During CNN’s Reliable Sources with Howard Kurtz today one of the subjects that was discussed was the Bill O’Reilly incident. The transcript of Kurtz’s discussion with Rachel Maddow and Amy Holmes follows…
KURTZ: Welcome back. Bill O’Reilly was trying to make a point. The point, he says, was against racism. But his radio remarks about his dinner with Al Sharpton at Harlem restaurant Sylvia’s sparked a media firestorm this week with all kinds of charges being hurled at the FOX News host, who punched back hard, swinging at CNN, among others. We’ll play the tape in a moment, but joining us now talk about this and other media controversies, Rachael Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America Radio. And Amy Holmes, a conservative commentator and CNN contributor.
All right. Let’s give the full context here. Here’s what ticked off the controversy on “The Radio Factor.”
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
BILL O’REILLY, HOST, “THE O’REILLY FACTOR”: I think black Americans are starting to think more and more for themselves. And they’re getting away from the Sharptons and the Jacksons and the people trying to lead them into a race-based culture. They’re just trying to figure out, look, I can make it.
If I work hard, get educated, I can make. You know, when Sharpton and I walked in, it was like big commotion and everything, but everybody was very nice.
And I couldn’t get over the fact there was no difference between Silvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks, primarily black patronship.
There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming M-Fer, I want more iced tea! You know, I mean, everybody was — it was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb, in the sense of people were sitting there and they were ordering and having fun and there wasn’t any kind of craziness at all.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
KURTZ: After O’Reilly’s remarks were publicized by the liberal advocacy group Media Matters, CNN and other news organizations played them up and O’Reilly said his critics were engaging in distortion.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
O’REILLY: Of course, this is all nonsense and we usually ignore it, until it is picked up by the so-called mainstream media. Elements at NBC News 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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Amy Holmes, Bill O’Reilly says a lot of controversial things. I’ve criticized some of them. My feeling on this was it was overblown. What are your thoughts?
AMY HOLMES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I don’t know if it was overblown. I think that George Bush might call this the soft bigotry of low expectations.
I think that where O’Reilly got himself into trouble was expressing this astonishment with the black middle class. But I would put this in the category of Joe Biden’s remarks when he called Barack Obama, “clean” and “articulate.”
But what it really betrayed was an unease and an inexperience with the black middle class that I think with O’Reilly, you know, he should be a little bit past that.
KURTZ: Rachel Maddow, I know you’ve been critical of O’Reilly’s remarks. Do you think that Bill O’Reilly had any racist intent in what he said?
RACHEL MADDOW, HOST, “THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW”: I don’t know if intent matters when what he has demonstrated is ignorant and buffoonery. I mean, he just looked like an ignoramus. And so whether or not he intended to look an ignoramus, that doesn’t necessarily matter.
The thing that I think is most interesting here is the way he has tried to turn this into what he has always done in his work, which is to blame the media — to blame the rest of the media on this, when really all the media did in this case was replay these remarks that he made. I don’t think there is — any case can be made that it was taken out of context.
KURTZ: Well, let’s come back to the media treatment in a second. But let’s stick with what he actually said. He was trying, in what you would describe as a very clumsy and perhaps clueless way, to deliver an anti-racism message. He was comparing rappers and gangsters and perhaps the image that some Americans have of blacks to the perfectly normal treatment he got in this Sylvia’s restaurant.
So at worst, it seems to me, he came off as surprised that a black restaurant would be no different than a white restaurant.
MADDOW: But he said he was surprised. He said, I could not get over the fact people were not swearing while ordering their iced tea. I mean, why can’t you get over that? Why is that surprising to you? Where do you live?
HOLMES: But it also would beg the question, why would he be going to a restaurant where he would expect the patrons to be using profanity and for the kitchen to be badly run, which I think suggested he expected it to be a perfectly normal restaurant, but in his radio talk show personality and trying to draw distinction between the black middle class and urban underclass, which he does a lot of reporting on, he got himself into this trouble.
KURTZ: Well, not all African-Americans agree with you on this point. Listen to a couple of them on the airwaves this week.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: What bothered me was when he said that he was surprised that there was no difference between Sylvia’s and someone else. Well, why would you be surprised?
JOHN RIDLEY, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: For an individual who has probably come in contact with people like Condi Rice and Colin Powell or Dick Parsons, to be surprised by this, that’s the thing that’s really shocking to me.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So I detect a certain split in the black community here.
HOLMES: Well, I think what they’re saying is that Bill O’Reilly is in contact with these very elite African-American leaders. Like for example, the president of Time Warner being a black man, Dick Parsons. But that he’s not really in touch with the black middle class and that if he were, then this would not be such an astonishing, bewildering experience of being in a restaurant where people are well-mannered.
KURTZ: On the other hand, Clarence Page of The Chicago Tribune, while poking fun at O’Reilly for saying, hey, they use knives and forks at Sylvia’s, says he’s getting a bum rap.
MADDOW: I cannot believe that anybody would see this as other than a huge embarrassment for Bill O’Reilly. I just — I really feel like we could parse it and try to figure out what part of class he is stripping out here and not understanding versus parts of class that he does understand.
Honestly he made a really, really buffoonish racist comment that showed that he expects black people to not — to not behave at white levels — white people’s level of behavior.
HOLMES: But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it is racist, I would just say that it was clumsy. I’ve been on Bill O’Reilly’s show many times in the past. I would not regard him as a racist whatsoever. However…
MADDOW: How can it not be racist to expect black people to swear while ordering iced tea? How can that not be racist?
HOLMES: Well, I wouldn’t say that it is racist so much as it is inexperience and it isn’t very different from Joe Biden being shocked that Barack Obama…
MADDOW: But this isn’t about Joe Biden.
HOLMES: … is clean and articulate. And he’s not being — they’re not trying to run him out of the party.
KURTZ: But I would — you know, I understand you are saying buffoonish. I was surprised that you used racist, because he was trying to make a point against racism. And you seem to just be ignoring that.
MADDOW: Listen, if he had said, you know, I met a woman the other day who did math, it was amazing, she did subtraction, I saw it happen, women can do math these days! Women are amazing! That could be a sexist comment.
In the same way for him to express absolute exasperation that black people behave at restaurants the way that white people do, which is set up as some sort of — you know, the apex of behavior, it is fundamentally racist.
KURTZ: Do you think that CNN overplayed this for competitive reasons, which is what O’Reilly says? This got a lot of air time on CNN this week.
MADDOW: Well, let’s face it, we know that, you know, when you pick a fight and you pick a fight with someone who is very successful, that does raises ratings and it raises attention. I’m not going to reflect on the motivations of CNN to be picking this fight with Bill O’Reilly, but it was a story.
I agree with Bill O’Reilly with Media Matters, by the way, that they do try to dredge up negative stories about people that they are politically opposed to. They’ve done it to me personally, so I do agree with him on that.
But in terms of playing this up, it is going to be done this week. I think this new cycle, this news story is over.
MADDOW: The place where this has gotten the most play is on Bill O’Reilly’s television show. He cannot criticize CNN for having overplayed this matter for ratings when he has led with it three nights in a row.
HOLMES: In fairness, he said that he was responding to this criticism on a rival network and I think he has the right to do that.
KURTZ: But you made the point earlier that, I mean, he loves this because he loves to cast himself as the lonely warrior against the evils of the mainstream media. So it has been — it was the lead story on “The Factor”
about four evenings in a row. So he is not exactly shying away from this.
MADDOW: Right. And he can’t really criticism other people for covering this as a story when he himself is covering it literally more than anybody else in the media.
KURTZ: Juan Williams was the black journalist who was having that conversation on the radio with O’Reilly. Juan Williams was in the news for another reason this week. And that has to do with not him being a FOX News contributor, but him being a full-time analyst at National Public Radio.
Last weekend the White House offered Juan Williams an exclusive sit- down with the president on racial issues. This was tied to the 50th anniversary of the desegregation at Little Rock. And NPR turned the interview down saying the White House shouldn’t be able to pick which NPR journalist would get to sit down with the president. So ironically it ends up on FOX News instead of on NPR.
Does this make NPR look bad?
HOLMES: I think it does. And I think it is a silly, precious rule that they would have that an interview subject cannot address or cannot choose who they would like to have cover them. And the result being that the president, who even with still a year-and-a-half on his presidency, is still considered a pretty big get. And so he went over to FOX News.
I think that NPR has really shot themselves in the foot. And it disincentivizes journalists to be able to go out there, cultivate their sources and get those people to sit down with them. That is a very typical thing that journalists do. And in this case, NPR said, what, we do central casting for our journalists? It doesn’t make sense.
KURTZ: On the other hand, NPR Vice President for News Ellen Weiss told me that the president hasn’t given that network an interview in seven years with one exception, earlier this year, Juan Williams. Now again he wants to talk to Juan Williams. But on the other hand, Juan Williams, author of several books on civil rights, the conversation is going to be about race relations.
Why wouldn’t you want him sitting down with the president?
MADDOW: I think that it is not a silly and precious rule. I think NPR made the decision on principle, to say, listen, this is our interview. This is — if you are offering this to us as a media outlet, we get to pick who does this. And we want it to be one of our anchors.
And for the White House to say, no, the only NOR person whom the president is comfortable enough speaking to, to actually do an interview with, in seven years, is this one guy who is also an employee of FOX News, who has also sort of been reliably pro-Bush…
MADDOW: In context, in the broader context of NPR, he is their chosen guy. And I just think it makes the White House look lame for feeling like the president can’t take it unless he has got a friendly reporter.
HOLMES: But then — the presumption being then that Juan Williams is not able to give a fair and illuminating interview. And if that’s the case, then he shouldn’t be on the payroll at NPR. Clearly they have faith in him…
MADDOW: NPR just wants the decision.
HOLMES: They have faith in him that he can conduct an interview with any number of people at NPR.
MADDOW: When you have an interview with a high-level guest, a lot of times people will say like, well, we’d like to see final cut, or we would like to hear the final edit of it before it goes on the air.
HOLMES: And that’s not what the White House was asking.
MADDOW: No, but it is the same kind of rule.
MADDOW: For the media outlet to say, listen, this is going to be our content, we decide who does the interview, we decide what the final format is.
You don’t get to do it.
KURTZ: Even at the risk of losing the interview with the president.
MADDOW: Exactly. You have to have some journalistic standards.
HOLMES: But the White House…
MADDOW: It’s not…
HOLMES: The White House is not asking for control over content, they weren’t asking to review questions before they were asked. They said, we’ll give an interview to this news outlet with this journalist who they’ve worked with in the past…
MADDOW: Provided it’s Juan.
HOLMES: … and NPR…
MADDOW: … because we’re comfortable with Juan. Simple!
HOLMES: But that’s NPR’s decision to say that he’s not good enough for them to give this interview…
KURTZ: And by the way, Juan Williams has criticized the Bush administration on a number of occasions.
KURTZ: But not reflexively. Let me move on to our last topic.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad got a lot of attention this week from the media. And there was great debate about should he have been invited to speak at Columbia University where he ended up being denounced during the introduction by Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger.
Of course, media outlets are not shy about putting him on. The latest one, “60 MINUTES,” Scott Pelley did the interview. Let’s take a look at that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SCOTT PELLEY, CBS CORRESPONDENT: It is an established fact now that Iranian bombs and Iranian know-how are killing Americans in Iraq. You have American blood on your hands. Why?
MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Well, this is what the American official are saying.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So could it be argued that journalists like Scott Pelley are giving this dictator a platform?
HOLMES: I guess it could be argued that, but he is also giving a very tough interview of this dictator. I think the difference with Columbia was that a prestigious academic institution was giving him a platform to spew his propaganda.
In fact it is working. He has just been down with Hugo Chavez who said that he was a great revolutionary for defying the Western imperialists. So I think in this case that the arguments against Ahmadinejad being at Columbia were correct.
KURTZ: Diane Sawyer, Brian Williams have also interviewed Ahmadinejad this year. Here’s what Jon Friedman says, media columnist at
marketwatch.com: “The lesson was how to sucker the U.S. media. The man played us for suckers. Just like any P.R.-hungry celebrity who spins reporters and editors.”
MADDOW: I think that Ahmadinejad had a huge win in his trip to the United States. But it was not because he — somebody allowed him to give a speech while he was in New York City. In a free country one might expect that people couldn’t be banned from speaking.
But the reason that it was such a win for him and the reason it played so well for him at home is the way he was attacked, the way he was attacked by Lee Bollinger in the introduction, the way he was attacked during his media interviews, and the way that he was made out to be this great Satan, Satan manifest on Earth in this tiny rumple-suited body.
It made him seem so much more powerful than his own people think that he is.
HOLMES: All the more reason for why he should not have been invited.
It could have been expected that there would be this outcry and this opposition. He’s using that, as you say…
MADDOW: Opposition built him up.
HOLMES: … to say that he had the strength to stand up to the Western imperialists.
KURTZ: You two can take this outside.
KURTZ: Rachel Maddow, Amy Holmes, thanks for checking in this morning.
Up next, do Hispanics get a fair shake in the media and why does that subject get so little attention?