CNN Press Room

New developments in Bill O’Reilly exaggeration controversy

Former Fox insider, Eric Burns  joined Brian Stelter on today’s Reliable Sources to give his take on the O’Reilly controversy.

Full transcript available after the jump.



BRIAN STELTER, HOST:  Good morning. I’m Brian Stelter and it’s time for “Reliable Sources.”

We have a lot of news this morning, including surprising new information about Brian Williams. This just came out. It’s a much-anticipated magazine article that says Williams thought about moving from NBC to late-night comedy and even pitched himself as a successor to David Letterman. A big story and we’re going to have all of that coming up.

But let’s begin with a guest who has never been on CNN before and a story you have never heard before. It is about the biggest star on cable news, Bill O’Reilly. We’ve been talking a lot about him recently because the Fox News host has been at the center of controversy for weeks now over allegations that he misled or even lied about his experiences as a reporter many years ago. And now nuns are weighing in. Yes, nuns.

The first discrepancies were about the Falklands War. O’Reilly said Argentina was a war zone, but pretty much everyone else who was there disagrees. Another one of his stories was about seeing injuries from bombings in Northern Ireland. But then, later, a spokesman told The Washington Post that O’Reilly had only seen pictures of the bombings.

And last week we covered O’Reilly’s claim that he was on the scene of a suicide during the JFK assassination investigation. Audiotapes proved he was not there.

And here is another one, one that is really outrageous. O’Reilly reported from El Salvador for CBS in the early 1980s. You can see him right here. It’s not disputed. He was there. In fact, you can see; here’s video of him in the country.

But listen to what he says here about his time there.


BILL O’REILLY, HOST, FOX’S “THE O’REILLY FACTOR”:  My mother, for example, doesn’t understand evil. When I would tell her, “Hey, Mom, I was in El Salvador and I saw nuns get shot in the back of the head,” she almost couldn’t process it.


STELTER:  He said, “I saw nuns get shot in the back of the head.” So Fox’s liberal foe, Media Matters, questioned this claim. And guess what, O’Reilly did not actually see any murders. He only saw photos, pictures of the murders, according to him.

Now, that story was a horrific tragedy. It was a big story at the time. You may remember it. Three American nuns and a missionary were abducted, sexually assaulted and shot execution-style on one day, one infamous day in 1980. Some of the family members of the victims are now offended that O’Reilly made himself a part of the story. And so are some Roman Catholic nuns.

We’ve been looking into this, this week, and two of the victims were members of the Maryknoll Sisters here in New York. Here’s what they told CNN.

“Maryknoll Sisters were deeply saddened when our sisters were killed in El Salvador and shocked when we learned of Mr. O’Reilly’s statement inferring he had witnessed their murder. This is, of course, not true. And we hope Mr. O’Reilly will take greater care in the public statements he makes in the future.”

The other nun was a member of the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland. And here’s what they told us.

“The brutal murders of our sister, Dorothy Kazel, and other church women on December 2, 1980, is a sorrow forever etched in our hearts. And we hail these women as witnesses to justice and truth and call on all charged with reporting the news of the world to do so in the same spirit of integrity and honesty.”

Now, O’Reilly says he did not infer he saw the murders. Let me read his statement. This is what he said about it.

“While in El Salvador, reporters were shown horrendous images of violence that were never broadcast, including depictions of nuns who were murdered. The mention of the nuns on my program came the day of the Newtown massacre.”

He went on to say, “I used the murder of nuns as an example of that evil, the same kind of evil from Newtown.”

And then he concluded, “That’s what I am referring to when I say I saw nuns get shot in the back of the head. No one could possibly take that segment as reporting on El Salvador.”

No one? Media Matters points out that O’Reilly also said on the radio in 2005, quote, “I’ve seen guys gun down nuns in El Salvador.”

Now, to make sense of all this and this continuing O’Reilly controversy, I have just the right guest. Eric Burns is not just a media critic; he knows the Fox world inside and out because he hosted “Fox News Watch” for a decade, and he joins me now here on set.

Eric, thanks for being here.

ERIC BURNS, FORMER HOST, FOX NEWS WATCH:  Well, you put me under a lot of pressure to say that I can make sense of this, first of all.


STELTER:  Oh, really?

Well, you used to be me. You hosted Fox’s media program for about a decade. You left in 2008.



STELTER:  So you’ve been an observer of O’Reilly for a long time. Does this make sense to you that he’s been puffing up his credentials?

BURNS:  Well, not only puffing up his credentials, Brian, but he’s been — and this has amazed many people. He’s also been puffing up his ratings. Since — as you know, since this latest O’Reilly scandals…

STELTER:  Yeah, we can show one of the headlines. He’s been getting good press for the fact — I wrote a story about it — that his numbers are up since this controversy started.

BURNS:  His numbers are up. And I think the way to understand this is to make a distinction between the words “culture” and “cult.”

STELTER:  Are you saying Fox is a cult?

BURNS:  I’m saying that the people who watch Fox News are cultish. Because, for many years, conservatives have been extremely upset in this country because the only newscasts they had to watch were liberal, you people at CNN and how liberal you are, and NBC and ABC and CBS. And they — they never had — the extreme right — they never had their own television station. When they got one, their appreciation, their audience loyalty — and I know what the audience loyalty was like when I was there — their audience loyalty soared.

And so O’Reilly, as the head of the cult, is not held to the same standards as Brian Williams, who was part of the media culture, the larger culture. Every time, it seems, Brian, that O’Reilly lies — and he’s lied so many times. You know, Keith Olbermann used to be on opposite him with his show “Countdown.” He later wrote a book, all the segments in his show called “The Worst Person in the World.”

STELTER:  Oh, right, right. And O’Reilly was the worst person dozens of times.

BURNS:  Yes. But every time he was, there was a charge that was made by Olbermann about something O’Reilly had said or done that was a complete fabrication. Yet — I got ahead of myself there — a complete fabrication, and it was also completely substantiated. I mean, Olbermann had all the evidence possible.

STELTER:  So you’re saying this is not new.

BURNS:  No, it’s not new.

STELTER:  It’s getting attention now because Mother Jones and other media outlets covering O’Reilly’s background, but some of it’s been hidden in plain sight.

BURNS:  Oh, yeah, it’s been there for a long time. I think…

STELTER:  So how did you handle it? You used to be on Fox every weekend on — covering media. How did you handle working in the same building as Bill O’Reilly?

BURNS:  Well, since he was so unfriendly, it was easy to handle.


I’d run into him occasionally. I’d say, “Hi, Bill.” And without deigning to call me by name, he’d say “Hi.”


BURNS:  That’s how I handled it.

STELTER:  And that was it?

BURNS:  That was it.

STELTER:  Now, you were terminated by Fox in 2008. I wrote a story about it at the New York Times at the time. I sensed the media program you hosted was going more to the right, was being more conservative in its orientation.

And just now, you said Fox caters to the extreme right. Is that what you mean, that — I mean, you’re a former Fox host. You say it caters to the extreme right in the U.S.?

BURNS:  I thought that, as Fox got more and more popular, that Roger Ailes, who runs the network, would think, “Well, the right has nowhere else to go. So if I move a little more to the center, I can get a bigger audience and not lose my core audience.” He did just the opposite. He went more to the right.

And for that reason, when people see these charges against O’Reilly — now, the reason the mainstream media are covering them as they are is that these are, let’s say, “allegedly,” shall we?


BURNS:  We’re supposed to do that, aren’t we?

Allegedly, he was with CBS at the time. You’ll notice that distinction.

STELTER:  Right.

BURNS:  No one expects much out of O’Reilly as a Fox News host. No one expects the truth. He’s been caught in numerous lies, and those have never been a story. We have a story now for two reasons. One is context. Brian Williams has set up the — the media to be looking for things like this.

STELTER:  Right, right.

BURNS:  And the second reason is that he did this — O’Reilly did what he was supposed to have done when he was with CBS.

STELTER:  Right.

BURNS:  It doesn’t matter that he does it with Fox. But when he did it with one of the major networks, the attempt is to make more of a story out of it.

Yet the cult, the Fox News cult — to the Fox News cult, this kind of thing doesn’t matter. It’s a lie from the liberal media. It’s — who cares what it is? The point is, it doesn’t matter.

STELTER:  There was a little bit of red news, blue news this week, as I like to call it, between O’Reilly and Maddow. Let me show the viewers at home. This is pretty wild.

First it was MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow who started to cover the O’Reilly controversy and said this.


RACHEL MADDOW, HOST, MSNBC’S “THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW”:  We asked them for comment on the substance of the allegations. What they sent us was a lot of information about how great Bill O’Reilly’s ratings are.


And, yes, (inaudible), your ratings are great. I’ve seen your ratings shoot my ratings right in the head. Well, I’ve seen pictures of that, I should say.



STELTER:  Now, Fox says that they sent ratings as well as other information to Maddow. Then the next night, maybe purely a coincidence, O’Reilly shot back.


O’REILLY:  Now we have the collapse of the ultra-liberal MSNBC network. On Tuesday, after Benjamin Netanyahu gave his speech, millions of Americans tuned into the news. But they did not tune into MSNBC. The ratings for them were catastrophic. At 8:00 p.m. “The Factor” had nearly five times as many viewers as a program on MSNBC.

At 9:00 p.m. Megyn Kelly slaughtered her opposition three to one.


STELTER:  Slaughtered Rachel Maddow, he says. Now, it was not a coincidence, of course, that O’Reilly followed up, nor was it a coincidence that Maddow returned the volley right here.

Well, I don’t think we have the bite. Basically, she went on and on about the O’Reilly story. And, Eric, she said that, until Fox addresses this matter, it shouldn’t be treated as a news network. But am I right to think we shouldn’t expect Fox to say anything more about this O’Reilly controversy?

BURNS:  Well, they’re not addressing the controversy. If you say — if you’re charged with lying and you say “Our ratings are up,” you’re not answering the question of whether or not you told a lie. I think it’s astonishing that that’s the way they operate. There’s not one word in there about, “Well, I did see nuns in the shot; I did see that CIA fellow commit suicide.” That’s not part of the defense. It’s all ratings.

STELTER:  Are you enjoying post-cable-news life? You’re working on a book about the 1920s, right?

So are you happy to be outside the cable news world?

BURNS:  The 1920s, so much more peaceful.


STELTER:  No television, for one thing.

Well, Eric, thanks for being here. Great talking with you.

BURNS:  Glad to see you again, Brian.