Bill O’Reilly (Memory Challenge)

One of the hardest comments for anyone to say when speaking of Bill O’Reilly is “I have no opinion about the guy.” He makes it almost impossible to separate the messenger from the message.

Human bias is not part of an intellectual process, it is an emotional one. Almost everyone has a bias regarding O’Reilly. If the bias is positive, people agree with him automatically because he resonates with them emotionally and reinforces the group opinion (several documented biases come into effect that strengthens group membership). If the bias is negative, another group of people disagree, also automatically, with biases that enforce their group feeling.

Full disclosure on my part… My own biases of O’Reilly stem from my perception of his abrasiveness and my lifelong cynicism of self-appointed experts and authorities.

I have to put those aside. Ignore the news hype and make a fair analysis so I can fairly judge O’Reilly and ask the question…

Was Bill O’Reilly really lying?

I recently discussed Bill O’Reilly’s media crisis (here).  He responded to his critics and the crisis terribly.  I also discussed Brian Williams’ crisis and the mitigating circumstances that I believe contributed to a faulty memory recollection that blew up into a media frenzy (here).

Does O’Reilly deserve the same benefit of doubt that I feel Williams deserves?  Do the same mitigating circumstances apply??

So let me summarize two earlier points.  First, I reasoned in Williams’ case that a combination of memory errors and personal bias (misinformation effect, confabulation, and self-bias) contributed to the changed and incorrect narrative that Williams reconstructed for himself.  Second, in the course of the media coverage on O’Reilly, various news outlets initially documented two inaccuracies documented in autobiographical books and various interviews.  The figure grew from two to six.

(See summary of “Irregularities” at the end of this article.)

I find myself forced to defend O’Reilly on the same grounds as Williams.  I believe that O’Reilly was subject to the same influences as Williams and in each case the memories were contaminated by the passage of time and personal biases.  O’Reilly became the central hero of his narrative as time progressed.  I believe he thought he was speaking the truth in his books and various interviews.

That is why memories are so insidious.  The more we reconstruct memories, the more we reinforce the story and storyline in our minds.  Our heroic myth becomes our truth.  Maybe it is not factual, but it becomes our historical reality.

Crowdsourcing is a funny thing.  If you allow a group of people to look at a problem or issue, two things happen.  First, you find different approaches to looking at the problem.  Second, you benefit from parallel lines of investigation that can lead to parallel lines of evidence. The parallel lines of investigation become very efficient because many sources and individual points can be examined and validated simultaneously.

In O’Reilly’s case, and I admit to having no first-hand knowledge, it seems as if his tendency to aggrandize himself was pretty well known, but there was no reason to ever bring it up… Until…

… O’Reilly publicly appointed himself the authority on journalistic integrity and called for a review of the liberal media’s distortion of the news.

The “liberal” media’s response was crowd sourcing.  They began examining distortions in the news starting with O’Reilly’s apparent distortions. O’Reilly is a celebrity and as such, his apparent hypocrisy became newsworthy. The rest of the news media (liberal or not) jumped onto the bandwagon and the crowdsourcing resources grew exponentially.

Psychological influences at work

I think there is absolutely no difference in the mechanisms that lead to the confabulations of memories from both O’Reilly and Williams.  Both took interesting events in their lives and made the events into very interesting stories “based on true events”.  Both honestly believed their stories were truthful.

What is the difference defining difference between Williams and O’Reilly?  I would call it humility and honest self-assessment.

Williams, when confronted with the evidence, reported a feeling of confusion. His confusion was the effect of cognitive dissonance, the emotional disconnection.  The memories were real, but in conflict with the facts.  Williams admitted he was wrong.

O’Reilly, when confronted with the evidence, reacted with indignant rage and publically accused the liberal media of an orchestrated attack on his integrity.  When faced with the evidence, he used debate tactics to argue his case: ad hominem attacks, deflecting the question, answering the questions with non sequiturs… tactics he used in the past.

O’Reilly is a motivated reasoner.  The motivations are numerous, but rooted in normal biases.  Let me give two examples.

First, cognitive dissonance.  Cognitive dissonance is stress caused by information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.[1]  All of the media research into O’Reilly’s narrative challenged his existing belief and public image as the “world-weary, seasoned war reporter”.   Yes, he travelled. Yes, he reported. But he was not witness to the events he claimed to have seen.

Science says that people will go first through convoluted rationalizations to defend their beliefs before they change their minds. Science says that already convoluted rationalizations become even more complex and more entrenched when the person is more intelligent and/or when a person has strong emotional commitments to a belief.  The initial tendency to reject information out-of-hand that challenges a deep-rooted belief is called the Semmelweis reflex. The rationalization follows thereafter.

Second, in-group bias.  The in-group bias gives preferential treatment to members of their group.  O’Reilly is the star of the most conservative media outlet in the US.  He is the “in-est” of the in-group.  Nobody has challenged him directly from within the group without risk.  Nobody challenges him from outside the group without a an aggressive response.  In his mind, outside challenges are automatically without merit and an attack on his ideology.

His reasoning is motivated because he is personally and professionally oriented to deny any attacks on his personal and political views.  Each area is inseparable from the other. Any comment on his professional performance is automatically a personal attack.  It is his brand.

O’Reilly’s crisis

I framed, in a previous posting, O’Reilly’s crisis management response.  After the storm has died down, I have to ask myself “was it really a crisis?”  A crisis has to have a consequence, either personal or professional.

Two things come to mind.

First, professional – journalistic integrity.  This is a non-issue.  O’Reilly claims to be a journalist.

He has had an amazing career as a journalist starting in the late 1970s and has worked for two of the major news networks (ABC and CBS) in those years.  In 1996, O’Reilly was hired by Fox News.  In my opinion, that is the demarcation point from journalism to “media personality” – a specialized entertainer who gives its target audience the entertainment it wants.  But really, the program was O’Reilly’s conservative opinions wrapped in the camouflage of a news program.  I have to compare the various O’Reilly program iterations to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”. The Daily Show was a comedic, current-events, commentary satire that, knowingly and openly, pretended to be a news programming. O’Reilly’s shows have been current-events, opinionated commentary shows pretending to be news programming.

My point is that the issue of journalist integrity does not apply to O’Reilly.  The pseudo-journalism he practices is 50% ideology and 50% ego.  Neutrality is not an issue.  Journalist integrity applies no more to him that to morning talk shows such as “The View”.  They are both about current events and informed by personal opinions.

Second, personal crisis.  There has been no personal crisis, no personal risk.  Ratings during the O’Reillygate period went up 11%.  Although many news organizations reported on O’Reilly’s peccadillos, none suggested that he resign or even half-heartedly believe Fox News would reprimand him.

According to the Internets, Fox News pays O’Reilly $18 million per year.[2]   The exact figure is not important, but understand the magnitude.  They do not pay him to be accurate, Fox pays O’Reilly because his personality brings in viewers from a certain target demographic that translates into lucrative advertising dollars.  In professional wrestling, O’Reilly could be called either the hero or “the heel” (the bad guy who everyone learns to hate or they learn to love hating him). Regardless of the reason why people watch, they watch. Fox makes a lot of money and the star takes it to the bank.


Yes, I believe O’Reilly’s claims were the result of the usual foibles of the brain’s ways of reconstructing memories.  In O’Reilly case, a sizable ego created an even more heroic narrative than might have happened to other people, but the reasoning holds. Memories are fallible. The key question is intent. It galls me to say it, but I don’t think O’Reilly intended to deceive.

But, the issue of deception arises after the facts come to fore. I cannot make a call on this point: is he ignoring the facts because it is his job or is he ignoring the facts from intellectual dishonestly. I’d have to use my biases to answer that and those opinions are better suited to bars and quiet conversation.

I think an interesting point for the average person is this… if you are faced with a well-reasoned challenge to your beliefs, will you attack like O’Reilly or honestly reconsider your position?  O’Reilly confuses me a bit because I cannot tell if he is playing to his audience (big bucks, remember) or is he truly being intellectually dishonest in the face of evidence?

The trick is to be constantly aware that biases exist within each of us. You have to step back, engage that frontal cortex, and use your executive function to parse out the facts from the biases. There is an irony here because there exists a bias called “Bias blind spot” which is the tendency to see oneself as less biased than others. I try to avoid the conundrum by not comparing myself with the rest of you.


Kenneth Wrede

Summary of O’Reilly “Irregularities”

1.  1977 Witness to suicide

  • O’Reilly claimed in his 2012 book, “Killing Kennedy” to have been outside of the Florida home of George de Mohrenschildt, a known associate to Lee Harvey Oswald, and heard the shotgun blast that signaled de Mohrenschildt’s 1977 suicide.
    It is documented in a recorded phone call that O’Reilly was not even in the state of Florida at the time.

2.  1982 Combat situation in Buenos Aires

  • O’Reilly shared a heroic tale of his exploits during a riot in the Buenos Aires: I was in a situation one time, in a war zone in Argentina, in the Falklands (his was actually Buenos Aires), where my photographer got run down and then hit his head and was bleeding from the ear on the concrete. And the army was chasing us.
    He claims many people were killed and he was threatened when soldiers pointed weapons at him.
    The video coverage he made during the riot did not confirm any of his claims. No gun play and no one was killed. There was no major violence reported that day.

3.  1982 He claimed to have covered the conflict in the Falklands.

  • O’Reilly, to establish war correspondent credibility, often claimed to have covered the Falklands war “… on the ground in active war zones…” (from his 2001 book, “The No Spin Zone”). Many other examples are documented.
    He never left Buenos Aires 1200 miles away from the conflict.

4.  1982 Claimed to have witnessed a massacre in El Salvador

  • In The No Spin Zone, O’Reilly does write vividly about an assignment that took him to El Salvador during the country’s civil war shortly after CBS News hired him as a correspondent in 1981. As O’Reilly recalls in the book, he and his crew drove for a full day to reach Morazán province, “a dangerous place,” and headed to a small village called Meanguera, where, a Salvadoran captain claimed, guerrillas had wiped out the town. “Nobody in his right mind would go into the guerilla-controlled area,” O’Reilly writes. But he did, and he notes he found a horrific scene: “The place 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.”
    In O’Reilly’s own video report it shows they were flown into the area and there is footage of residents walking around the mostly intact village.

5.  1982 He claimed to have witness nuns executed

  • The liberal watchdog group ­Media Matters for America found two occasions on which O’Reilly claimed to have seen the murder of four American nuns in El Salvador. “I’ve seen guys gun down nuns in El Salvador,” he said on his radio program in 2005. On his Fox News program, “The O’Reilly Factor,” he said in 2012, “I saw nuns get shot in the back of the head.”
    O’Reilly was not in El Salvador during the killing and did not arrive until months later.
    In in early March 2015, O’Reilly said in a statement that he was describing photos of the murdered nuns, not the crimes themselves.

6.  1984 He claimed to have witness Irish terrorists killing citizens with bombs in Northern Ireland.

  • Asked about O’Reilly’s statements Friday (20150227), a Fox News spokesman said that O’Reilly was not an eyewitness to any bombings or injuries in Northern Ireland. Instead, he was shown photos of bombings by Protestant police officers.

[1] Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.

[2] Figures vary from $10 -25 million.












About Ken Wrede
Kenneth Wrede