Accuracy in Media

Toward the end of an important segment on his Fox News program, Bill O’Reilly made an outrageous comment that he refuses to correct. During the course of doing a public service by debunking some 9/11 conspiracy theories, he suggested that those who believe TWA Flight 800 was downed by a missile in 1996 were also conspiracy theorists who completely lack evidence for their view. What’s more, O’Reilly claimed to have witnessed the truth about TWA 800 on television, which is factually impossible since the explosion and crash were not televised.

The initial subject was the flurry of conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11, and a new book by the editors of Popular Mechanics magazine, called Debunking the 9/11 Myths. It was good that O’Reilly devoted some time to this topic, since a poll shows that about one-third of the American people believe U.S. officials either allowed 9/11 to happen or facilitated it.

O’Reilly’s guest was James Meigs, the editor of Popular Mechanics magazine, which had originally published some of the material that comprises the book. The book takes an entirely apolitical and scientific approach to finding out what really happened, in response to some of the bizarre theories of the so-called “Scholars for 9/11 Truth.” These “scholars” claim that the whole 9/11 operation was a false-flag operation, meaning that it was an inside job committed by U.S. officials. They believe that the buildings in the World Trade Center complex fell because explosives had been planted in them, and that they were detonated after the planes crashed into them. They argue that the cell phone calls of Arab voices claiming to have taken over the planes were fake, because cell phones wouldn’t have worked in the planes.

There are websites on both sides advocating various conspiracy theories and debunking them. One of the more popular theories, which was even the subject of a best-selling book in France, was that American Airlines Flight 77 did not crash into the Pentagon but was some sort of missile. The site “It was Flight 77” offers links to some compelling evidence, including photographs showing airplane parts among the wreckage and numerous eyewitness accounts, including from USA Today’s Richard Benedetto.

Another comes from Bobby Eberle of GOPUSA, who was in Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001 and saw American Airlines Flight 77 fly overhead and hit the Pentagon. “I was closer to the aircraft than I was to the Pentagon, and within seconds of it racing past me, it exploded in a deep red fireball,” he said.

Sen. John McCain wrote the foreword for the book Debunking the 9/11 Myths. “The authors of this book,” writes McCain, “through their extensive reporting, disprove these tales of conspiracy. They show that, without exception, the stories are based on misconceptions, distortions, and outright lies. The CIA was not involved in 9/11. Our military did not bring about the destruction of the World Trade Center. Bombs or missiles did not fell the towers.”

Meigs addressed a couple of the issues on O’Reilly’s show. He argued that the way the buildings collapsed was entirely predictable and not unusual. Regarding the use of cell phones, he pointed out that in fact they do in fact work on planes.

But then O’Reilly compared the conspiracy theorists to those who claimed to have seen missiles take down TWA flight 800 on July 17, 1996. He said, “Now the final thing is, and this happened to the TWA crash off Long Island. The missiles thing, there were other missiles involved, and all that. I’m saying to myself, I was here in New York. I was watching the damn thing on television. I didn’t see any missiles and nobody else did. How does anybody believe this thing?”

O’Reilly’s claim that he was “watching the damn thing on television” is just false. But there were witnesses who did see what happened to the plane.

This happens to be a subject I know quite a bit about, having written and produced a documentary called “TWA 800: The Search for the Truth,” and written a number of columns, including one commemorating the tenth anniversary of the crash.

O’Reilly’s comments are both untrue and uninformed. Untrue in that he wasn’t watching it on television. No one was. It wasn’t on television. What flights are shown live on TV, especially when they are at an altitude of some 13,000 feet, over the ocean? Second of all, according to the FBI, more than 260 people, unrelated in any way, said they saw a missile-like object streaking toward the plane before it exploded, and of those, 92 said they saw it rise from the surface. That, plus a vast array of additional evidence, make a compelling case that TWA 800 was brought down by a missile. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)/CIA theory that what the people saw was burning fuel coming down from the aircraft as it rose in the sky after the explosion is absurd and defies physical laws.

I contacted O’Reilly’s producer and sought a correction, at least on the part about having seen the incident on TV. I sent him a copy of my documentary. The response I got back was that O’Reilly would have no comment.

This was all the more ironic when a few nights later in his opening talking points, regarding the coverage of the suspect in the JonBenet Ramsey story, he said the following: “The primary lesson is that we can no longer trust either officials or the press to deliver accurate information.” That should apply to the case of TWA 800.

The reason O’Reilly has the highest rated news/talk show on cable is because he usually delivers entertaining and provocative segments. He should be proud of that. And it is understandable that he doesn’t get goaded into responding to MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, who has one of the lowest-rated cable news shows on TV. But it is essential, if O’Reilly wants to be credible as well as entertaining and provocative, to correct his errors.

He has on average two million people watching his show every night, and many of them may now believe that a missile couldn’t have hit TWA 800 because O’Reilly said so and witnessed the whole thing on TV.

Come on, Bill. Just admit you got it wrong.




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