Business

Bill O’Reilly’s Falklands stories led to Boston TV job

Bill O’Reilly (left) and Chet Curtis on WCVB, Channel 5, in 1986.
WCVB-TV
Bill O’Reilly (left) and Chet Curtis on WCVB, Channel 5, in 1986.

Bill O’Reilly’s dramatic accounts of covering the Falklands War as a young journalist have been challenged by competitors and former colleagues, prompting questions about the Fox News host’s credibility.

But in 1982, O’Reilly’s reporting from a protest in Buenos Aires, 1,200 miles from military action on the Falkland Islands, impressed television executives in Boston enough to help him land a high-paying job at Channel 7 later that year.

“We were looking at hundreds of audition tapes, and this one stood out for precisely that episode,” said Bill Applegate, then the station’s vice president of news.

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A critical article published last month by the left-leaning magazine Mother Jones noted that in various retellings of his experience over the years, “The O’Reilly Factor” host has claimed to have survived a “war zone” during the brief conflict between Argentina and the United Kingdom. He has described scenes of carnage, such as soldiers shooting civilians, and has detailed a harrowing moment when his own cameraman was knocked to the ground and injured during a demonstration, requiring O’Reilly to drag the man to safety.

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Mother Jones chronicled some versions of that incident that the magazine said were examples of O’Reilly implying he was reporting from the Falkland Islands, where the fighting took place.

“I was in a situation one time, in a war zone in Argentina, in the Falklands, where my photographer got run down and then hit his head and was bleeding from the ear on the concrete,” O’Reilly said during a 2013 on-air interview with Boston Globe photographer John Tlumacki, who had witnessed the bombings at that year’s Boston Marathon and photographed the aftermath. “And the army was chasing us. I had to make a decision. And I dragged him off.”

Since the publication of the Mother Jones article, O’Reilly has faced a barrage of accusations that such stories are either exaggerated or fabricated. Several former CBS colleagues told CNN they don’t remember the cameraman incident. A man believed to be the video journalist in question now lives in Venezuela and has declined to speak publicly.

CBS released about 14 minutes of archived protest coverage, which did not show or mention violence of the magnitude described by O’Reilly. Mother Jones noted contemporary newspaper reports depicted a milder scene with soldiers using tear gas and rubber bullets to control demonstrators.

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O’Reilly has responded by saying he never meant to suggest he was on the islands. But he has maintained his frightful encounters in the streets of Buenos Aires happened just as he described in the past. Distinguishing the protest from the war zone amounts to “splitting hairs,” he told fellow Fox News host Howard Kurtz on the network’s “Media Buzz” program.

O’Reilly declined an interview request through a Fox News spokeswoman, who pointed to earlier comments O’Reilly made to Kurtz and others.

In a statement Fox News accused “far left” organizations of mounting a campaign against O’Reilly.

“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,” the statement said. Meantime O’Reilly’s program has enjoyed a ratings bounce amid controversy; “The O’Reilly Factor” averaged 3.1 million viewers last week, according to Nielsen, 11 percent more than during the same period last year

Applegate and Nick Lawler, the Channel 7 news director in 1982, said that to the best of their recollection, the audition tape they received 33 years ago included clips of O’Reilly’s Falklands coverage and that his gritty on-the-ground reporting made the Boston University graduate seem like a perfect fit for WNEV-TV (now WHDH-TV).

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O’Reilly had left CBS in a huff — upset that some of his footage from the demonstration in Buenos Aires had been commandeered for a report by veteran journalist Bob Schieffer — and Applegate and Lawler jumped at the chance to hire a reporter with network experience.

Both of the executives were recent hires at the time, brought in to elevate the third-place station’s ratings. Applegate had quickly become known in local TV circles for a large sign he posted in the newsroom, which read, “This is War.” Channel 7 made the 32-year-old O’Reilly a weekday reporter and weekend anchor, giving him a two-year contract worth about $200,000 a year, according to Applegate. It was big money in the early ’80s.

“He had an innate ability to understand the connection between the emotions of a story, its intellectual substance, and the viewer,” said Lawler, now a media consultant in Iowa. “He could make an important story — what some would consider a dull story — and make it relatable to the viewer.”

Despite high hopes, O’Reilly’s run at WNEV ended poorly. Citing low ratings, the station canceled “New England Afternoon,” the weekday news magazine he hosted after moving off the weekend anchor desk.

After a brief stint at a station in Portland, Ore., he returned to Boston in 1985 as a reporter at WCVB. He quickly transitioned into a role as the station’s columnist-at-large, delivering forceful opinion pieces on the nightly news, and in 1986, ABC News called him back up to the big leagues.

O’Reilly came back to the area one more time to study at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and then it was on to Fox News in 1996.

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.