Two Former Colleagues Dispute O'Reilly's JFK Story

Bill O'Reilly, host of Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor." Slaven Vlasic/Getty

Updated | Was Bill O'Reilly present when a confidante of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald committed suicide? Yes, O'Reilly says, he was. But former O'Reilly colleagues from his time as a local TV news reporter in Dallas have disputed that claim to left-wing blog Media Matters. The Fox News star is currently weathering criticism from a report by Mother Jones last week claiming that he exaggerated the danger he faced when reporting on the Falkland War in the early 1980s.

O'Reilly's JFK story, which he told in his books Killing Kennedy and Kennedy's Last Days, involves George de Mohrenschildt, a Russian immigrant and Oswald confidante. De Mohrenschildt committed suicide in 1977, when O'Reilly was a 28-year old reporter at WFAA-TV in Dallas. In his books and on Fox News, O'Reilly has said he had tracked de Mohrenschildt to his daughter's home near Palm Beach, Florida, and was standing outside the house when de Mohrenschildt committed suicide with a shotgun. O'Reilly claimed to have heard the shot.

"As the reporter knocked on the door of de Mohrenschildt's daughter's home, he heard the shotgun blast that marked the suicide of the Russian, assuring that his relationship with Lee Harvey Oswald would never be fully understood. By the way, that reporter's name is Bill O'Reilly," he wrote.

But two former O'Reilly colleagues at WFAA-TV, Tracy Rowlett and Byron Harris, say he was in Dallas, not Palm Beach, when de Mohrenschildt died.

"Bill O'Reilly's a phony, there's no other way to put it," Tracy Rowlett told Media Matters.

Rowlett worked for WFAA-TV from 1974 to 1999, first as an investigative reporter and then as an evening news anchor. Rowlett told Media Matters WFAA "would have reported it as some kind of exclusive—and there was no exclusive—if O'Reilly had been standing outside the door."

"He stole that article out of the newspaper," Harris told Media Matters. "I guarantee Channel 8 didn't send him to Florida to do that story because it was a newspaper story. It was broken by The Dallas Morning News."

Questions about O'Reilly's coverage of de Mohrenschildt's death were first raised by former Washington Post reporter Jefferson Morley on his blog JFK Facts in 2013. "In his best-selling book Killing Kennedy, Bill O'Reilly tells a brief tale of an intrepid reporter—himself—chasing the historical truth of JFK's assassination in south Florida. But the story itself is a fiction, as O'Reilly reveals here in his own voice," Morley wrote.

Morley's accusation is based on a series of tape recordings that he says are from calls between O'Reilly and Gaeton Fonzi, an investigator for the House Select Committee on Investigations tasked with interviewing de Mohrenschildt. In the tapes, Morley says, O'Reilly calls Fonzi, claims he has received a tip that de Mohrenschildt has killed himself and asks Fonzi to confirm. Fonzi's widow, Marie Fonzi, shared the tapes with Morley and says O'Reilly was in Dallas when de Mohrenschildt killed himself.

O'Reilly came under increased scrutiny after he criticized the American media in the wake of the Brian Williams scandal.

In the past, O'Reilly famously claimed Inside Edition won two Peabody Awards—the highest award for journalism in the United States—when he was an anchor there. In fact, Inside Edition won two Polk Awards, a somewhat less prestigious award.

A Fox News spokeswoman told Newsweek, "Bill O'Reilly has already addressed several claims leveled against him. This is nothing more than an orchestrated campaign by far left advocates Mother Jones and Media Matters. 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."