After five years of up-close and personal experience, I can say with confidence that Bill O’Reilly is not a racist.
And I mean it in the sense that he does not have any specific animus toward black people.
Of course, he does have a general animus toward anyone who isn’t exactly like him, and blacks fall into this category. But the black community should know that they are part of a large, diverse group that includes -- amongst others -- liberals, women, gays, Hispanics, non-Christians, Hollywood celebrities, young people, citizens of Vermont, technology aficionados, marijuana users, sushi eaters, yoga practitioners and anyone who performs, creates or enjoys any music that was recorded after 1973.
All that being said, O’Reilly’s latest quest to heal the ills of black community through televised haranguing is a sorry spectacle. It takes a willfully obtuse mind to look at the George Zimmerman case and come away with the conclusion that it’s solely indicative of something wrong within the black community.
Luckily, willful obtuseness is one of the prerequisites for an on-air job at Fox.
It started last week, with a lengthy, manic, spittle-flecked opening monologue that opened by arguing it wasn’t racial profiling that got Trayvon Martin killed, but wardrobe profiling:
“Trayvon Martin was killed because circumstances got out of control. He was scrutinized by a neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, because of the way he looked. Not necessarily his skin color -- there is no evidence of that -- but because he was a stranger to Zimmerman and was dressed in clothing sometimes used by street criminals.”
Not a great way to start a manifesto that’s supposed to establish your authority and demonstrate that you’re in touch -- declaring that a garment as innocuous and ubiquitous as the hooded sweatshirt is “sometimes used by street criminals.”
"It was wrong for Zimmerman to confront Martin based on his appearance. But the culture that we have in this country does lead to criminal profiling because young black American men are so often involved in crime, the statistics overwhelming."
Okay. So there’s no proof that George Zimmerman racially profiled Trayvon Martin, but if he did, it’s totally understandable. Gotcha.
O’Reilly went on to lay out a laundry list of tropes and canards about the problems facing African Americans, theories that were already tired and inaccurate when they first debuted in the early 1990s:
“The entertainment industry encourages the irresponsibility [of young black men] by marketing a gangster culture, hip hop, movies, trashy TV shows to impressionable children. In fact, President Obama has welcomed some of the worst offenders in that cesspool to the White House when he should be condemning what these weasels are doing. These so-called entertainers get rich while the kids who emulate their lyrics and attitude destroy themselves.”
I don’t even know who the hell he’s referring to here. Jay Z, maybe? Has Jay Z actually mentioned criminal activity in a lyric at any point in the past 15 years?
O’Reilly’s efforts to diagnose the ills of the black community are both laughable and risible. He’s so out of touch with black America that he’s barely speaking the same language. It’s the equivalent of me attempting to give advice to a herd of cats and acting surprised when they ignore me. (“If the cat community would just stop their meowing and chase fewer mice and quit having so many kittens out of wedlock, maybe they’d get ahead in life.”)
And I’m not coming from the school of thought, recently endorsed by Fox, that one must be a member of a certain group to critique it. But if there is a cure for what ails the black community, it’s doubtful that it’s going to come from a white, rage-addled millionaire in his mid-60s who likely hasn’t spoken to a real live black person without a camera rolling since before the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Despite working in the most diverse city in the United States, O’Reilly exists in a veritable bubble of whiteness, whisked back and forth from his Caucasian Long Island suburb by his driver and attended to by what I believe to still be an all-white staff of producers and executives. The only thing remotely black he comes into contact with on his daily routine is the paint job on his Town Car. (But even that’s rendered moot by the inherent whiteness of that particular make and model, aka the preferred mode of transportation for suburban plutocrats.)
This isn’t just an O’Reilly problem, by the way. It’s network-wide. Fox News is one of the most lily-white workplaces on the Eastern seaboard. You’d probably have to travel as far inland as Branson, Mo., to find a whiter office environment.
I worked with only a handful of black producers and video editors in my eight-year tenure, and every one of them was uncomfortable with – if not downright contemptuous of -- Fox’s on-air take on every racial issue.
Speaking of uncomfortable: The Reza Aslan incident is some of the best cringe-worthy television this side of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Aslan probably should have known what he was walking into, though. He’s a Muslim academic; Muslims and academics might be the only two groups about which Fox personalities have even less of an understanding than blacks.
Oddly enough, the personality in question, Lauren Green, is African American herself, the exception to the rule at FNC. I knew Green a little when I was still at Fox. Her office was in what some might consider a plum location, a few doors down from O’Reilly’s, so we chatted from time to time. I have to say I was surprised to see her involved in this controversy. She’s actually soft-spoken and mild-mannered, one of the least contentious on-air figures at the entire network -- which is probably one of the reasons that she was relegated to the cable news wilderness of hosting an online-only show about religious issues. Roger Ailes likes his correspondents to be feisty, probably even more than he likes them to be blonde and leggy.
Rather than running from the embarrassing fallout over the Aslan interview, currently the network is in the process of doubling down on the stupidity, painting critics of their anti-intellectualism as pearl-clutching liberal media scolds.
It’s a pretty standard Fox response to any controversy, actually. Make the story not about the original comments, but about the whiny liberal response to the original comments. It’s a process that O’Reilly is involved in right now, going after Al Sharpton and others who criticized his earlier remarks. The circle of life at Fox News Channel.
I don’t miss it.