Firing Bill O'Reilly isn't enough: Fox News needs to clean house and start fresh

Bill O'Reilly's racist show was a symptom of rot in Fox News' culture. What if it could be fair and balanced?

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published April 23, 2017 3:00PM (EDT)

Bill O'Reilly              (Fox News/Salon)
Bill O'Reilly (Fox News/Salon)

“You mad! Oh, you maddd! You madddd!” said platinum-selling hip-hop artist Cam’ron to an angry Bill O’Reilly on a segment of his recently canceled show "The O’Reilly Factor" about 10 years ago. “I got dirt on you, doggie. I’m gonna get at you in a minute!”

O’Reilly, who appeared to be upset, welcomed the challenge; however, we never heard what Cam had to say. Maybe it was a shot at O'Reilly's history of sexual harassment accusations, as we now know that Fox News paid out $13 million in settlements over the past 20 years.

The show also featured former Rock-A-Fella CEO Damon Dash and the principal of John Reynolds Elementary School in Philadelphia, Salome Thomas-El. The panel, moderated by O’Reilly, was supposed to be talking about rap lyrics and the responsibility of artists in a segment titled “Is Gangsta Rap Hurting America's Children?” but the discussion quickly turned into a game of who can blame whom the most. The segment was extremely one-sided, due to O’Reilly’s poor moderating and awful commentary. Dash even told O’Reilly that he wasn’t mediating, but trying to dominate the conversation, and O'Reilly responded by telling him to get his own show.

There are so many horrible parts in this segment, but I want to highlight a few. This first is the way in which Bill O’Reilly introduced Cam’ron.

“So we decided to get Grammy-nominee Cam'ron,” says O’Reilly, “who raps about pimping and bitches — among other things.”

Those "other things" include how to navigate the business world as a professional artist, what really happens in the streets, problems with schools, fighting addiction and the importance of entrepreneurship. Conveniently, O'Reilly left all of those things out and purposely focused on the negative in an early effort to define Cam’ron as a bad person. Kind of like if I invited Bill in for a Salon Talks interview and introduced him like this, not mentioning the successful show he hosted for so many years along with his string of best-selling books:

“Hey, guys, welcome the recently fired, sexually harassing predator who lost custody of his kids because of domestic disputes! The stank-mouthed, twisted-face ole racist-ass trash writer Bill O’Reilly! Come on, y'all, give it up for him!”

O’Reilly dug deeper into the image of Cam’ron, or rather, what he wanted his viewers to take away about the rapper. “What if an 11-year-old kid imitates you, Cam'ron? What if he uses four-letter words and he develops a lifestyle based upon the street, he gets tattooed, he gets all of this, do you feel badly about that?”

Again, as if this is all Cam’ron represents.

“If an 11-year-old were to imitate Cam'ron, what they would be doing is becoming a CEO of their own company, controlling their own destiny, taking a bad situation and making it good," Dash responded. "He has a record company. He's sold a lot of records. He's acted in movies.”

They continued to go back and forth, cutting each other off mid-sentence multiple times. Then O'Reilly crossed the line, in a way that should upset Fox News viewers as much as people who don’t care to watch its programming. Here's the transcript:

O'REILLY: If you have a child who is unsupervised and then Mr. Thomas-El has to try to teach and he's using four-letter words inappropriately, he's dressing inappropriately, he doesn't have value of education, then that kid's in trouble.

DASH: Who's to say what's inappropriate as far as dressing goes? But, on another level, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was the Terminator, he was shooting up everyone in sight.

O'REILLY: It's a cartoon, though. This is real, though, isn't it?

CAM'RON: Everybody's rap isn't real.

O'REILLY: This is real. It's not a Terminator cartoon.

DASH: Now we're talking about the good governor of California right now.

O'REILLY: That's right. And I'm telling you his movie's a cartoon, whereas this rap stuff is real life.

DASH: Now — whoa, whoa, whoa. If there's an unsupervised child, how is he going to know whether it's real or not? How is he to determine what's real and what's not real?

Calling "The Terminator" a cartoon multiple times, just to prove a bad point, is sad — it’s a flat-out lie, and I’m embarrassed that Fox would even allow this kind of foolish fake reporting on its network. I’m sure the average "O’Reilly Factor" viewer isn’t familiar with Cam’ron’s work; however, "The Terminator" is one of the biggest movies of all time. It’s fiction, but we know it’s not a cartoon. How easily he lied to millions of viewers.

This is one of thousands of race-baiting segments the network has aired. It’s like they don’t even care about facts. Here’s a fake story about a shooting in Baltimore that didn’t happen — and it's still live on Fox's site. The Baltimore Sun, among other outlets, published stories proving the incident didn’t really happen. But apparently Fox News continues to endorse its own fake reporting. The network is incapable of apologizing, just like the people it hires, promotes and make its stars.

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In a statement about his departure, O’Reilly said, “It is tremendously disheartening that we part ways due to completely unfounded claims. But that is the unfortunate reality many of us in the public eye must live with today.” He knows the amount of money that was paid out on his behalf yet he’s still crying about his innocence. I’m happy that Fox let him go, but that’s not enough.

Getting rid of O’Reilly, Fox’s biggest star, is a great start. But the network seems to be full of O’Reillys in training. The good deed of firing O'Reilly will be in vain if the network continues to hire the same type of person. I recommend that Fox News do something revolutionary, like hire a non-Republican, non-Uncle Tom-ish black person to host a show. Allow them to do things that don’t exist on the network right now, like telling the truth when reporting on minorities, without basing claims on false stereotypes and racist ideas. Do that, and media consumers may believe that the network fired O'Reilly because of the actions it had to settle lawsuits over rather than the negative media attention that will follow him around for the rest of his life. Put the new show in his old time slot; invite the same guests on and elevate the conversation with an actually fair and balanced host, then sit back and watch the ratings come in.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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