Commentary – O’Reilly, Media Matters, & Common Ground

After watching the Left v. Right controversy over a radio broadcast, I’ve figured out something: FOX TV and radio host Bill O’Reilly and liberal watchdog group Media Matters have more in common than they realize.

Here’s how Media Matters summarized what went down:

During the September 19 edition of his nationally syndicated radio program, discussing his recent trip to have dinner with Rev. Al Sharpton at Sylvia’s, a famous restaurant in Harlem, Bill O’Reilly reported that he “had a great time, and all the people up there are tremendously respectful,” adding: “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.” Later, during a discussion with National Public Radio senior correspondent and Fox News contributor Juan Williams about the effect of rap on culture, O’Reilly asserted: “There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, ‘M-Fer, I want more iced tea.’ You know, I mean, everybody was — 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.” O’Reilly also stated: “I think black Americans are starting to think more and more for themselves. They’re getting away from the Sharptons and the [Rev. Jesse] Jacksons and the people trying to lead them into a race-based culture. They’re just trying to figure it out. ‘Look, I can make it. If I work hard and get educated, I can make it.”

As expected, the press grabbed the story and the controversy has been all over the media since as many have commented angrily about O’Reilly’s supposed ignorance and the racism that may have informed his remarks, and O’Reilly’s ire over what he calls a Media Matters attack against him.

What’s really interesting here is that the conservative talker and the liberal watchdogs have something in common here — both are partly correct and partly mistaken.

Let’s start with Media Matters. I believe the organization performs a necessary service and has built a strong case against O’Reilly for past statements he has made against melanin-governed minority groups, women, liberals, GLBT people and on and on. At the same time, I did hear the entire hour in question, and it’s clear that O’Reilly’s point was to dispel stereotypes and that his intention was positive. Sad to say, many of O’Reilly’s audience do come from the segment of the population that does believe all brown people are lazy, shiftless less-than-humans who don’t have the capacity to behave appropriately in public settings and who see the teachings of the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson as gospel. Media Matters often is on target in its criticisms, but this time, the group seems to have missed the context of the broadcast as a whole, and this does make it appear that the group chose to target O’Reilly simply because he is O’Reilly.

Then again, O’Reilly has to understand a few things: Feigning surprise at seeing well-behaved negroes behaving respectably at the landmark Sylvia’s, which is patronized by no less than former President Bill Clinton, is going to set people off. The comments he made sound practically identical to the horrible backhanded compliments many educated people who have any African ancestors must endure almost every day they are in public, even in 2007.

“Wow, you are so articulate!”

“How did you learn to write so well?”

“Oh, we are happy to have you bring a friend along; if they’re like you, they’re one of the ‘good ones.'”

I hear crap like that all the time and every time, the words make this human being sorry to be human. Even typing those demeaning, diminishing, disgusting words that have been said to me in some variation by well-meaning but clueless people all my life makes me want to punch the wall beside me. I have no use for coddling or excusing the mindless bigotry or casual racists who have no self-awareness. I will note the context, that they are well-meaning and probably decent on most issues, but I will not, not, NOT give them a pass.

My requisite responses, respectively:

“And this surprises you because… why?”

“I went to school and studied hard. Didn’t you? I can tutor you if you would like.”

“Yeah, I am more comfortable around being with good people, so my friend and I are going to pass up your invitation and go elsewhere to find some.”

Essentially, O’Reilly’s comments revealed less and more about him than some are saying. His recent outing with Al Sharpton at Sylvia’s was not his first or second visit to the establishment, so he was not surprised to see well-behaved customers, regardless of what he said on the air Sept. 19. Perhaps he was surprised the first time (which would say something awful about him), but certainly not eight days ago.

Still, some misguided people out there do believe those things, that those [slur of choice, pluralized] routinely order iced tea while calling someone an expletive. O’Reilly, knowing this out-of-touch set provides a significant part of his devoted audience, set out to state that stereotyping is a bad thing. He deserves some kudos for his intent, if not for what he actually said. The phrases he employed indicate that perhaps he is not as far along in his “racial” enlightenment as he thinks. His words probably reminded a lot of people about being spoken to condescendingly by people who judged them as being “the other,” patted them on the head (metaphorically) and reassured them that they are part of the few, the proud, the “good ones.” (I like to tell people who call me a “good one” that I am their worst nightmare. Which is true.)

See, this is America. People come in all types: industrious and restrained brown people, lazy and loud pink people, and every combination of traits you can imagine. We all have the right to say what we want and to respond in kind when we are angry or hurt or offended. Bill O’Reilly has the right to speak whatever nonsense he chooses for whatever reason. Those who speak against him have that same right. Free speech works.

But a little advice is in order for all sides here.

For O’Reilly: Watch what you say. Words can turn a well-meaning action into something destructive. Realize that just because you didn’t mean offense doesn’t mean people can’t be offended by what you say. Understand that this controversy, make no mistake, was over words you used and sentiments you communicated. Media Matters was wrong by not placing the words into proper context, but they didn’t put the image of “bad negroes” versus “good negroes” in people’s minds – that had to do with your word picture of some trifling negro cursing while ordering tea. And the watchdog has a lot of legitimate evidence against you, so your charge of being “smeared” is pure hoo-hah. Oh – and tell your listeners to get out more. As you know, the food and service at Sylvia’s rock, and Harlem, unlike many of the “all-white suburbs” you mention, welcomes everyone.

For Media Matters: Context matters too. Listen to the entire show (if you didn’t; I assume not based on your published words on this story) before you release a rant if you want your criticisms to be taken seriously. You have solid evidence of Bill O’Reilly’s bad behavior when his intentions were not so good. Focus on that: Your credibility will thank you and right-wing pundits’ claims of being “smeared” by you will make them, not your organization, look unsavory and untrustworthy.

For everyone: Free speech does not mean the freedom to not be offended – or attacked, if you are a public figure. In fact, you can count on it. You do not have the right to decide when someone else can or should find something you wrote or said to be offensive. If offended, you always have the right to respond in any legal manner and on any platform. And, O’Reilly and Media Matters, more similar than they realize, are exercising those rights, whether we like what they said or not. Free speech works.

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