What is worse? Bragging that you “covered” a war that you didn’t cover? Or “covering up” a war crime?
Judging by the firestorm that hit Bill O’Reilly last week, the US media (with the exception of HuffPo’s excellent Roque Planas) clearly thinks O’Reilly’s war-zone exaggerations are worse than his role in covering up, either intentionally or unwittingly, a massacre.
To recap: The massacre took place in El Salvador, in the small village of El Mozote near the Honduran border, on December 11, 1981. It was carried out by the US-created and -trained Atlacatl Battalion. Between 733 and 900 villagers were slaughtered.
New York Times journalist Ray Bonner was one of the first outsiders on the scene, having walked for days from Honduras to get to El Mozote. His report on the killing ran on the front page of the Times on January 27, 1982. That day, The Washington Post also published a front-page story by Alma Guillermoprieto, who arrived at El Mozote shortly after Bonner. Both stories were accompanied by photographs by Susan Meiselas.
The Reagan Administration went into damage-control mode. The White House was worried that reports of atrocities committed by its Salvadoran allies would jeopardize its plan to increase military assistance to the country. Bonner was especially targeted by administration officials, who pressured the Times to pull him from El Salvador (Reagan’s ambassador to El Salvador, Deane Hinton, called Bonner an “advocate journalist”). The details of that campaign can be found in Mark Danner’s New Yorker reporting, as well as his follow up book, The Massacre at El Mozote. The Times’ editor, AM Rosenthal, sided with Washington, pulling Bonner—who had been based in El Salvador and therefore knew the country—back to Washington. After working at Metro for a time, Bonner left the paper.
As this smear campaign was unfolding, O’Reilly was sent by CBS Evening News to El Salvador. In his words, he was sent “to check out an alleged massacre in the dangerous Morazán Territory.” This had to have been the El Mozote massacre. No other massacre was being reported on in the press that would have caught the attention of CBS news editors.
O’Reilly went to El Salvador. But he didn’t go to El Mozote. Instead, he went to the next town over, a fairly large municipal seat. In his memoir, O’Reilly writes: Meanguera “was leveled to the ground and fires were still smoldering. But even though the carnage was obviously recent, we saw no one live or dead. There was absolutely nobody around who could tell us what happened. I quickly did a stand-up amid the rubble and we got the hell out of there.”
This is all a lie, as O’Reilly’s own report—broadcast on CBS on May 20, 1982—clearly shows. Meanguera is not leveled; there are no fires; at least eight people can be seen, going about their business. O’Reilly also writes that he arrived at Meanguera by car in a harrowing journey, but the clip reveals he travelled part of the way in a Salvadoran helicopter.
But these lies—however fun they are to catch O’Reilly in—are not important. It should be no surprise to anyone that O’Reilly exaggerates and distorts. What is important is that O’Reilly was asked to investigate the El Mozote massacre. He didn’t. O’Reilly was sent to follow up reports (by Bonner and Guillermoprieto) of a major atrocity committed by US allies that would have had implications for Ronald Reagan’s hardline Central America policy. He didn’t.
O’Reilly’s report aired on May 20, 1982. If he had investigated the El Mozote massacre—if he had even mentioned the El Mozote massacre—it might have kept the jackals off of Bonner. And that might have kept Bonner in El Salvador. And that would have provided the American public with an experienced reporter sending back information that might have had an impact in the debate over Reagan’s Central American policy. In turn, Bonner’s removal sent a message: Reporters, writes Michael Massing of the Columbia Journalism Review, became “wary of provoking the embassy.” “If they can kick out a Times correspondent,” said one reporter, “you’ve got to be careful.” Apparently one Times journalist told Bonner, “I'm not going to get caught in the same trap that you did.”
O’Reilly’s Salvador segment isn’t just a sin of omission (not mentioning Mozote and thus burying the massacre). It is a sin of commission. Take a look at it. O’Reilly sounds as if he is reading a set of talking points drawn up for him by the White House. One of the key rhetorical strategies to dilute opposition to Reagan’s Central American policy—which would result in the escalation of three wars (in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua) and the deaths of over 300,000 civilians at the hands of US funded and trained allies—was to muddy the waters, and establish plausible deniability.
Indeed, the US embassy in El Salvador sent out a memo that concluded: “it is not possible to prove or disprove excesses of violence against the civilian population of El Mozote.” And here’s O’Reilly echoing the conclusion in his memoir: “I explained that while a scorched-earth policy was clearly in effect in remote village—the evidence was right there on tape—it was impossible to say just who was doing the scorching. Could be the muchachos [that is, the guerrillas], could be the government. The ninety-second package contained great video and a fairly impressive ‘on the scene in a very bad place’ stand-up by yours truly.”
Of course, it was not impossible: Bonner and Guillermoprieto did so under considerably more dangerous and difficult circumstances.
No matter. Bonner was out. O’Reilly, and Oreillyism (defined as the transformation of journalism into a narcissistic, self-referential circus, a “stand-up” routine that has no referent in the real world) was in.
The piece I posted on O’Reilly’s reporting on February 9th got some attention, though not as much as David Corn’s and Daniel Schulman's follow-up, which framed the issue as all about Bill O’Reilly—was he exaggerating? Was he lying? Is water wet?
The controversy took off. But the El Mozote angle—the question as to why O’Reilly didn’t report on the massacre if that was his assignment—got completely, absolutely, disappeared from the debate (again, with the recent exception of Roque Planas’s piece).
The media focused exclusively on O’Reilly’s actions in Buenos Aires during the Falklands-Malvinas war (where he was sent after El Salvador). Cable news and Mother Jones dug up old CBS staffers to “prove” that O’Reilly didn’t cover the actual war.
And after a few cycles, it’s not even about Argentina any longer. It’s about O’Reilly-Corn. The “charges aren’t sticking!” says Politico. David Corn “hangs up” on radio interviewer! O’Reilly “threatens.” Rachel Maddow “slams” O’Reilly. Corn says that “O'Reilly's ‘Violent’ Rhetoric Has My Friends and Family Worried.”
Whatever the case, it is almost all over. Attention is drifting away. O’Reilly will survive and Oreillyism will abide. There are already reports that O’Reilly has vanquished Corn, from mainstream outlets as New York and Slate.
Meanwhile, I’ve been talking to CBS staffers trying to pin down the specifics of O’Reilly’s quick trip to El Salvador. In particular, I’d like to locate his cameraman and/or the producer for the piece. Here are the questions I’d ask:
Why, if Bill O’Reilly was sent to investigate the El Mozote massacre, didn’t he go to El Mozote?
Was he briefed by the US embassy? By the US ambassador?
Did O’Reilly talk to anyone other than Salvadoran soldiers?
Did he ever try to speak with Ray Bonner or Alma Guillermoprieto?
At what point did O’Reilly decide to make the story about Meanguera rather than El Mozote?
Did O’Reilly try to find the whereabouts of Rufina Amaya, the lone survivor of the massacre, who, hiding in a tree, watched the soldiers rape, execute, and burn alive her neighbors? (The Reagan administration and the Salvadoran government went after Amaya, disputing her testimony. But Amaya’s version of events was confirmed by both an exhumation and a UN truth commission investigation. “Mama, they’re killing me. They’ve killed my sister. They’re going to kill me,” Amaya heard her son cry from her hideout).
Eric Engberg, a longtime CBS correspondent who was in Buenos Aires during Malvinas-Falklands War and who has helped expose O’Reilly’s many distortions regarding that episode, tells me that O’Reilly was arrogant, “lazy,” and “stupid”—pretty much all the qualities on display in the El Salvador segment. It was a “very weak piece,” in Engberg’s opinion—it “made no sense.”
But Engberg doesn’t think O’Reilly was motivated by politics. He “lacked any political sophistication.” Central America, Engberg says, wasn’t an important story—it was a place that greenhorn reporters were sent. But it was exactly because Central America wasn’t important that O’Reilly could get away with the kind of insipid story he filed. I suspect Engberg is right. O’Reilly’s conservative “politics” always seemed like a shtick to me—a much better career move than (mis)reporting on massacres in Central America.
But maybe we can take l'affaire O’Reilly-Corn as a lesson: the kind of contentless “critique” launched on O’Reilly doesn’t challenge Oreillyism. It fulfills Oreillyism.