Bill O'Reilly's false claim that he witnessed the brutal 1980 murders of four American women in El Salvador -- and his excuse, after his lie was exposed, that he meant he saw photos of their bodies -- is drawing harsh criticism from journalists who covered the story and lawyers who worked with the nuns' families to bring justice in the case.
O'Reilly has recently faced scrutiny for a series of fabrications he has told over the years about his reporting career. Last week, Media Matters reported that O'Reilly had repeatedly suggested he saw nuns murdered in El Salvador while reporting for CBS News, despite the fact that the incident in question occurred before he arrived in the country. O'Reilly told his radio audience in 2005 that he'd “seen guys gun down nuns in El Salvador.” More recently, he said on his Fox News program, “I was in El Salvador and I saw nuns get shot in the back of the head.”
After Media Matters challenged O'Reilly's story, he told Mediaite that he merely meant he'd seen “horrendous images” of the murdered nuns while reporting from El Salvador.
His apparent effort to use the brutal murders to bolster his own history as a journalist is drawing harsh rebukes from those who represented the families of the victims in legal cases related to the murders.
“It's disgusting, it's reprehensible,” said Patti Blum, an attorney who worked with the families on a civil case for the Center for Justice and Accountability. “To use the death of four women who were in El Salvador just to do good for your own self-aggrandizement is unsavory.”
Scott Greathead, a founder of Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, which is now Human Rights First, spent time in El Salvador representing relatives of the nuns during the prosecution of the killers.
He said of O'Reilly's claims and his weak excuse, “I don't know why he said that and why he came to say it. I know he didn't see it and nobody saw it and anyone who knew about that incident would have known they were killed in secret. Hundreds of thousands of people have seen pictures of it and I don't know anyone else being confused about what they saw.”
He later added, “I don't think anyone should be making up stories about this, to invent a story. I know from representing the families from all this time they remain very, very sensitive about what happened to their sisters and daughters. Distorting the truth is appalling.”
Journalists who covered the nuns, both at the time of their murders and in the years after, also criticized O'Reilly.
Charles Krause, a former CBS News reporter who said he flew in to El Salvador with the nuns and covered their murders for the network, called out Fox News for defending O'Reilly by claiming he has been the victim of dishonest critics.
"I am outraged by the McCarthy-like smear campaign Fox News is using to try to save its bloviator from oblivion by suggesting that anyone, anyone who corrects the record regarding O'Reilly is part of some leftwing conspiracy that's out to get him," he said via email. “There is no conspiracy, leftwing or otherwise, that I am part of or aware of.”
Photographer Susan Meiselas, who was at the site when the nuns' bodies were exhumed and photographed them, told Media Matters, “for someone to pretend to have participated in that or witnessed it, it's outrageous.”
And Pat Marrin, a reporter for the National Catholic Reporter who has reported on the murders in the past, said such a claim “destroys credibility.”
“That he would latch on to this to show that he's a real news person ... I don't know what the logic of grabbing this story for him is,” he said, adding it shows “a big ego.”