When a master at manipulating race-based tension calls you out, you must be doing something right.
Exhibit A: Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, a guy who I've called on the carpet many times for his use of coded words and phrases to pass along stereotypical, insulting ideas. He's gleefully pointed out going after "black rappers" in a prime time special on explicit entertainment, noted how those who live a "gangsta life" were like those left to drown in post-Katrina New Orleans and insisted he wasn't going to "go on a lynching party" when Michelle Obama said some thing which upset conservatives about America.
Last night, in one of those inexplicable moments when a world-famous opinionator reaches out to swat a barely-known newspaper writer, O'Reilly called me "one of the biggest race baiters in the country," offering no proof of how I'd earned the term, beyond my status as chair of the Media Monitoring Committee for the National Association of Black Journalists.
I'm betting it's because I took note of his lynching remark in a column about Don Imus on Friday. Indeed, I have a long history of tangling with Fox News' most popular pundit, viewable in stories here, here and here.
"Millions of white Americans will no longer even think about discussing race with black people," O'Reilly offered, just before plastering my picture on his screen. "Any slip of the tongue can lead to trouble." Why is it that the main people who don't seem to want to talk about race in America these days, are those who earn their living by keeping us apart?
Of course, O'Reilly's use of coded race language is hardly accidental. A key part of his show involves invoking the specter of out-of-control black males to frighten his audience. Once a critic like me objects, he can claim it was a mistake and accuse others of overreaching or unfairness. But if the Don Imus incident teaches anything, it's that mainstream America is growing far less tolerant of such antics.
I'm not saying I'm perfect in this. We've reached a point with prejudice and stereotypes where the issues are subtle, deep-seated and difficult to discuss. But I think intent counts for a lot -- and it seems obvious to me that O'Reilly doesn't come to these debates with respect for many positions besides his own. And that's why I'm so tough on him; because he's smart enough to know exactly what he's doing.
THe ironies abound: O'Reilly says red-baiter Joe McCarthy would love me, but criticizes me mostly for my involvement with an organization he doesn't like -- a classic McCarthy tactic. He also has looked into the party affiliations of TV and media critics across the country; hmmm....who does that remind you of?
And as the News Hounds web site noted, the only people O'Reilly accuses of being unfair about claims of racism are black folks (he did criticize an institution run by white people, liberal media watchdogs Media Matters for America).
His enemies list of "race hustlers" includes an ex-girlfriend of comic Bill Maher, who filed a palimony suit accusing the HBO host of using "degrading racial comments" against her. (That mention, which really has little to do with accusations of racism in politics and media, just seemed calculated to juxtapose a picture of Maher, who is white, next to his black centerfold model ex-girlfriend).
O'Reilly and I can agree on one thing: the word "racist" is thrown around way too much. It feeds the notion that the only people who leverage such language are serious bigots, which isn't true. The toughest thing about confronting stereotypes sometimes is that they are seductive, entertaining and often employed by people who aren't bigots. Doesn't make them any more right.
In O'Reilly's world, most of the "race hustlers" in this game seem to be black people (except Al Sharpton, with whom O'Reilly seems to have a cordial relationship). But white pundits like O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage often use race tension to score points with their audiences, exploiting their fear and frustration about race issues to build ratings points.
As I've said many times before, I judge journalists by the enemies they make. So I must be doing pretty well these days.