I have nothing against Bill O’Reilly. Never met the man. Rarely watch his show. But since Fox News was one of the only free channels onboard my Delta flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles on Tuesday, I eased as far back as I could in my exit row seat and listened to Bill rap on about the Jena 6 and some misconstrued statements he made recently on his radio show.
I was unable to fully comprehend what was said and why because the tiny video monitor in the seat in front of me began pixelating and the audio track was reduced to static. But from what I was able to piece together, O’Reilly was describing a dinner he had with the Rev. Al Sharpton at Sylvia’s soul food restaurant in Harlem and he apparently made some statements that were considered racist.
Hmmm, here we go again. Maybe I should just pay the $5 to watch “Shrek 3.”
By the time I got home and turned on the local news, O’Reilly was being vilified for insinuating how surprised he was that uptown black folks knew how to behave properly while dining in a public setting.
Man, was I glad he didn’t see the way I was stuffing cookies in my mouth on the plane. Both O’Reilly and my mother would be horrified.
Honestly, however, I was too wiped to care. Besides, I knew that there had to be another side to this issue. There always is. And I couldn’t imagine why Rev. Al would want to break bread with someone too ignorant to realize that black people use forks to eat their mac-and-cheese just like everyone else.
Halfway rightNaturally, the O’Reilly assault continued on Wednesday. Both Whoopi Goldberg and Sherri Shepherd were wondering if O’Reilly even knew any black folks and chastised him for making such callous comments during the Hot Topics segment on “The View.” Conversely, Joy Behar was wondering what all the fuss was about. She muttered something about O’Reilly not being a racist because of what he said.
I think she’s halfway right.
You can’t be mad at O’Reilly. Maybe he hasn’t spent a lot of time on the A train, or eating in uptown soul food restaurants. Maybe he’s led a very sheltered life. Or perhaps he’s been watching too much Flavor Flav and not enough “Grey’s Anatomy.”
But sometimes people of all races get tripped up by their own ignorance and say things that offend people. Sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it and when you say it.
Now is not the best time to say anything even slightly controversial. Not when we’ve got black and white kids beating each other up in Louisiana.
Still, since I had heard only one side of the story, I decided to withhold judgment until O’Reilly and Sharpton debated the controversy on “The O’Reilly Factor” on Wednesday evening.
O’Reilly spent at least five minutes defending himself while slamming Media Matters for America, the liberal watchdog group he accused of being responsible for this smear campaign. He claimed MMA was “distorting a very positive discussion on race and accusing me of racism.”
He also criticized the New York Daily News, the “Early Show” on CBS, The Chicago Sun-Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, ABCNews.com and the Louisville Journal for their unfair reporting on this “ridiculous situation.”
“My words on the Radio Factor were an attack on racism,” he said. “That’s clear from the unedited conversation.”
Bigger issues at handEnter Sharpton, who was beamed in from Louisiana where he’s been trying to peacefully resolve the powder keg Jena 6 conflict. Sharpton admitted he had not heard the tape and was going to refrain from commenting on O’Reilly’s alleged racial remarks until he did so. And although he did concede that the written accounts of his dinner date with O’Reilly were “disturbing and surprising,” Sharpton was quick to add that he and O’Reilly had dined in Harlem many times and that he had never heard him say anything “offensive.”
Translation: He’s got deeper issues to concern himself with in Jena, La.
Pundits have already started comparing O’Reilly to Don Imus, and the next thing you know one of them will start blaming the rappers. The difference between O’Reilly and Imus, however, is that Imus was going for the funny when he referred to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.” O’Reilly was actually trying to make a valid point.
Right now I’m not sure anyone really gets it.
But even though O’Reilly clearly enjoys stirring the pot, let’s not string him up just yet. If in fact he was purposely offensive, perhaps his buddy Sharpton can help enlighten him. Those who know better help others do better.
If his comments were indeed taken out of context, O’Reilly should be more careful next time. These days all conversations about race in America have to be qualified.
Regardless of where you eat.
Miki Turner is an entertainment columnist for msnbc.com. She welcomes your comments at .