Bill O'Reilly suffers from the same malady as Brian Williams: a tendency to embellish stories of the dangers and horrors he has faced as a journalist (though in O'Reilly's case, his career as a journalist was brief, before he discovered his true calling). They may have had a slightly different motivation; my interpretation of Williams' tall-tale-telling is that he wanted to portray himself as heroically journalistic, in the center of the action, bringing people the most important news of the moment. I suspect that for O'Reilly, on the other hand, it's more of a macho thing—he's as tough as anyone, and if you doubt it he'll shout you down like the pinhead you are.
But while Williams was suspended for six months and may never make it back to the anchor chair, nothing of the sort is happening to O'Reilly; Fox News has stood behind him, which won't change no matter how much evidence emerges showing that he has lied repeatedly about his "war" record. The simple explanation for the difference many believe is that NBC News cares about facts and Fox News doesn't. Which is true up to a point, but it isn't the whole story.
To catch you up, last week David Corn and Daniel Schulman of Mother Jones published this article documenting all the times O'Reilly has claimed that he has reported from "war zones" and "combat." In fact, the closest O'Reilly ever got to combat back when he was a reporter was filing dispatches from Buenos Aires during the Falklands war—1,200 miles from the actual fighting. When confronted with this fact, O'Reilly has claimed that he was in the war zone because he covered a violent protest in Buenos Aires. That would be ridiculous on its own terms, but it turns out that even his account of that protest is likely bogus as well; while the protest was certainly chaotic and violent, no other news report from the time, from CBS News (for whom O'Reilly worked) or any other organization, substantiates his claim of Argentine soldiers "gunning these people down," and in the days since a number of his former CBS colleagues have challenged his description of the events.
So it's pretty clear what's going on here. Desperate to paint himself as a macho globe-trotting journalist who's seen danger and laughed in its face, O'Reilly has for years been saying that he saw "combat" and served in a "war zone," when the closest he got was more than a thousand miles away. During the time of the Falklands War. The Falklands. And as Lloyd Grove noted, O'Reilly has been caught lying about his own awesomeness before, as when he claimed falsely to have won two Peabody awards for his work on that paragon of serious journalism, Inside Edition. That didn't hurt his career, either.
So why not? Let's look at Williams again. NBC didn't suspend him because their profound integrity and commitment to the truth demanded it. They suspended him because they were afraid that he had been compromised among his viewers, and if they had left him on the air those viewers would desert the network's news program. In other words, it was a financial decision. Williams' success depends on a combination of personality and credibility; viewers want to know they can trust him, but mostly they tune in because they like him. Take away the credibility, and they won't like him so much anymore.
You could say that O'Reilly depends on the same two factors, personality and credibility. But his credibility comes from an entirely different place, and it's the reason he not only wouldn't but couldn't apologize, or even admit that he had exaggerated his combat derring-do. For O'Reilly, credibility means not that he's a source of truthful information but that he's a source of information and opinions his audience finds pleasing. Almost nothing is more important for him than to standing up to liberals, sticking it to 'em, fighting the secularists and the America-haters and the welfare coddlers with his usual brio. O'Reilly's persona is all anger and defiance; he may be sitting behind a desk, but he wants viewers to believe that he's ready at any moment to come out from there and punch somebody in the face if they need to be taught a lesson. He's the person they want to be, channeling their rage and their resentments.
For O'Reilly, a loss of credibility wouldn't come from being dishonest, it would come from showing weakness, from opposing liberals with anything less than maximal militance. As far as he and his angry old white viewers are concerned (the median age of O'Reilly's viewers is 72), nothing shows weakness more than apologizing to your enemies. Which is why he has reacted to the charges with a stream of invective (calling David Corn a "far-left zealot" and a "guttersnipe") and an insistence that he never made a single mistake. And the facts? Well, as Stephen Colbert said, the facts have a well-known liberal bias.
It isn't just liberals who are O'Reilly's enemies, it's also the media—all of it. So when O'Reilly is being criticized, whether it's from Mother Jones or The New York Times, it just proves how right he is about everything and how much of a threat he is to the craven comsymps of the liberal elite. So when a reporter from The New York Times contacted him about the story, he told her that if he didn't like what she wrote, "I am coming after you with everything I have. You can take it as a threat." Just try to imagine Brian Williams, or anyone who wants to maintain a reputation as a journalist of any sort, objective or opinionated, saying such a thing and not losing their job.
An episode like this plays right into the centerpiece of Fox's ideology, its very raison d'être: the idea that Fox News is not just a brave outpost of truth-telling but the only place to get the real scoop uncontaminated by liberal bias. It tells its viewers that everything they hear from any allegedly non-partisan or objective source is nothing but a steaming pile of lies; the only thing you can trust on the TV dial is Fox. So when O'Reilly comes under fire, the viewers know two things: the substance of the criticism is bogus by definition; and the whole episode just proves what Fox has been saying all along. They are the righteous ones, which is why the forces of darkness are out to get them.
The bottom line for Brian Williams' bosses at NBC News is money, and journalistic integrity is necessary to keep that money flowing. For Bill O'Reilly's boss, Roger Ailes, things are just a bit more complicated. Ailes's genius has always been his ability to make his network simultaneously serve two purposes: making money, and advancing the goals of the Republican Party. An on-air personality could lose his job if he threatened either of those goals, but O'Reilly hasn't.