HISTORY LESSON

‘Slave-Gate’ Joins Bill O’Reilly and Fox News’s Ugly History of Race-Baiting

The Fox News host says the slaves who built the White House were ‘well-fed and had decent lodgings’—but critics stop short of calling him a racist.

Photo Illustration by Brigette Supernova/The Daily Beast

Fearless Falklands War correspondent Bill O’Reilly is an ace reporter whose nose for news also placed him at the front door of a shadowy JFK assassination figure at the very moment the guy was committing suicide with a shotgun, but also (alas) an innocent victim years ago of a frivolous sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a scheming female producer—if only in his own self-justifying fantasies and fabrications.

Now he has added once again to his fictional record of excellence.

O’Reilly’s latest journalistic exploit—deigning to lecture Michelle Obama on the facts of slavery in America—comes just as his employer, Fox News, is painfully clearing away the smoking rubble of an asteroid strike: fired anchor Gretchen Carlson’s sexual harassment lawsuit against the conservative-leaning cable network’s powerful founder and chairman, Roger Ailes, and Ailes’s shocking forced resignation last week in a cloud of scandal.

But you see, the 66-year-old uber-popular Fox News personality—who has slapped his name on a series of best-selling confections (Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy, Killing Jesus, etc.) largely researched and written by a co-author, Martin Dugard—is something of a history scholar, at least in his own mind.

So he set the record straight Tuesday night on his top-rated program, The O’Reilly Factor, about 20 hours after the first lady, in her widely praised Democratic National Convention speech, mentioned that “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters—two beautiful, intelligent, black young women—playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”

Grinning puckishly, as is his wont, O’Reilly generously allowed that while Mrs. Obama was “essentially correct” that “slaves did participate in the construction of the White House,” there were also “free blacks, whites, and immigrants” working on the building—and, besides, “slaves that worked there were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.”

After conjuring up the heartwarming image of well cared-for, happy slaves, he added, with that trademark everyman charm: “I just can’t get rid of that history teacher thing. You know what I’m talking about?”

A great many folks, it turns out, did know what O’Reilly was talking about—but, sadly, not in the way he apparently wished them to know.

A typical response, noted by The New York Times, was famous television showrunner Shonda Rhimes’s tweet: “The idiocy never ceases to amaze me. Try slavery, Bill. Let us know how good the food is while you wear chains.”

True to form, O’Reilly dismissed his critics and vowed to revisit the issue Wednesday night, posting on Twitter: “Far left loons distort tip about @FLOTUS statement that slaves built White House. She’s correct & I provided facts. More on The Factor -BO’R.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, however, told me: “I think it’s repugnant and the height of offense because in many ways it not only lessened the pain and dehumanization of slavery, it has a subtle suggestion of the worst kind of people who have said that the slaves were better off, that they were treated well, that they were well-fed and given good lodging… It’s like saying we were equivalent to animals on a plantation. What’s your point? The pigs and the horses—they also were well-fed and housed.”

Former Fox News contributor Marc Lamont Hill, who estimated he appeared on The Factor around 150 times in a weekly segment before his contract ended, the bookings ceased, and he jumped to CNN, said O’Reilly’s comments on Mrs. Obama’s speech “are not historically accurate. At best, they’re tendentious.”

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Hill, a professor of African-American studies at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, added: “There’s a significant debate about whether or not slaves were fed and clothed, even the ones building the Executive House, as it was called at that time. He [O’Reilly] is relying on the narrative of the slave owners that they were fed and clothed. But when you juxtapose that narrative against hundreds of slave narratives, the picture is far worse. There’s no reason to discount their word over the people who decided to exploit them.

“There is the question of omission,” Hill continued. “They weren’t human beings by law. By mentioning they were fed and clothed, but not mentioning that they were also abused, tortured, and raped, you could have people walk away with the assumption—since he was acting as a history teacher in the ‘O’Reilly classroom’—that the slaves were just working hard, when in fact they were abused, tortured, and beaten almost to the point of death, but rarely killed—because they were property.”

O’Reilly, of course, has a well-deserved reputation for such attention-grabbing, racially provocative observations, like his insistence to The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart in 2014 that “white privilege” doesn’t exist, even though the middle-class Long Island suburb where O’Reilly grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, Levittown, enforced government-sanctioned covenants prohibiting African Americans from moving in.

Or his interesting account of a 2007 dinner with the very same Sharpton at the Harlem landmark Sylvia’s, in which O’Reilly was surprised to report that “there wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, ‘M-Fer, I want more iced tea.’ You know… 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.”

He added, in a tone of amazement: “I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’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.”

Sharpton told me he doesn’t regret his excursion to Harlem with O’Reilly: “I tried to extend myself as a civil rights leader and a preacher to take him to Sylvia’s and other dinners we’ve had. When he said he was surprised they weren’t break-dancing in the aisles, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. But now, if I were a doctor trying to help him with a diagnosis, I’d say this a more serious terminal situation than I had thought. I believe in reaching out, but I don’t know if my arms are strong enough to reach the dark parts of his soul with the things he said about slavery.”

Sharpton stopped short of calling O’Reilly a racist. “I’m not going into name-calling. I’m not going to give him the chance to hit back.”

The left-leaning journalism watchdog site MediaMatters.org has documented several more racially charged remarks by O’Reilly going back to 2005, but one of my favorites occurred in April 2003, when he was emceeing a well-intentioned charity dinner for inner-city youth in Washington, D.C., and a teenage African-American singing group, the Best Men, failed to come onstage when O’Reilly introduced them.

“Does anyone know where the Best Men are?” he asked the well-heeled crowd. “I hope they’re not in the parking lot stealing our hubcaps.”

Full disclosure: When I reported that incident in The Washington Post—and quoted a dinner-goer as remarking, “To say that this conservative audience, dominated undoubtedly by many of Mr. O’Reilly’s biggest fans, was aghast is an understatement”—O’Reilly went ballistic, going on the late Tim Russert’s CNBC show weeks later to rant for five minutes about my sleazy lack of journalistic ethics. If memory serves, he said I was a “weasel.”

More recently, this past February, after The Daily Beast published a critical story about his former Fox News colleague Glenn Beck that O’Reilly apparently had little use for, he used the powerful platform of The Factor to call me a “guttersnipe” and “despicable person”—which tickled me more than anything.

Hill, for his part, seems to like O’Reilly despite his disturbing pattern of, at best, “making comments that are racially offensive.”

“I know Bill quite well,” Hill said. “I’ve spent a lot of time with him and have a more nuanced understanding of him, having talked with him offline and outside the TV studio. I would not call him a racist. I think he has some severe blind spots that he’s never fully come to terms with.”

While Sharpton said the controversy surrounding O’Reilly “is inopportune,” given the Roger Ailes public relations ordeal Fox News continues to suffer, Hill disagreed.

“Because this is what they traffic in every day,” he said. “A sexual harassment lawsuit disrupts the status quo. Saying something racially offensive doesn’t disrupt their status quo. It plays to their base, and the fact that people are offended galvanizes their base further.”

And given O’Reilly’s plans to revisit the issue, Hill added prophetically: “And now they can have two segments—the first on what Michelle Obama is saying, and the second segment on how offended people are.”