The Montana Standard’s Hagiography of Rob O’Neill Leaves Out a Few Salient Details

It’s pretty hard not to be frustrated by the Thanksgiving profile of Rob O’Neill in the Montana Standard. When this lede:

Here’s Rob O’Neill, looking every bit the rock star he has become, snakeskin boots and custom-made jacket, and every bit the Butte kid he has always been, blue jeans, ball cap and mischievous grin that could melt St. Brigid’s heart.

is the most critical portion of the piece, you know you’re not exactly going to get an exposé of the man, despite serious controversy about his record.

Let’s start with the most obvious problem. From the Standard:

The man who killed Osama bin Laden is home for a Thanksgiving stop sandwiched into a grueling 300-speeches-a-year schedule.

It’s just not that simple, and editor David McCumber should know that. In the time since O’Neill launched his brand following taking credit for killing bin Laden, many people in the Special Operations community have called his claim untrue and criticized him for taking unearned glory. Rear Admiral Brian Losey and Force Master Chief Michael Magaraci said that O’Neill’s claim undermined the core ethos of the Navy SEALS:

“At Naval Special Warfare’s core is the SEAL ethos,” reads the letter from Rear Adm. Brian Losey and Force Master Chief Michael Magaraci obtained by the website “A critical tenant of our ethos is ‘I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.’ Our ethos is a life-long commitment and obligation, both in and out of the service. Violators of our ethos are neither teammates in good standing, nor teammates who represent Naval Special Warfare.”

Hell, even Montana Republican (and expert in cashing in on classified SEAL information) Ryan Zinke criticized O’Neill when he came forward.

And the truth is that many in the special operations community have come forward to say that O’Neill did not kill bin Laden:

A former SEAL Team 6 commander told the New York Times O’Neill only fired ‘insurance shots’ into bin Laden’s twitching body after the terror leader had already been mortally shot by an unidentified SEAL who is still in the service. 

That hero is described as the ’point man’ who led the SEALs up the stairs in bin Laden’s compound to the bedroom where he was hiding.

Another Team 6 member also disputed O’Neill’s version, saying the ‘point man’ had wounded bin Laden with a shot to the side, and then grabbed the women in the room for fear they were wearing explosives. O’Neill, he said, had then finished Osama off.

And Reuters quoted an unidentified source close to a SEAL Team 6 member as saying the fatal shot was fired by one of two other men who entered the room before O’Neill.

I actually don’t have any doubt that Rob O’Neill thinks he fired the shots that killed bin Laden, but it’s certainly isn’t a matter of fact that he did–and a news profile of him should not print as fact was is widely disputed by those who were there.

Next, the piece moves to a discussion of what is described as O’Neill’s charity, Your Grateful Nation, which  is described as “tremendously successful.”

According to the group’s 990 form submitted to the IRS, both of those claims may be just a bit misleading. O’Neill works two hours a week for the organization, which, according to its 2015 report (the last available), did almost nothing for veterans. While it spent $231,252 in salaries and employee benefits, it had zero dollars spent for grants or services to any organizations or individuals. It did, however, spend $34,000 on advertising and promotion. Perhaps the 2016 IRS forms will show something different, but a charity spending almost all of its revenue on one executive director and self-promotion should probably not be described as “tremendously successful.”

Finally, the article notes Mr. O’Neill’s concern about Butte’s culture of drinking:

O’Neill remembers Butte in his charitable endeavors. He spoke Tuesday at a fundraiser for Mariah’s Challenge, a favorite charity that he’s helped a lot previously. He cited Butte’s “culture of drinking,” and added, “Everybody screws up. When they do, they’ve got to stand up, own it, and learn from it.”

That’s a noble sentiment, but one lacking some important context previously reported in the Montana Standard: O’Neill himself avoided prosecution for a DUI charge in Silver Bow County just over a year ago, and rather than facing the court or press himself, issued a statement through a press release issued through his PR firm.

Probably an important bit of context.

Why does it matter if the Standard writes an entirely uncritical story about a local boy who became a success? It’s just dangerous for the press to treat military figures as if they don’t deserve serious scrutiny. Montanans have had ample recent experience with the danger of treating a Navy SEAL with political aspirations with kid gloves. The evidence of pervasive corruption surrounding Ryan Zinke now that he’s become exposed to the Washington press corps amply demonstrates the importance of honest, critical coverage of political figures from the outset before the myth overpowers the man.

A lot of people, Ryan Zinke included, believe that Rob O’Neill might one day try to cash in on his fame and run for political office here in Montana. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that press coverage about him treat him like the public, political figure he is. The Standard absolutely failed in that obligation with this piece, even if the subject was a “rock star.”

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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