The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple reported “factual problems” with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s book, Killing Reagan, which examined the attempted assassination of former President Ronald Reagan. Killing Reagan in particular drew intense criticism from Reagan biographers and aides, who said the “garbage, total BS” book “does a disservice to history.” The criticism led to an extended feud with conservative columnist and former Reagan speechwriter George Will after Will called O’Reilly “a hack” who “slander[ed]” Reagan.
On October 20, Wemple examined a passage in Killing Reagan alleging that during a 1984 photo-op, “Reagan faltered under tough questioning from commonly tough questioner Sam Donaldson” of ABC News, because of injuries related to the assassination attempt. However, Donaldson told Wemple himself that he “wasn’t there” at the photo-op. Wemple “requested video of the press availability from the Ronald Reagan Library” and found that pool reporters who quizzed the president didn’t “get very far” because “the entire Q&A lasted less than a minute.” Contrary to O’Reilly’s characterization, the exchange “doesn’t come off very dramatically,” and O’Reilly’s “confrontation” was “was merely [a journalist] asking a reasonable question and then following up very quickly with a clarification.”
As this blog noted on Saturday, this passage has factual problems. Donaldson, for one, tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “I wasn’t there.” The 82-year-old retired newsman says he was in Santa Barbara with other members of the press, while a small contingent of rotating pool members went to the ranch to photograph and question Reagan. Charles Bierbauer, a former CNN correspondent who covered Reagan, told us that he, in fact, was the one who’d asked these questions.
Eager to learn a bit more about this episode, the Erik Wemple Blog requested video of the press availability from the Ronald Reagan Library. It’s embedded at the top of this post. Starting at the 1:38 mark, pool reporters begin quizzing the president about various topics. They don’t get very far. “I’m not going to take any questions at a — at a photo opportunity,” says Reagan at one point.
The entire Q & A took less than a minute. And contrary to the “action-packed” description in “Killing Reagan,” it doesn’t come off very dramatically, either. (Efforts to secure comment from O’Reilly, Dugard and the publisher of “Killing Reagan” have failed). It sounds like a few journalists trying to get a snippet of newsworthy material from the president on a midsummer day. Where O’Reilly sees Donaldson in “full confrontational mode,” the video indicates that Bierbauer — now dean of the College of Information and Communications at the University of South Carolina — was merely asking a reasonable question and then following up very quickly with a clarification.
O’Reilly and his Killing series of books have both come under repeated scrutiny for misrepresenting or lying about the history he sets out to examine. O’Reilly himself has been widely criticized for lying about his experiences during multiple historical events, including the Falklands War, the 1992 Los Angeles riots, terrorist bombings in Northern Ireland, and the execution of four Americans in El Salvador.