Last week, as a representative of the Southern Poverty Law Center, I went on CNN's "Erin Burnett OutFront" show, where I was asked if anti-black racism was on the rise. I answered in what seemed to me a calm way, relying on actual data rather than offering a mere opinion.
"I think the best data shows that in fact anti-black racism has risen over the last four or five years," I told Burnett, according to her website. "There's polling that shows that both implicit and explicit anti-black attitudes among American whites have gone up quite significantly between 2008 and 2012, to the point where now more than half of white Americans have these anti-black attitudes."
Over at Fox News, that didn't go over so well with Bill O'Reilly. Here's what O'Reilly said on "The O'Reilly Factor" the very next day, according to an email his producer sent me with the "official" transcript of the show:
No, it's simply not true, all right. We looked at the AP study that Mr. Potok cited and it's not even close to being true. So, we suggest that Mr. Potok reread the study and stop demonizing white America for being racist because that's insane. There are racists -- every color, every creed. But to the [sic] zero in that, somehow, in America, white people are becoming more anti-black when you don't even read the study properly. I want everybody to go to the Associated Press and punch it up, pinhead of the week, all right.
And he designated me as his "Pinhead of the Week."
Not even close to being true? Let's check in first with the original 2012 report from The Associated Press, which commissioned the poll that was conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan, Stanford University, and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
The AP story reporting the results was headlined, "The Big Story: AP Poll: Majority harbor prejudice against blacks." And here's the bottom line under that unambiguous headline: "In all, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election."
I wrote O'Reilly and Factor producer Nick Robertson early this week, asking sweetly if they might put me on to defend myself and show that what I said was based on real data. Yesterday, in an email from Robertson, they refused.
Although O'Reilly never made this point on air, Robertson also said via email that the AP poll "did not specifically break out anti-black attitudes among WHITES. The poll was about anti-black attitudes among ALL Americans." I had merely made an "unproven assumption," he charged, that most whites had anti-black attitudes.
In fact, the study, if you bother to look into it, found that implicit anti-black attitudes among whites went from 49 percent in 2008 to 59 percent in 2012, a shift of 10 percentage points. And explicit anti-black attitudes among whites went from 57 percent in 2008 to 60 percent in 2012. In other words, the change was more marked among whites than the population as a whole. (And by the way, I didn't say more than half of whites were "racists," as O'Reilly claimed; I said, as you can see above, that they had "anti-black attitudes.") In addition, I spoke yesterday to Josh Pasek, the study's lead author and an assistant professor of communications studies at the University of Michigan, who said that while some of the underlying numbers were sometimes fuzzy, any change among whites clearly had been "in a basic anti-black direction. There's nothing significantly trending in a pro-black direction, " he added.
In other words, O'Reilly was totally wrong. It wasn't the first time.
I went through a remarkably similar exercise with O'Reilly back in early 2011, after he completely mischaracterized something I said that apparently contradicted his worldview. Once again, I had been on CNN, where I was asked by Suzanne Malveaux if "radicalizing Muslims" in the United States was "our biggest homegrown threat right now." I replied: "I think it's not our biggest domestic terror threat. I think that pretty clearly comes from the radical right in this country. Although I would certainly not minimize the threat of jihadist terrorism in this country."
O'Reilly wasn't listening too carefully, apparently, because he then went on the air to pillory me for saying, as he put it, that "the biggest terrorist threat is coming from the radical right community." But that was false. I was comparing the threat from homegrown jihadists versus the domestic radical right, as I said clearly on CNN. What I said was backed up by numerous independent scholarly studies.
That time, O'Reilly allowed me on his show to do battle with him. He was as slippery as an eel, acting disingenuously like I was there to simply clarify something erroneous I'd said on CNN. A friend and colleague, David Neiwert, told the whole story in a post at Crooks and Liars. The bottom line is O'Reilly just never would admit he was wrong, although he patently was.
Had enough? Okay, just one more example.
Back in 2007, my then-colleagues at the Southern Poverty Law Center, Susy Buchanan and David Holthouse, wrote a terrific takedown of a particularly rancid piece of "reporting" from "The O'Reilly Factor." In that segment, entitled "Violent Lesbian Gangs a Growing Problem," O'Reilly and "Fox News crime analyst" Rod Wheeler presented a terrifying, and completely false, report. The country, they alleged, was being overrun by hundreds of lesbian gangs armed with pink pistols. In Tennessee, they said, these gangs were "raping young girls." In Philadelphia, a gang called Dykes Taking Over was "terrorizing people as well." "I mean," Wheeler told O'Reilly, "you go from New York to California to wherever you want to name, you can see these organizations." At another point, he told O'Reilly that in the Washington, D.C., area alone, there were "well over 150 of these crews."
The show even used video footage from completely unrelated stories to illustrate their "report."
After we wrote a story about this remarkable exercise in fantasy, Wheeler, at least, was apologetic and ready to cop to the truth. The day after our story was posted, he issued a "clarification and apology" saying he had only "inadvertently stated" that lesbian gangs carry pink-painted pistols, that he hadn't meant to say that there were 150 lesbian gangs in the D.C. area, that he was wrong in claiming there was a "national epidemic" of lesbian gangs, and that he hadn't intended to defame the Pink Pistols group, which is a real lesbian shooting club. O'Reilly wasn't so forthcoming. A day after Wheeler's statement, he offered his own weak clarification, saying that the show's assertions had been "overstated," but insisting that they contained a core of truth.
Bill, it's time to man up and tell the truth. Who's the real pinhead here?
Follow Mark Potok on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hatewatch