What Bill O'Reilly owes America

Bill O'Reilly under fire for war reporting
Bill O'Reilly under fire for war reporting

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Bill O'Reilly under fire for war reporting 02:42

Story highlights

  • Errol Louis: Bill O'Reilly, accused of fabricating reports, threatened NYT reporter, saying: "I'm coming after you..."
  • Louis: He placed himself in stories he was not in, former colleagues say. O'Reilly should come clean, apologize

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, grappling with accusations that he embellished and/or fabricated reports placing him at the center of dramatic news events, tipped his hand more than he realized by threatening one of the many journalists asking questions about the accuracy of his accounts.

"I am coming after you with everything I have," O'Reilly told New York Times reporter Emily Steel. "You can take it as a threat."
Bad move, Bill.
    Errol Louis
    In the real world of tough guys (as opposed to celebrity blowhards), that kind of empty threat only comes from a sore loser -- somebody unable to control or hide his anger, fright and impotence over the fact he has been cornered and beaten. There is nothing O'Reilly can do to harm The New York Times, its reporters or any other journalist doing their job, and he surely knows that.
    So why the tantrum?
    Part of it is O'Reilly's style. He is a fabulously wealthy, best-selling author and the host of a show that has dominated prime-time cable news for many years. One way he got to the top of the heap was by styling himself as a plain-spoken, working-class battler, willing to mix it up verbally with those who disagree with him.
    As ex-Rep. Barney Frank -- a gay, outspokenly liberal Democrat who sparred with O'Reilly -- explained to The Daily Beast: "When you go on his show, you have two choices: either be reasonable and let him dominate with his ranting, or yell back at him. You either look timid or as boorish as he is."
    Bill O'Reilly in 2008: I had an M16 pointed at my head
    Bill O'Reilly in 2008: I had an M16 pointed at my head

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      Bill O'Reilly in 2008: I had an M16 pointed at my head

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    Bill O'Reilly in 2008: I had an M16 pointed at my head 03:07
    The verbal fireworks make for a certain kind of TV that can be fun to watch and has proved enormously popular, but it doesn't give O'Reilly a pass to make things up and not get called on it. His dramatic claims to have reported from a war zone during the Falklands conflict -- an account complete with troops firing into crowds, a gun pointed at his head and O'Reilly saving a gravely wounded colleague -- has been disputed by seven of his colleagues who were on assignment in Argentina with him.
    More recently, reporters have questioned O'Reilly's claim -- printed in his book, "Killing Kennedy" -- to have heard the gunshot that killed George de Mohrenschildt, a friend of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who killed President John Kennedy.
    Mohrenschildt's death was dramatic, important news: He killed himself in Florida shortly after being contacted by congressional investigators probing the assassination. It's hard to believe that O'Reilly, then working on stories about the assassination for Dallas television station WFAA, would have sat on the news that he was present and heard the shotgun blast that killed Mohrenschildt.
    Once again, a little probing by journalists turns up evidence from reliable sources that O'Reilly's account is probably false.
    Jefferson Morley, a former Washington Post editor, has posted audio tapes of O'Reilly talking with a congressional investigator around the time of the incident in conversations that leave little doubt that O'Reilly was in Dallas at the time Mohrenschildt died.
    Bill O'Reilly under fire for war reporting
    Bill O'Reilly under fire for war reporting

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      Bill O'Reilly under fire for war reporting

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    Bill O'Reilly under fire for war reporting 02:42
    "He was in Dallas" says Tracy Rowlett, who worked at WFAA at the time, according to the Huffington Post. "Bill O'Reilly's a phony -- there's no other way to put it."
    Sally Quinn, former columnist and veteran Washington insider who is a friend of O'Reilly's, defended him in a way that is less than helpful.
    "O'Reilly is an entertainer and everything he does is totally subjective, including his memories," she told The Daily Beast. "To attack him is simply to increase his ratings and the sales of his phenomenally popular books. Lighten up, everybody."
    That's easier said than done, especially after O'Reilly chose to start threatening reporters. His best move now would be to do the difficult, responsible thing, the thing truly great journalists have been doing for decades: admit he screwed up, apologize and try to move on.
    That might damage his brand as the swaggering no-spin guy, and it might even lose him some viewers. But it would begin to restore his reputation in a profession that isn't perfect and doesn't expect its practitioners to be -- but also doesn't expect valid questions to be answered with the snarling, empty threats of a coward.