Jun
01
2003

O'Reilly's Racist Slurs--in Context

In April 2003, Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly hosted a fundraiser for Best Friends, a charity benefiting inner-city schoolchildren. As reported in the Washington Post (4/15/03), O'Reilly was trying to fill the time before a singing group connected with the charity, called the Best Men, was set to perform, and quipped: "Does anyone know where the Best Men are? I hope they're not in the parking lot stealing our hubcaps."

According to the Post report, some of the conservatives in the audience were aghast at the seemingly racist crack. But if anyone was shocked by O'Reilly's apparent racism, they haven't been paying much attention.

Two months before O'Reilly's "hubcaps" remark, he used a racist slur on the air. Searching for a word to describe someone who assists immigrants crossing the border, O'Reilly came up with "wetback" (2/6/03). The incident was explained away by Fox officials as an unfortunate gaffe (New York Times, 2/10/03), but the Allentown, Pa. Morning Call (1/5/03) had O'Reilly using the same racist term in a speech earlier in the year: "O'Reilly criticized the Immigration and Naturalization Service for not doing its job and not keeping out 'the wetbacks.'" O'Reilly denied making the comment (Washington Post, 2/17/02), but the reporter stands by his account.

Though he calls his show a "no-spin zone," O'Reilly's response (CNBC, 4/26/03) to the "wetback" incident was a blatant, if feeble, exercise in spin--and an attempt to blame his guest:

We were talking about border patrol and the problems they were having. I'm going, "What's the jargon? What's the jargon? We got coyotes, right? Coyotes and we got wetbacks. Is that what they call them? Is that what they call them?" All right? And the guy goes, "Yeah. The wetbacks are the slang for the people who come over and the coyotes are the slang for the people who get paid to bring them over." That was the context.

A transcript of the show demonstrates O'Reilly's highly imaginative memory. Here's how the interview really went: In support of his proposal to militarize U.S. borders, O'Reilly remarked, "We'd save lives because Mexican wetbacks, whatever you want to call them, the coyotes--they're not going to do what they're doing now, all right, so people aren't going to die in the desert." He then offered the "last word" to his guest, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D.-Texas), who did not address O'Reilly's slur at all, but instead tried to explain why he thought using the Army to patrol the borders was a bad idea. (O'Reilly reneged on his promise to give Reyes the last word, interrupting him with a rebuttal.)

The actual "context" of O'Reilly's slur is a history of making derogatory, stereotyping comments about people of color. Just a few examples:

  • During an interview for Stuff magazine (11/02), O'Reilly opined that "the most unattractive women in the world are probably in the Muslim countries." O'Reilly later insisted (New York Daily News, 10/10/02), "There was no malice intended. It was just in jest."
  • During a segment (2/9/00) about black athletes suing over the minimum academic standards for college admission, O'Reilly commented: "Look, you know as well as I do most of these kids come out and they can't speak English."
  • Criticizing Democratic politicians who met with Rev. Al Sharpton, which O'Reilly compared to meeting with white supremacist David Duke: "Why would it be different? Both use race to promote themselves." (3/16/00) O'Reilly also equated the Black Panthers with Duke (1/11/99): "You were promoting your people, black people, and he's promoting white people. So what's the difference?"
  • "We have black leaders in this country who blame everything on whitey, everything's the system's fault, and that gives a built-in excuse to fail and act irresponsible. 'Oh, I can't get a job. Whitey won't let me,' or 'I can't get educated. The teachers are bad, so I'm going to go out and get high and sell drugs. That's the only way we can make money here.' You know what I mean? And it's a vicious cycle" (6/8/99).
  • "Will African-Americans break away from the pack thinking and reject immorality--because that's the reason the family's breaking apart--alcohol, drugs, infidelity. You have to reject that, and it doesn't seem--and I'm broadly speaking here, but a lot of African-Americans won't reject it" (2/25/99).
  • "I've been to Africa three times. All right? You can't bring Western reasoning into the culture. The same way you can't bring it into fundamental Islam" (5/6/02).

After the "wetback" incident, O'Reilly wrote in a newspaper column (South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 3/1/03) that Americans "must realize that racial demonization is now organized and well-funded, and it will not end until everyday people begin condemning it." He wasn't talking about himself, though; he was referring to critics who label him a racist.