it's anything like the dubious memoirs the Fox News anchor has penned that helped improve his life story, the new tome will likely be rife with dubious assertions that will have scholars scratching their heads.
Killing Reagan follows the chart-topping success of O'Reilly's Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy, Killing Jesus, and Killing Patton, all co-written with Martin Dugard. Several of the books have been charred by historians for being off-base and weakly researched.
Of course, last winter O'Reilly's reputation as a “straight shooter” took a major hit when it was revealed that over the years he'd gone all Walter Mitty by regularly rewriting his own professional past. He did it by puffing up his pedestrian dispatches as a network news correspondent during his pre-Fox days and dressing them up as death-defying events.
In other words, O'Reilly's book-writing career to date seems to revolve around fabricating fantastic claims about himself, and getting lots of stuff wrong about well-documented historical events.
In that sense, he's the perfect Fox News penman.
In the past, the press has mostly gazed with wide wonder on O'Reilly's book sales prowess. During a puffy 60 Minutes profile at the time of the Killing Jesus release, O'Reilly actually suggested to Norah O'Donnell that God, or the “Holy Spirit,” directly inspired him to write the book. (And not the $10 million advance he pocketed, apparently.)
But in light of revelations about O'Reilly's habitual, and very unsubtle, rewriting of his own history, journalists should be more wary about his publishing endeavors.
The avalanche of embarrassing O'Reilly revelations this year began when Mother Jones detailed how O'Reilly had “recounted dramatic stories about his own war reporting that don't withstand scrutiny.” Specifically, O'Reilly claimed “many were killed” in a June 1982 Buenos Aires protest following the Falkland Islands war that he covered as a CBS News correspondent; a protest he compared to a “war zone.” But news accounts from that time cite some street injuries and chaos in the Argentine capital, but no deaths.
O'Reilly responded with a vengeance, rushing on the air to denounce Mother Jones editor David Corn's truth-telling. But O'Reilly's hot-headed defense soon went silent when the facts began to pile up against him and when other journalists in Buenos Aires at the time flatly contradicted O'Reilly's puffed-up retelling:
- Former CBS cameraman Manny Alvarez: “Nobody remembers this happening.”
- Former CBS sound engineer Jim Forrest: “I was on that crew, and I don't recall his version of events.” He added, “There were certainly no dead people. Had there been dead people, they would have sent more camera crews.”
- Former CNN reporter Jim Clancy: “I was there...it is clear to me Bill O'Reilly is not truthful.”
- Former CBS News correspondent Charles Gomez said he “did not see any bloodshed” while covering the street protest.
- Former NBC News correspondent George Lewis stressed the protest was “not a combat situation.”
But that was just the beginning.
Media Matters soon documented two more jaw-dropping O'Reilly fabrications. First, evidence contradicted his claim, recounted in Killing Kennedy, about standing on a front porch and hearing the shotgun blast that killed a key figure in the investigation into President John F. Kennedy's assassination. He also lied about witnessing the execution of four American churchwomen while reporting from war-torn El Salvador.
More? The Guardian reported that former O'Reilly colleagues from his time at Inside Edition disputed accounts he told over the years about being attacked by protesters while covering the Los Angeles riots in 1992. And as for previous claims that O'Reilly had witnessed terrorist bombings in war-torn Northern Ireland? Scratch those from his resume. O'Reilly made that up, too.
You could say he takes the same approach with his historical books, starting with 2011's Killing Lincoln.
“The narrative contains numerous errors of people, place, and events,” wrote Lincoln scholar Edward Steers Jr. in North & South magazine, where he listed scores of errors. “If all of the above sounds like nitpicking, consider this. If the authors made mistakes in names, places, and events, what else did they get wrong? How can the reader rely on anything that appears in 'Killing Lincoln'?”
O'Reilly kept up the hot streak while mangling biblical history in Killing Jesus. Once again, experts were stunned at the ineptitude.
“I can't provide a serious review because it is hard for me to believe that he published it with a straight face. This book is horrible on so many levels,” read a review from a professor at a seminary. “Of all the problems with this book it is his complete lack of understanding about history that is most frustrating. He claims to separate myth from history, but I don't think he knows the difference.”
O'Reilly's work was so patently sloppy, even conservative outlets unloaded. “I found this popular book contains no fewer than 133 historical errors,” wrote a biblical scholar at the far-right website WND, who stressed O'Reilly failed “to get a single date right in the life of Christ. Not one. It is a landmark achievement.”
O'Reilly has made a handsome living misleading viewers about current events for decades now. So I suppose it's not surprising he'd make an equally handsome living making stuff up about historical figures, and about himself.
But let's be clear: he's a fabricator, not an historian.