In one corner was retired CBS News correspondent Eric Engberg, punching holes in Bill O’Reilly’s tales of courage and derring-do in what he’s called a Falklands “war zone” 32 years ago.
In the other corner—and at times flailing away like he was cornered himself—was O’Reilly, doubling down on dubious yarns about his coverage, as a rookie CBS reporter, of the 1982 hostilities between Britain and Argentina, and calling Engberg “a coward” who never left his hotel room at the Sheraton in Buenos Aires.
“His nickname was ‘Room Service Eric,’” O’Reilly claimed.
It was—for the news and politics junkies who like this sort of thing—thrilling television, punctuated by the sort of rhetorical violence that one seldom gets to enjoy on sedate Sunday mornings.
It mattered little that the two antagonists were a thousand miles apart as they lashed out at each other on rival cable outlets—Engberg on CNN’s Reliable Sources media program and O’Reilly on Fox News’s Media Buzz.
Engberg—who in a Facebook posting on Friday evening wrote a detailed “eyewitness” account of CBS News’s Falklands coverage and O’Reilly’s part in it, a narrative that supported last week’s Mother Jones story asserting that O’Reilly has repeatedly embellished his exploits—accused the Fox News star of “a fabrication and a lie,” adding, “he’s not a real reporter.”
O’Reilly, meanwhile, included Engberg in a vast left-wing conspiracy that is “trying to smear me and impugn my career. Nobody’s gonna do that, OK?” He added: “This is such a smear, and it’s a coordinated smear.”
The rumpled-looking Engberg, his tie loosened and his jacket bunched over his shoulders as he referred every so often to note cards, spoke to Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter from a studio in Sarasota, Florida.
O’Reilly—a disembodied but commanding voice on the phone—spoke to Media Buzz host Howard Kurtz, apparently from home in suburban Long Island. Viewers were free to imagine him in a bathrobe and slippers.
For two senior citizens (Engberg, 73, and O’Reilly, 65), they were powerful pugilists, but Engberg—at least for this referee—won on points, in part because CNN’s Stelter frequently punctuated the conversation by mentioning his own reporting that tended to confirm Engberg’s version of events, and also showing damning video of public appearances in which O’Reilly had made questionable claims.
In one such 2009 appearance, sitting on stage with former NBC foreign affairs correspondent Marvin Kalb, O’Reilly indicated that while he and his camera crew bravely plunged into a violent protest of Argentina’s surrender to the Brits, his CBS News colleagues were hiding in their hotel rooms; but Engberg said he was among a large CBS News contingent in Buenos Aires that were out in the streets that June night covering what he called “a relatively tame riot.”
Engberg also disputed O’Reilly’s claims that Argentine police and soldiers shot live ammo into the crowds and that many protesters were killed; he also cast doubt on O’Reilly’s narrative—which Stelter said he, too, had been unable to confirm—that O’Reilly had pulled an injured CBS cameraman to safety and that a young soldier had pointed an M-16 rifle at his head.
Engberg said, to the contrary, that O’Reilly had defied instructions from the Buenos Aires bureau chief, a Vietnam combat-hardened former Marine named Larry Doyle, to shoot the demonstration without turning on television lights that could attract unwanted attention from angry crowds.
Instead, Engberg said, O’Reilly exposed his crew to an unsafe situation by ordering his cameraman to switch on the lights so that he could do a standup amid the chaos.
And he said O’Reilly initially refused to turn over his videotape so it could be used in a report by Bob Schieffer, the senior CBS correspondent on the scene, for that night’s CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.
“I didn’t come down here to shoot video so that this old man can use it in his story,” Engberg quoted O’Reilly as telling Doyle. “And Larry Doyle said, ‘What old man are you talking about?’ And O’Reilly said ‘Schieffer.’ They wrestled the tape from him and they used it in the Schieffer piece, and Doyle turned to O’Reilly and said, ‘I think you better leave. You don’t belong here.’”
On the friendly territory of Media Buzz—on which host Kurtz framed the dispute over O’Reilly’s claims as a matter of “semantics,” not facts and exaggerations—O’Reilly spent as much time attacking his critics as defending his assertions.
He referred to one of the co-authors of the Mother Jones piece as “this liar David Corn,” never mind that he used to praise him when Corn, a Fox News contributor from 2001 to 2008, was an occasional guest on The O’Reilly Factor.
And he accused Schieffer—who didn’t respond to an email from The Daily Beast—of “plagiarism.”
“But if it’s your colleague and you are working together,” Kurtz chimed in, in a rare effort to challenge his guest and suggest that it’s not plagiarism if journalists are working as a team to produce a report.
“No, I wasn’t working together with these guys. I filed—I got the video,” O’Reilly retorted.
Even though he was on the phone, O’Reilly took control of the interview and occasionally seemed to be filibustering, spending more than a minute reading from a New York Times article on the demonstration that reported incidents of violence but—significantly—made no mention of fatalities among the protesters that O’Reilly insists occurred.
Responding to Kurtz, O’Reilly said that if he had to do it all over again, he would take nothing back.
After Engberg’s interview on CNN, Daily Beast writer Jeff Greenfield agreed with Stelter that O’Reilly was—unlike NBC’s Brian Williams—not apt to face any penalty for his alleged exaggerations.
And on Media Buzz, Baltimore Sun television columnist David Zurawik called O’Reilly’s aggressive response to the charges worthy of academic investigation.
“I think they’ll be studying this in strategic communications and PR courses,” Zurawik said.