Making All the Right Enemies
The first and only time I met Fox News Channel star Bill O'Reilly, he looked at me like I owed him money.
The situation was, I will admit, an uncomfortable one. He and a publicity executive at Fox News had already turned down an interview request for this very book, despite the fact that he inspired the title. And though he planned several stops around my St. Petersburg, Florida, home base to tout his own new book in early 2012, sharing a cup of joe with me was not particularly high on his to-do list.
That's because we have, as a therapist might say, a bit of history.
At various times on his top-rated evening cablecast, O'Reilly has called me "dishonest," "racially motivated," and "one of the biggest race-baiters in the country" for criticizing the way he talks about race on his program.
So as I planned this tome on how race issues and prejudice play out in media, I wanted to talk with O'Reilly. And he didn't want to talk with me.
Fair enough. But when the top-rated anchor came to give a speech in nearby Sarasota, organizers emailed me an invitation to a small press conference he was holding before the event. We have history, I warned. He probably won't be happy to see me there.
Sure enough, when we gathered in a small "greenroom" area deep inside the bowels of the Van Wezel Hall, tight smiles were the order of the day. Two reporters from local papers and two high school students flanked me at a small, round table where O'Reilly was going to field questions. After talking with the anchor about my presence, the president of the group presenting the lecture series had one question: "Will you be civil?"
"Of course," I replied. "As long as he is."
Until this day, most all of our disagreements had occurred in media. After I wrote a story for the St. Petersburg Times in 2002 panning a prime time special he put together for the Fox broadcast network — titled "Wallowing in Corruption," the piece chided him for blaming rappers for social ills in ways classic rockers never were — he complained about the newspaper so much that my email filled with caustic messages from his fans.
When I sat on a 2008 panel discussion at a symposium in Minneapolis convened by the anti-consolidation media watchdogs Free Press, he sent a producer to interview me on camera, ambush-style, asking why I hadn't appeared on his show. "Bill hasn't asked me," I answered. Never heard back.
And I once got a call out of the blue from a producer on his show wanting to know what political party I was registered under and whether I had given any money to political candidates. "I'm a registered Democrat and I'm a journalist," I told the producer. "So I don't have any money to give anyone."
He would later note in one of his shows that he couldn't "find one TV critic ... who isn't a liberal or registered Democrat," without detailing his research methods. If he relied on phone calls like the one I got, I bet he didn't get many answers.
But nothing seemed to get under his skin like the controversy over comments he made on his onetime radio show back in 2007 about Sylvia's Restaurant, a well-established, black-owned soul food eatery in Harlem.
Recalling an experience dining there with Al Sharpton, O'Reilly told listeners: "I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's Restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks, primarily black patronship, it was the same. That's really what this society is about here in the U.S.A.; there's no difference."
Later in the show, during a conversation with fellow pundit Juan Williams, he noted, "There wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, 'M-Fer, I want more iced tea.' ... It was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people were sitting there, and they were ordering and having fun. And there wasn't any kind of craziness at all."
The liberal watchdog group Media Matters posted a transcript with the most disturbing lines highlighted, sparking coverage in the Associated Press, the New York Daily News, and CNN. I wrote on it too, noting how those words sounded like an awful backhanded compliment, as if he walked into the doors of Sylvia's expecting a scene from a bad rap video.
O'Reilly blamed Media Matters for omitting the middle part of his show, where he discussed his grandmother's racism, how she had never really known a black person, and how her attitude was rooted in fear translated into "irrational hostility."
Indeed, the full audio of his remarks veered between some statements that sounded insulting — saying "I think black Americans are starting to think more and more for themselves. They're getting away from the Sharptons and the Jacksons and the people trying to lead them into a race-based culture" — to more conciliatory notes about how some prejudice exists because whitecontrolled media pass along harmful images of black people.
What seemed obvious, then and now, is that we don't have a great vocabulary for talking about any of this. And too often, instead of having a respectful dialogue, we fight.
All of which I wanted to discuss with O'Reilly in Sarasota. But my first question, asking why he called me a race-baiter, didn't get much response.
"I don't have that quote in front of me," he said. "I'm not going to answer quotes that I said four years ago. 'Cause I don't know what the context is. I can't answer the question because I don't know. If you have a transcript, I'll take a look at it."
But you said back then that white people couldn't talk to black people about issues of race, I answered. Do you feel the same way now?
"All I know is I did a commentary on a restaurant in Harlem, Sylvia's, where I was very complimentary about the restaurant and what went on there ... [and] I got shattered by ideologues who were just looking to take things out of context," he said. "I think it's a press problem, not a people problem."
Then why did he air a commentary blaming Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Media Matters, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, and me for helping create a climate where "good people are being driven away from constructive dialogue that might advance racial harmony"? And why did every example of dubious "race-baiting" he cited feature allegations of prejudice against white people?
If we're all equal, can't white people make mistakes, too?
From Race-Baiter: How The Media Wields Dangerous Words To Divide A Nation by Eric Deggans. Copyright 2012 by Eric Deggans. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.