Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly said Wednesday his critics took remarks he made about a famed Harlem restaurant out of context and “fabricated a racial controversy where none exists.”
He criticized the liberal group Media Matters for America as “smear merchants” for publicizing statements he made on his radio show last week.
O’Reilly told his radio audience that he dined with civil rights activist Al Sharpton at Sylvia’s recently and “couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference” between the black-run restaurant and others in New York City.
It was just like a suburban Italian restaurant, he said. “There wasn’t any kind of craziness at all,” he said.
O’Reilly told The Associated Press that Media Matters had “cherry-picked” remarks out of a broader conversation about racial attitudes. He had told listeners that his grandmother — and many other white Americans — feared blacks because they didn’t know any and were swayed by violent images in black culture.
“If you listened to the full hour, it was a criticism of racism on the part of white Americans who are ignorant of the fact that there is no difference between white and black anymore,” he told the AP. “Circumstances may be different in their lives but we’re all Americans. Anyone who would be offended by that conversation would have to be looking to be offended.”
His radio show was a conversation with Fox News contributor Juan Williams, author of a book about the coarseness of some black culture. Williams defended O’Reilly during a Tuesday appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor.”
“It’s so frustrating,” Williams said. “They want to shut you up. They want to shut up anybody who has an honest discussion about race.”
Restaurant manager calls remarks 'insulting'
The controversy was similar to one that enveloped presidential candidate Joe Biden last winter. When Biden praised rival Barack Obama as “articulate” and “clean,” many saw this as a way of conveying these were unusual characteristics for blacks.
Sylvia’s manager Trenness Woods-Black told the New York Daily News that O’Reilly’s remarks were “insulting” and showed he has little knowledge of the black community.
At one point on the radio show, Williams mentioned that too many people see little else in black culture beyond profane rap. “That’s right,” O’Reilly said. “There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, ‘M.F.-er, I want more iced tea.”’
Karl Frisch, spokesman for Media Matters, said it is typical for O’Reilly to criticize his group for merely reporting what he says.
“We didn’t call him a racist,” Frisch said. “We said his comments were ignorant and racially charged and we stand by that.”
No complaints from listeners, host says
O’Reilly said the Williams conversation was carried on more than 400 radio stations and there wasn’t one complaint from a listener.
“This isn’t about a racially insensitive remark,” he said. “Anybody can listen to the unedited version of the conversation on billoreilly.com. You want to think I’m insensitive to race, you go right ahead.”
The real story, he said, was about the “corrupt media culture” where outlets like CNN and MSNBC do stories about his remarks “because they’re getting killed in the ratings.”
“The O’Reilly Factor” is seen by more people — 2.2 million average this year — than its direct competitors on MSNBC and CNN combined. MSNBC’s “Countdown” with Keith Olbermann averages 721,000 viewers in the time slot while CNN’s 8 p.m. show averages 611,000, according to Nielsen Media Research.