Bill O’Reilly May Have Covered-Up a Massacre

Greg Grandin, columnist for The Nation, reports that Bill O’Reilly may have deliberately ignored the 1982 massacre of hundreds in El Mozote, El Salvador while reporting as a foreign correspondent for CBS Nightly News

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly has taken to the airwaves to defend himself against mounting evidence that he fabricated details of his experiences while covering the 1982 Falklands War.

But by focusing on these allegations put forward by Mother Jones’s David Corn, a much larger and more important story is amiss, says our next guest, Greg Grandin, and that is how Bill O’Reilly and the U.S. media, and especially the U.S. government, helped cover up the massacre of hundreds by U.S.-backed death squads in El Salvador during the civil war.

Earlier this month, Greg Grandin, a columnist for The Nation magazine, found evidence that O’Reilly, who in 1982 was a foreign correspondent for CBS Nightly News, may have deliberately ignored the massacre of hundreds of people by U.S.-backed death squads in El Mozote, El Salvador, thus helping deflect attention from war crimes backed by the United States.

Now joining us to shed light on this is Greg Grandin.

Thank you so much for joining us, Greg.

GREG GRANDIN, PROFESSOR, HISTORY, NYU: Thanks for having me on.

PERIES: So, Greg, what evidence do you have that Bill O’Reilly failed to report the facts related to the massacre?

GRANDIN: Well, we have the clip. We have the report itself. He in his memoir, in the same memoir that is causing a lot of the controversy about some of his bragging and exaggerations about the Falklands before he went off to Argentina, before he went to Buenos Aires to cover or not cover the Falkland War, he was in El Salvador. He was sent to El Salvador by the CBS bureau chief to report and investigate a massacre.

And that massacre was the El Mozote massacre, and it happened in December 1981. It was committed by a U.S. created and trained Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran military, and it resulted in the death by impalement, decapitation, really horrible, horrible mutilations of over 800 villages, in a small little town called El Mozote near the Honduran border.

It broke on the front page of The Washington Post and the front page of The New York Times. The New York Times was–covered by, reported on by Ray Bonner. Ray Bonner walked in from Honduras to get to the town in December, and he was fairly clear in his reporting early on that it was the Salvadoran military.

And Bill O’Reilly said he was sent down to investigate it. And he didn’t go to El Mozote. He went to the next town over. It’s probably equivalent–it’s Sy Hersh, Seymour Hersh, in the 1960s, with Vietnam, heard about the My Lai massacre and decided to investigate the [incompr.] exactly what Bill O’Reilly did. It seems like he was flown in on a Salvadoran military helicopter, even though in his book he exaggerates–he seemed–it’s a little bit of a discrepancy how he got there, but it’s clear in the CBS report that he filed, that was broadcast in May 1982, that he was flown in on a helicopter. And he reported on the next town over, in which he–and then he said it was unclear who was responsible for the violence. And it was impossible to tell.

It added to the Reagan administration, which at the time was engaged in a pretty heavy campaign to discredit Raymond Bonner for reporting on the massacre, because they were just beginning to fund the Salvadoran military and its civil war. And the Reagan administration was intent on establishing plausible deniability. And Bill O’Reilly, either intentionally or unintentionally, helped in that campaign.

PERIES: Now, Greg, you published your story on O’Reilly on February 9, but the discussion around O’Reilly’s Latin American reporting really took off after a Mother Jones article posted by David Corn and Daniel Schulman on February 19. Now, since that article came out on Mother Jones, you’ve written that Mother Jones article really missed the point. How did they miss the point when you made it so clear?

GRANDIN: Well, I think that Mother Jones and liberal journalists like David Corn are very invensted in establishing a kind of moral superiority over Fox News and the Republicans and the wingnut Republican media establishment like Fox News and other outlets like Breitbart and whatnot, Rush Limbaugh.

And the real story about what Bill O’Reilly did as a foreign correspondent is the way it enabled the Reagan administration to deny what actually happened at El Mozote–U.S. implicated in a war crime, not whether–. It’s really not that interesting whether Bill O’Reilly lied or didn’t lie or whether he’s a conservative Ryan Williams. That’s [incompr.] circuses. It’s a little bit of a media firestorm that Bill O’Reilly’s going to survive. He’s going to survive. And attention is going to move on.

And the larger importance of the story, how it reflects the degeneration of war correspondents and war journalism, particularly in Vietnam, to the Iraq War is totally missed. And, I mean, in sort of talking–you know, it becomes a he-said, he-said controversy between David Corn and Bill O’Reilly. And in some ways Bill O’Reilly, it’s that kind of criticism of O’Reilly and the conservatives that fulfill–in some ways it’s not a challenge. It actually is a fulfillment of what O’Reilly represents. If O’Reilly represents a deflection away from a real reporter, then this kind of criticism is the fulfillment of that project.

PERIES: Right. Greg, some of our audience actually wasn’t around–and some of them are very young–vwasn’t around during the civil war in El Salvador. Explain the U.S.’s involvement in El Salvador.

GRANDIN: Well, Reagan’s Central American policy in general was part of his restarting the Cold War, what some scholars and critics of U.S. foreign policy called the second Cold War. Reagan was elected in 1980, came to power in 1981, and he immediately recommitted the U.S. to pushing back in the Third World–Afghanistan, the Middle East.

But Central America really was a proving ground. And they began to arm the Contras, these anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua. And in El Salvador and in Guatemala, it entailed supporting these right-wing death squad governments. And El Mozote in some ways was the first major massacre of the 1980s. So it was in December 1981. And if it had been honestly reported by Bill O’Reilly, it might have changed–would’ve contributed to a deeper discussion about the wisdom of funding the Salvadoran military to the tune of about a million and a half dollars to date. Seventy thousand people were killed in El Salvador during the Reagan administration. The vast majority, 95 percent, was at the hands of U.S. trained and funded allies. And so El Mozote in some way was the inauguration of this, and that Bill O’Reilly was [there as an (?)] [incompr.] [creation (?)], I think, is illustrative and worthy of discussion, a lot more than debate about whether he did or didn’t see combat in the Malvinas (Falklands) War.

PERIES: So, Greg, tell us, what is that actually prompted this investigation about O’Reilly?

GRANDIN: Well, I actually read a review by somebody named John Doe of O’Reilly’s memoir, where he mentions that O’Reilly was at El Mozote. I thought that that was an odd–you know, just a little bit of the disjuncture. I mean, thanks to Google books, you’re able to kind of search around, and I saw the extended discussion. I was able to find the clip. There’s a wonderful archive of broadcast news in Vanderbilt University, and I would say they would dig through and find the actual clip in May 1982 of O’Reilly’s reporting on it. And the discrepancy between what he wrote in his memoir and what was on that clip was noteworthy.

PERIES: Greg Grandin, I want to thank you so much for doing this very important work unraveling this, and I thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

GRANDIN: Well, thanks so much for having me.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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