Fox News host, whose stories of past reporting exploits are under renewed scrutiny, claimed ‘we were attacked by protesters’ when covering the 1992 riots
Former colleagues of Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News host whose tales of past reporting exploits are facing renewed scrutiny, have disputed his account of surviving a bombardment of bricks and rocks while covering the 1992 riots in Los Angeles.
Six people who covered the riots with O’Reilly in California for Inside Edition told the Guardian they did not recall an incident in which, as O’Reilly has claimed, “concrete was raining down on us” and “we were attacked by protesters”.
Several members of the team suggested that O’Reilly may instead be overstating a fracas involving one disgruntled Los Angeles resident, who smashed one of their cameras with a piece of rubble.
Two of the team said the man was angered specifically by O’Reilly behaving disrespectfully after arriving at the smoking remains of his neighbourhood in a limousine, whose driver at one point began polishing the vehicle. O’Reilly is said to have shouted at the man and asked him: “Don’t you know who I am?”
O’Reilly, 65, is one of the most influential figures in American broadcasting and publishing. He is paid a reported $20m a year to host his show, the O’Reilly Factor, which consistently ranks among the most-watched current affairs programs in US cable TV. He has also authored several bestselling books and memoirs.
He has for several days been defending himself against accusations that he inflated his recollections of reporting from Argentina at the end of the Falklands war as a young correspondent for CBS News. The Guardian found he had told differing versions of an apparent encounter at gunpoint with Argentinian forces.
He has also been accused of lying in one of his books about being present at the scene when a CIA source, who had allegedly been linked to the assassination of president John F Kennedy, killed himself in 1977.
A spokeswoman for Fox News declined to respond to detailed questions about O’Reilly’s recollections of the Los Angeles riots. She said in a statement that claims casting doubt on his statements were “nothing more than an orchestrated campaign by far left advocates”.
“Bill O’Reilly has already addressed several claims leveled against him,” the spokeswoman said. “Responding to the unproven accusation du jour has become an exercise in futility. Fox News maintains its staunch support of O’Reilly, who is no stranger to calculated onslaughts.”
O’Reilly has on several occasions referred to a perilous situation he said that he endured while covering the riots in Los Angeles for Inside Edition, the syndicated news magazine show that he fronted between 1989 and 1995.
“They were throwing bricks and stones at us,” O’Reilly told an online interviewer in 2006. “Concrete was raining down on us. The cops saved our butts that time.” Earlier this week, he told the broadcaster Hugh Hewitt: “We were attacked, we were attacked by protesters, where bricks were thrown at us.”
Inside Edition colleagues from the time who were in Los Angeles with O’Reilly -- reporters Bonnie Strauss, Tony Cox and Rick Kirkham, and crew members Theresa McKeown, Bob McCall and Neil Antin -- told the Guardian that they did not recall such an incident.
Kirkham, the show’s lead reporter on the riots, was adamant that it did not take place. “It didn’t happen,” he said. “If it did, how come none of the rest of us remember it?”
Tonya Freeman, the head of the show’s library at the time, said: “I honestly don’t recall watching or hearing about that. I believe I probably would have remembered something like that.” Another librarian from the time also said she did not recall the incident. A spokeswoman for Inside Edition declined to comment. Several other senior Inside Edition staffers from the time declined to comment when asked if they recalled O’Reilly’s version of events.
Several members of the team, however, recalled that one afternoon in the days following the peak of the riots, which began on 29 April, the angry resident attacked a camera while O’Reilly was being filmed near the intersection of Fairfax Avenue and Pico Boulevard. “It was one person with one rock,” said McCall, the sound man. “Nobody was hit”.
“A man came out of his home,” said Antin, who was operating the camera that was struck. “He picked up a chunk of concrete, and threw it at the camera.” Told of O’Reilly’s description of a bombardment, Antin said: “I don’t think that’s really ... No, I mean no, not where we were.”
“There was no concrete,” said McKeown. “There was a single brick”. Kirkham’s response was: “Oh my god. That is a completely fictitious story. Nothing ever rained down on us”. Kirkham, whose van was shown on an episode of the show being shot at during late-night rioting, later made a film for HBO about his struggle with drug addiction.
McKeown, the director of west coast operations, and Kirkham, said O’Reilly had in the moments beforehand irritated residents who were trying to put out fires and clear wreckage. A seventh member of the team, who declined to be quoted for this article, agreed with this characterisation of the incident.
“There were people putting out fires nearby,” said McKeown. “And Bill showed up in his fancy car.” McKeown said at one point, the driver of O’Reilly’s personal car risked causing further offence by exiting the vehicle with a bottle of Windex and polishing the roof.
“The guy was watching us and getting more and more angry,” said McKeown. “Bill was being Bill -- complaining ‘people are in my eye line’ – and kind of being very insensitive to the situation.” Kirkham said: “It was just so out of line. He starts barking commands about ‘this isn’t good enough for me’, ‘this isn’t gonna work’, ‘who’s in charge here?’”
The man shouted abuse at O’Reilly and the team, crew members said, and O’Reilly ordered him to shut up. He asked “don’t you know who I am?’,” according to two members of the team
“The guy lost it,” said McKeown. Enraged, he is said to have leapt on to the team’s flatbed trailer and kicked over a light, before throwing the piece of rubble, which smashed the camera and an autocue screen. Antin said he restrained the man. But O’Reilly then continued taunting him while a producer stood between them. “Come on, you wanna take me? I’ll take you on,” O’Reilly is said to have shouted at him.
McCall said the producer, who is about a foot shorter than O’Reilly, “didn’t have much trouble holding Bill back.” McCall said: “It was a lot more show than anything else on Bill’s part”.
A passing police car was flagged down. After an officer called for backup, several more officers eventually arrived. Crew members recalled that before this, O’Reilly had been hauled inside one of the team’s vehicles by a colleague. “It wasn’t a police rescue,” said Kirkham.
The crew told the police they did not want to press charges and the man was escorted home. Irritated police officers instructed the crew they needed to leave the area. “We had to lay all of our equipment down and just drive out of there with cables dragging,” said Antin. McKeown said that by then, an intimidating crowd had gathered. Other members of the team said the man remained alone.
Antin said an ashen-faced and “visibly shaken” O’Reilly rushed down a nearby alleyway with a secondary cameraman to film replacement shots, which were to be broadcast later as if live.
Asked if O’Reilly’s behaviour was to blame for the incident, McKeown said: “I mean, It would have pissed me off. There didn’t seem to be a sensitivity for what these people were going through. It was more ‘I’m here to do my show’.” Kirkham said O’Reilly had provoked the man, who was “pissed off with O’Reilly’s attitude”.
Antin, however, rejected suggestions that O’Reilly was responsible. “Not at all,” he said. McCall said he did not know. “I can’t say if that’s true or not,” he said. “But I don’t have much respect for Bill, having worked for him during that time. He was a real jackass.”
Asked to respond to the claims from O’Reilly’s former colleagues, and to explain whether O’Reilly had been describing a separate incident when he said “concrete was raining down on us”, the Fox News spokeswoman resent her original emailed statement.