Ignorance and Buffoonery

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

I don't usually pay attention to Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, mostly because they deal in ideologically-driven opinions and don't fall under the standard definition of what a journalist is.

But it's been entertaining to watch how these two guys have responded to criticism of their recent comments. As they have in the past, they've gone after their attackers (the wicked "liberal" media) and trotted out that old, tired canard, that they were "taken out of context."

Let's take O'Reilly, although you could just as easily substitute him for Limbaugh.

While discussing a dinner with Al Sharpton at a restaurant in Harlem, O'Reilly said on the air that he "couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City… It was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks…"

There wasn't one person in Sylvia's, O'Reilly said, who was "screaming" swear words while asking for iced tea.

"There wasn't any kind of craziness at all," said O'Reilly, who sounded dumbfounded that his prejudices about African-Americans had not been confirmed.

O'Reilly was even more amazed that he was accused of being racist. He claimed that he had actually been weighing in against racism, and that his innocent words had been twisted by mean, ideologically driven opponents like Media Matters for America, a watchdog group that catalogues the misdeeds of the press.

"Elements at NBC News," O'Reilly said, sounding just like Joe McCarthy, "have made a living parroting Media Matters garbage and now, sadly, CNN has jumped into the swamp. This is dishonest and dangerous. If a slime machine like Media Matters can get its far-left propaganda on CNN and NBC News, the nation is in trouble."

He also said he was "coming after" the mainstream media, who, in his mind, can't be trusted to tell the truth like he can.

Courtesy of the researchers at Media Matters, let's look at some of O'Reilly's so-called "truth."

In August last year, he advocated detaining all Muslims between the ages of 16 and 45 for questioning at airports, arguing that it "isn't racial profiling," but "criminal profiling."

In September 2005, O'Reilly claimed that many of the poor in New Orleans did not leave the city before Hurricane Katrina because they were "drug-addicted" and "weren't going to get turned off from their source." He called them "thugs."

In a discussion of his latest remarks, Air America Radio host Rachel Maddow said on CNN's Reliable Sources on Sunday that it didn't really matter whether O'Reilly had any racist intent.

"What he has demonstrated is ignorance and buffoonery," she said. "He just looked like an ignoramus."

In the ensuing uproar, she said, O'Reilly has done "what he has always done in his work, which is to blame the media… when really all the media did in this case was replay these remarks that he made."

Maddow said there no case to be made "that it was taken out of context."

"How can it not be racist," she asked, "to expect black people to swear while ordering iced tea?"

But Clarence Page, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune who happens to be black, wrote in a column today that "ignorance about race might not make you a racist. It only makes you ignorant."

Page said the guy deserves a break even if he doesn't understand "the weariness black Americans feel over constantly being compared with our community's worst role models."

"That's a big reason why it seems curious that Mr. O'Reilly, after years of roiling up public outrage against raunchy gangsta rappers and other frightening figures, suddenly expresses what sounds like genuine surprise that some black people are not scary at all."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan