Recent stories in The Nation and Huffington Post have criticized Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly, then a young TV reporter for CBS News, for his role when the US government and US mass media turned a blind eye to the 1981 massacre at El Mozote.
O’Reilly was sent by CBS Evening News to El Salvador. In his words, he was sent “to check out an alleged massacre in the dangerous Morazán Territory.” This had to have been the El Mozote massacre. No other massacre was being reported on in the press that would have caught the attention of CBS news editors.O'Reilly's report is filled with images of Salvadoran soldiers and comments that they should be able to resist any guerrilla offensives with new troops who had just been trained in the US. There is no mention of the reports from Ray Bonner of the New York Times and Alma Guillermoprieto of the Washington Post that troops trained in the US had massacred 900 civilians in the same zone where he was reporting just months before.
O’Reilly went to El Salvador. But he didn’t go to El Mozote. Instead, he went to the next town over, a fairly large municipal seat. In his memoir, O’Reilly writes: Meanguera “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.”
This is all a lie, as O’Reilly’s own report—broadcast on CBS on May 20, 1982—clearly shows. Meanguera is not leveled; there are no fires; at least eight people can be seen, going about their business. O’Reilly also writes that he arrived at Meanguera by car in a harrowing journey, but the clip reveals he travelled part of the way in a Salvadoran helicopter.
But these lies—however fun they are to catch O’Reilly in—are not important. It should be no surprise to anyone that O’Reilly exaggerates and distorts. What is important is that O’Reilly was asked to investigate the El Mozote massacre. He didn’t. O’Reilly was sent to follow up reports (by Bonner and Guillermoprieto) of a major atrocity committed by US allies that would have had implications for Ronald Reagan’s hardline Central America policy. He didn’t.
O'Reilly wrote in his book that he was sent to check out reports of a massacre. He didn't fulfill that assignment. Instead, his reporting just mirrored the party line of the Reagan administration. The massacre got buried, and the truth would only be acknowledged years later.
O'Reilly was not the only one, however, as Roque Planas in the Huffington Post points out.
Historian Virginia Garrard-Burnett, who specializes in Central America, likewise viewed O’Reilly’s failure to mention the allegations of a massacre at El Mozote as a major lapse. But she also said it was common at the time for foreign journalists to over-rely on sources in the U.S. government and Salvadoran military, leading to what she described as superficial or inaccurate reporting.
“There were some very brave journalists at the time in El Salvador, but there were others that were not as brave,” Garrard-Burnett told HuffPost. “They weren’t all the same kind of free and independent thinkers that you might wish. They weren’t all questioning government sources ... I don’t want to make it sound like I’m giving Bill O’Reilly a walk, but there were a lot of people there who were lazy back then, or scared.”