Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Talk radio dysfunction

Some of the websites that make it their business to stalk Bill O'Reilly carried an item about O'Reilly's supposedly offensive "restaurant review" of Sylvia's in Harlem. O'Reilly had apparently taken Al Sharpton to dinner there. The "review" was objectionable because O'Reilly focused on the civil behavior of the patrons about which he was said to be "surprised." Nationally, CNN has picked it up. Locally, Paul Soglin and Eugene Kane repeated the point.

I doubt that either of our local friends actually listened to the segment, It was apparently part of an extended commentary on racial stereotypes and the way in which people respond to the legacy of racial expression. (The excerpted segment left out some of this context.) He followed the reference to Sylvia's with a story about his grandmother's prejudice. (I admit that Bill is fond of the first person narrative.) He argued with her about it as a high school kid but, he said, she was unable to get past stereotypes and the fear that they generated, She expressed this fear, according to Bill, in "irrational hostility." He then went on to say that she was "old school but, today, rap culture creates stereotypes that are not reflective of the larger black community.

I suppose that the criticism will be that O'Reilly said that he "couldn't get over" how Sylvia's was just like any other place. This may be a sin that those who are committed to the aggressive enforcement of a complicated web of mandatory circumlocutions in all discussions of race will never forgive. But what does it mean anyway? Did the scene at Sylvia's stick with him because he was surprised or did it stick with him because it drove home to him that, in a society where we still mostly stick to our side of the racial divide, we are more the same than we are different ? All I can tell you is that he expressly said the latter. ("We're the same.")If this is, as CNN says, his "Don Imus" moment then we simply can't talk about race in this country. Ever.

One would think that people who seem to be convinced that talk radio's audience consists of closeted Klansmen would be happy that someone took the time to set matters straight.

Although recent posts by Mayor Soglin and my erstwhile Backstory colleague Jim Rowen focused on a different R-word (the ubiquitous "rant" although Paul did not actually use it), there seems to be this idea that talk radio hosts (and conservatives generally) must be, among other things, racist or ignorant about race because they disagree with us on certain aspects of racial and urban policy. We know that we are right and that all right-thinking people must agree with us, so there must be something wrong with those who don't. (That Jim offered as a reasonable alternative Joel McNally (a man whose public persona embodies the concept of smug and who doesn't seem to have had a new idea since 1969) sort of drives my point home. I am perfectly willing to believe that people enjoy Joel, but it's not because he engages in open-minded and far-ranging intellectual discourse. It's because he tells them they are right.

In fairness to both Paul and Jim, they were more than willing to engage me in a discussion of urban issues - something that I hope to get back to when I am settled in my new gig. But forums that are far more popular than our blogs, while they are not and cannot be graduate school seminars, are not an intellectual wasteland and the people who populate them are not benighted morons or evil pipers.


Michael J. Mathias said...

Rick, I am really suprised you are giving O'Reilly so much credit here. The audio and the transcripts speak for themselves. As Soglin notes, O'Reilly is nearly 60 years old and lives in one of the most diverse cities in the country. How can he be so amazed at how nice a restaurant "run by blacks" is?

This isn't evidence that we can't talk about race; it's continuing evidence that whites, in general, have few experiences on which to base their perceptions of African Americans.

And the talk radio audience loves this kind of banter. During the 2000 census, Mark Belling urged his listeners to list black as their race on the forms to "get a bigger check."

Debate is healthy for democracy. Unfortunately, most talk radio is killing off what remains of civil discourse in this country.

(BTW, I am not very good at self-promotion, but I believe I might have been the first, locally, to pick up on this. Media Matters even lists Pundit Nation at the link you provide.)

illusory tenant said...

extended commentary

Unfortunately one has to actually listen to O'Lielly's webcast to apprehend the proper "context." Pass.

Anonymous said...

Okay, that's an old guy in another city, and that's just more evidence that he is isolated and out of touch.

Let's localize it. So what did you think of Mr. Perkins in Milwaukee, last time you were there?

Anonymous said...

Is there a racist Rick won't defend?

Mike Plaisted said...

The issue with O'Reilly's comment is that he was "surprised" that African-Americans were acting like human beings in a restaurant. His "surprise" reveals his attitude generally -- his expectation is that blacks would not act like human beings in a restaurant. The problem is how he went in, not how he came out.

As for local-talk radio, I notice you left out my recent post, which was a bit more expansive and explanatory than Songlin or Rowan's about the problem with Sykes and Belling on Jena and other racial issues. The problem is not that they are "racist or ignorant about race because they disagree with us on certain aspects of racial and urban policy" -- it is that their comments are simply racist and ignorant. When Sykes calls Jackson and Sharpton "pimps", that's not "an aspect of urban policy", that's just racist. When Belling uses the occassion to talk about black women "popping out babies", that's not "an aspect of urban policy", either. That's just racist.

Right-wingers can and should talk about race and urban issues all they want. Let's get it all out there. But when their comments expose them as ignorant, racist or worse, they shouldn't be surprised to be called on it. Maybe our focus should be on them getting a clue. Calling lefties hypersensitive for pointing out the obvious is just a diversion for avoiding the ultimate discussion that needs to take place.

Anonymous said...

Ah. . .how conservatives absolutely hate it when something they say is taken out of context.

Rick Esenberg said...

Mike M.

I saw the others before I saw yours. The fact that "whites, in general, have few experiences on which to base their perceptions of African-Americans" is precisely the point that O'Reilly was making and with which Juan Williams was agreeing. He went on to see that these experiences, which tend to relate to hip-hop culture, are inadequate and convey an inaccurate impression. How this gets twisted into racism is beyond me.

I don't know if he was surprised by Sylvia's or not. He didn't say he was. He did say that "he couldn't get over it" but this was in service of his making the point regarding the inaccuracy of these stereotypes. How you all manage to twist this into racism is beyond me.

Mike P

You're right. I didn't. I was going to but thought it probably merited its own response. The notion of "poverty pimps" was not invented by Charlie Sykes. The suggestion is that guys like Sharpton and Jackson helicopter in and benefit from racial discord. In Jackson's view, Obama's refusal to pour gasoline on the fire in Jena is "ating white." In Al Sharpton's view, well ... Tawana Brawley and Freddie's Fashion Mart. That observation is not, in my view, inaccurate.

As for Belling, I have to say that I listen more to Eric Von so I can't really comment.

As for the actual discussion that needs to take place, how would that happen on any terms other your own? Indeed, if O'Reilly can't say what he said, how is any discussion going to take place at all?

Mike Plaisted said...


O'Reilly can say anything he wants, but he shouldn't be "surprised" that people are then going to challenge him and draw conclusions. These media right-wingers are really something else. They (especially Bill-O) talk like tough guys and then whine like babies when they are challenged. Notice that, in O'Reilly's response, he doesn't talk about the substance of his "surprise", he goes after Media Matters just for pointing it out. He demands everybody listen to what he has to say and then cries a river when we do listen and respond. He wants one-way communication in a two-way world.

As for calling Jackson and Sharpton "pimps", poverty or otherwise, just because someone else said it too doesn't make Sykes any less racist for saying it himself. Tell me, Rick: After all of his illustrious career fighting for civil rights, do you think Jesse Jackson deserves to be called a pimp? So what if he "helicopters" in? If not him, who? Do you know about his daily fights for social justice when he's not in front of the cameras? If he can move an important issue by getting in front of the cameras, why shouldn't he?

I think the right-wing's problem with Jackson and Sharpton isn't that they are visible; it's that they are effective. If they can keep the issue on them and their out-sized personalities, they never have to get to the substance of what was so terribly wrong in Jena. And, if they can take advantage of racial stereotypes and reduce them to characatures by calling them "pimps", they'll do that, too. And that's racist, no matter who did it first.

Rick Esenberg said...

The problem - and the reason that O'Reilly is "whining"- is that the characterization of his comments is wildly unfair. Nobody here - or elsewhere - has addressed that. You say that he was expressing "surprise" that black people in Sylvia's were well behaved. No, actually he wasn't. He was trying to say something that I assume you agree with.

I am not prepared to say that Jesse Jackson has had an illustrious career. I think that he and Sharpton are as much racial entreprenuers as anything else.

I can anticipate an argument that they should not be called "pimps" because that term has come to have racial connotations and should now never be used in connection with a black man unless he is, in fact, running prostitutes. But if you believe that someone has exploited (and fanned) racial controversies to one's personal benefit, it seems to me that "pimping" is not an entirely inaccurate description.

I understand that some people may regard Jackson or Sharpton as civil rights icons in the tradition of Martin Luther King. But others do not and the reason is not that they are racists.

Mike Plaisted said...

O'Reilly: "I 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, primarily black patronship." He "couldn't get over" it. They acted like humans "even though it's run by blacks, primarily black patronship". Wow, that really is something. Blacks? Acting like other humans? What an accomplishment. You really don't see what's wrong with this?

You say I would "agree with" his comments. I wouldn't have a problem "getting over" seeing blacks acting like other humans. I see it all the time and I have for years. The difference between me and O'Reilly is I accept and recognize their humanity and always have.

You know, King was subjected to the same kind of racist attacks -- worse, in fact. Alright, so you agree Jackson and Sharpton are pimps. Sad for you, really.

Another commenter asks "Is there a racist Rick won't defend?" I can imagine some. You wimp out on criticizing Belling (who cares if you don't listen to him? If I reported his remarks accurately -- I did -- are the comments racist or not?). The real questions is: How far will you go to defend Charlie Sykes? I guess your independent streak only goes so far.

Rick Esenberg said...


I generally don't criticize people for statements that I haven't heard and since I did not hear what Belling said, yeah, I guess I'll wimp out.

Your characterization of O'Reilly comments (which I did hear) is tendentious. He did not say he was "surprised" that black people at Sylvia's acted like humans or that it was something that he did not expect. That is a gloss that you are putting on it. He was making the point that they did not act like stereotypes which, he later said, many white people erroneously believe are true. Would it have been better if he acted as if these stereotypes did not exist.

You are choosing to place the most uncharitable construction possible on his statement that he couldn't get over it and, even if that were reasonable because you think you know what he "really" thinks, the remainder of his comments provide a context that undercuts that construction.

Maybe I would have said what he said differently. Maybe I would have taken care to hedge and qualify my remarks in ways that made them less susceptible to misinterpretation. But if the failure to do that leaves one open to charges of racism, then we are never going to be able to talk about race in this country.

As for Sykes, he says a lot of things that I would not in ways that I would not, although I am mindful of the fact that I am not doing what he is. But I am not going to say the guy is a racist because he's just not. If that makes me less than independent, so be it.

Anonymous said...

Rick, I've heard O'Reilly's comments in their entirety 4 times.
He was FEIGNING surprise at how well Sylvia's was run and it's normalcy to make the exact point you elucidated. O'Reilly's obvious point was that, much of America never gets the positive imagery and many many whites probably carry thoughts about black culture, based on the media.
Subsequently O'Reilly and Al Sharpton have both acknowledged that they share dinner AT LEAST once a year in Harlem. Clearly O'Reilly was trying to make a point vis a vis common stereotypical attitudes.
I'm a little embarrassed to still be a bit STUNNED at the extreme bias and dishonesty of your lib detractors here. They are seeing what they want to see. They hate Conservatives and lash out every chance they get. In fact some of your detractors are kool-aid drunk.

James Rowen said...

Let's quote people or reference them accurately, eh?

Charlie used the expression "race pimps," not "poverty pimps." I've heard the latter, but "race pimps" was new to me, and is certainly more pointed.

Secondly, what I said I liked about Joel was that he let callers talk without interruption. I have listened to his program often, and that is a fact.

It's not a completely left-right thing. Jeff Wagner is less aggressive than, say, Belling, who routinely talks over his callers and takes great delight in cutting them off.

I think it's one of the reasons that Eric is such a valuable alternative. When he takes calls, there is a conversation, as you know.

Rick Esenberg said...


I never said that he used the term "poverty pimp." I suggested that this is where the use of the term "pimp" to refer to someone who exploits real or alleged misfortune comes from. It is not, as some imply, a term that was chosen because Jackson and Sharpton are black.

I agree that Belling likes to shout down his callers. But Sykes doesn't do that and while I think he is more aggressive with callers than, say, Eric is, I certainly have heard conversations on his air.

But I agree that Eric is a valuable addition and maybe you would be too if you ever took the time to show up on Thursday.