Show and Prove: Bill O'Reilly's Hip-Hop Problem
O'Reilly: [My special] wasn't boring though, was it?
Seitz: "Well, you're never boring, Bill. I don't know if I agree with you, but you're not boring."
O'Reilly: "All right, better than "Will and Grace" and "CSI" tonight.
-- Bill O'Reilly and TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz, The O'Reilly Factor, 03/28/02
"If the special has a shortcoming, it's in its lack of real news value."
-- Adam Buckman, NY Post, 03/28/02
"The code of ethics is to tell the truth as you know it and not to distort anything or exclude anything. That's basically the big tent under which we operate..."
-- Bill O'Reilly, Talk of the Nation, NPR, 07/30/02
"The Nielsen ratings for May are in. And once again, THE FACTOR was the highest rated cable news program in the world."
-- Bill O'Reilly, The O'Reilly Factor, 05/05/01
Bill O'Reilly is a ratingsist. In thrall to Grand Wizard Nielsen, he's willing to do whatever it takes to make sure The O'Reilly Factor gets its two million-plus nightly viewers. And why not? Ratings bring him millions of dollars each year. Ratings give him the power to police the moral fitness of our nation's soft drink spokespeople.
The O'Reilly Factor airs at 8 P.M., every weeknight. Similar shows air at the same time on CNN and MSNBC, but O'Reilly knows those shows aren't his true competition. Instead, he battles the sitcoms, dramas, and reality series that air in prime-time too: he knows that in order to succeed, he has to make The O'Reilly Factor just as funny as Will and Grace, just as dramatic as CSI, and just as newsworthy as, well, Will and Grace.
In other words, while O'Reilly may describe his show as "news analysis," there's very little news on it, and very little analysis. Instead, there's outrage and bombast, and most importantly of all, villains. Without good villains - cartoonish, larger-than-life, dependably dastardly villains - you can't have good melodrama. When O'Reilly finds a villain that resonates with his audience, he elevates that villain from newsmaker to stock player. A few of the rogues who make up O'Reilly's repertory company? O.J. Simpson. Hillary Clinton. The ACLU. Hollywood phonies. And his all-time bete noire, the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
O'Reilly likes to accuse Jackson of "playing the race card," but in O'Reilly's own deck of media manipulation, Jackson functions as the trump card he most often turns to when dramatizing one of his most popular themes, black failure. In general, O'Reilly is always careful to acknowledge that "racism exists on many, many different levels in many ethnic groups among many people." (07/02/99) But such concessions are always made quickly, in passing, en route to what he characterizes as the most pertinent factors defining black experience in America:
"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." (02/25/99)
"The community itself has to rise up and say, 'We don't want this stuff in our neighborhood.' There are many, many more honest black Americans than there are criminal black Americans. There's just - the criminals would...be outnumbered 50 to 1...Every neighborhood has to organize and say, 'No more,' and work with the police rather than alienating the police..." (07/08/99)
"I believe that the Reverend [Jesse Lee Peterson]...is trying to say that black people too long have blamed their problems on whites, and if they would take more responsibility for their situations, it would be better for everybody, that the government - that the government can't help them if they don't help themselves." (03/12/99)
In other words, after the breezy concessions about the existence of racism on many levels, and the breezy presumptions about African-American pack thinking, and the breezy disclaimers about the breezy presumptions ("I'm broadly speaking here"), it's really all about personal responsibility. And self-reliance. And to further discredit the idea that various institutional biases do in fact play at least some role in determining black experience in America, O'Reilly is careful to discredit, at every opportunity, the people who promote this idea most emphatically: namely Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
Jackson and Sharpton are the kind of scapegoats any farmer of moral outrage would pray to have in his barnyard: they're outspoken enough to pass as a threat, but flawed enough to easily condemn. And as it turns out, hip-hop offers O'Reilly the same dynamic. Its antisocial elements allow him to criticize the black people (and the white ones) (but mostly the black ones) who make it. Its popularity allows him to demand why more black people aren't speaking out against its negative aspects. And, finally, the charged nature of such discourse allows O'Reilly to criticize the black people (and the white ones) who claim that his coverage of hip-hop is racist.
How is it racist to protest the glorification of crime, misogyny, and drug usage?
How is it racist to champion the welfare of "children trapped in poverty"? (05/24/02)
It's not. But Bill O'Reilly does more than that. And less.
In 1999, O'Reilly told FrontPage magazine that television producers "only have 22 minutes, so every day they make decisions on what you see...That's how the bias crept in - [over] what is covered, not how it's covered."
The O'Reilly Factor is an hour-long show, so not counting commercials, he himself has about 44 minutes a night to cover, or not cover, stories. Since The O'Reilly Factor's 1996 debut, dozens of segments mentioning "hip-hop," "rap music," or "gangsta rap" have aired. Occasionally, guests try to explain that hip-hop isn't limited to gangsta rap, or that hip-hop can have a positive impact on a person's life, but to date, in every hip-hop-related segment that The O'Reilly Factor has broadcast, Bill O'Reilly has reached the same conclusion: "this rap stuff is a negative thing." (09/25/02)
To remain faithful to this conclusion, however, there are certain things that Bill O'Reilly must ignore. For example, he has to close his eyes to success stories like Russell Simmons, Master P, and Karl Kani, and the positive impact hip-hop has had on black entrepreneurism. He has to overlook hip-hop organizations like Rap the Vote, which encourages voter registration amongst hip-hop fans, and Hip Hop Congress, which "uses the culture of Hip Hop to inspire young people to get involved in social action, civic service, and cultural creativity." He has to disregard the way hip-hop can bring people of all races and classes together (even if it's only to make music videos...)
But it's not just tunnel vision that O'Reilly employs in pursuit of the ratings that hip-hop fear-mongering can deliver. He also levels charges at hip-hop - it's marketed to children! it's damaging to children! - without making any effort to prove such charges. He spews disinformation about Ludacris. And Jesse Jackson. And MTV. He "slaps," "slams," and "smashes" hip-hop figures, but pulls his punches when it comes to condemning other forms of entertainment in similar fashion.
Are his actions ethical? No. Fair? No. Responsible? No. But luckily for O'Reilly, Fox News doesn't pay him to be ethical, fair, or responsible. It pays him to deliver ratings.
The Children's Crusade
Unlike so many professional knuckle-smackers, Bill O'Reilly tempers his rectitude with a frank, if somewhat hoary, sensualism. His main paycheck comes from billionaire vulgarian Rupert Murdoch. He's written for the house organ of bourgeois bohemianism, Playboy
. He laced his 374-page Rorschach test of a novel, Those Who Trespass
, with "brutally sadistic" murders and sex scenes so hot they could melt a glacier (of Velveeta). ("He gently teased her by licking the areas around her most sensitive erogenous zone.") When it comes to hard-working, decent Americans watching, say, My Big Fat Greek Gangbang
in the privacy of their own homes, O'Reilly says he has no desire to be the "sex police." (11/04/02) He thinks it's cool for extremely discreet people to be gay (as long as they don't act too gay about it). He enjoys a little saucy flirting with guests like porn star Jenna Jameson. ("Doesn't it hurt your feelings when people judge you and call you whore
, things like that?") (08/26/02)
But as much as Bill O'Reilly may love chowing down on a hot juicy erogenous zone, murder as light entertainment, and extramarital dirty-talk, he also loves America's most precious resource, its Nielsen ratings.
And in part of his effort to obtain those ratings, O'Reilly wages an ongoing crusade to protect children - and especially the vulnerable, disadvantaged, one-parent children of the inner city - from his competition.
It's true, of course, that pop culture isn't always suitable for children - but how exactly does one determine what poses a threat and what doesn't? To an untrained observer, answers can be hard to divine, but for an eagle-eyed warden of decency like O'Reilly, corrupting influences are as easy to spot as a big black skunk in a field of vanilla ice cream.
Take, for example, Britney Spears. Because her music is exclusively marketed to middle-aged men who show mad crazee luv for aspirational teen-pop, O'Reilly has no beef with her. But then take someone like Serena Wiliams. Williams is a professional tennis player, and as several federal investigations (and Ralph Nader) have shown, professional tennis mostly appeals to (though some would say "preys on") little girls without any sportswear judgement. Thus, a different standard applies: "See, now, here's Britney Spears, who I don't have too much of it, she's dressed up like a dominatrix here, but that's just rock and roll nonsense. There she is, it doesn't bother me. But Serena Williams, I come back to that, in the sense that there are a lot of little girls watching here, and they got this outfit on, and, all right, you have a 10-year-old girl, she's watching Serena, what do you say to her?" (09/03/02)
Even more threatening to children than professional tennis, however, is rap music.
In the hands of a rich white writer like Bill O'Reilly, gratuitious murder fantasies of utensil-based brain impalement can actually be life-affirming. ("The soft tissue gave way quickly and the steel penetrated the correspondent's brain stem.") But in the hands of thug rappers like Ludacris and Snoop Dogg, words become "poison."
"For years, I've been saying that the antisocial lyrics contained in many rap songs and the overall tone of boorish behavior in the hip-hop world is having a destructive influence on many of America's most at-risk children," O'Reilly charges. (05/30/01)
And it's not just that these hip-hop destroyers write boorish, anti-social songs - they actually go out of their way to contaminate innocent children with their evil: "They target the kids that are most at risk and are most vulnerable to their, what I think, insidious message. These children, hearing this without guidance, are very, very likely to adopt anti-social attitudes." (04/02/02)
Now, it's certainly true that there's a lot of rap music that children shouldn't listen to. And it's also true that children listen to it anyway.
But does that mean that rap music is specifically marketed to 10-year-old kids, as O'Reilly regularly implies? Does Nickelodean broadcast Ludacris videos? Does Radio Disney play Jay-Z songs? Does Toys 'R' Us carry gangsta rap CDs?
If O'Reilly limited his criticism to the fact that MTV and magazines like Teen People (median reader age 15.4) and Seventeen (median reader age 16) do feature advertisements for albums that contain explicit lyrics, he'd be correct. In addition, many hip-hop labels use street marketing to promote their artists - handing out stickers, posters, sample CDs, and other promotional items directly to potential customers. While such campaigns generally target teens and college students, it's certainly possible that some hip-hop marketers use them to reach young children too - but if O'Reilly or any members of his staff have ever uncovered any evidence of this, he's never reported it on his show. Instead, he just keeps insisting that gangsta rap and other forms of hip-hop "poison" are deliberately marketed to "little kids," without offering any proof of the phenomenom.
If Pepsi had kept Ludacris as a spokesperson, if The Jim Henson Company hadn't cut Snoop Dogg from the Muppets movie, then at least O'Reilly would be able to argue that rappers occasionally market their personas, if not their actual music, to small children. But Pepsi dropped Ludacris. And The Jim Henson Company dropped Snoop Dogg. So why does O'Reilly insist that rap music is deliberately marketed to kids? As a responsible journalist, doesn't he owe it to his audience to explain why he makes such assertions?
Of course, O'Reilly's journalistic shortcomings don't mean that rap music isn't marketed to children. These days, the corporate world bluntly acknowledges kids for what they are: potential customers with substantial purchasing power. And the hip-hop industry, just like pretty much every other industry, capitalizes on that market. Post-adolescent rappers Lil Bow Wow, Lil Romeo, and Aaron Carter have all released albums that genuinely are targeted at kids, but O'Reilly has never mentioned them. To a certain extent, these albums are creepy in their own right, as pint-sized emcees position themselves as training-wheel pimps (who never actually go past first base) - but it's clear from their lack of profanity, misogyny, and drug references that these albums consciously aim to deliver PG-rated, tween-friendly entertainment.
Still, who knows what O'Reilly might hear if he listened to these albums?
Indeed, when radio stations and TV channels air gangsta rap songs and videos, a certain degree of censorship is usually in effect. For example, when Eminem's side group D12 released the video for its song "Purple Pills," MTV wouldn't play it until the group changed the title to "Purple Hills" and toned down other drug references. And even then, it mostly played the video late at night.
Such editing appears to have no impact on O'Reilly, however. "What if I told you that those videos your children love are often filled with four-letter words, guns, drugs, and women reduced to nothing more than prostitutes?" he exclaimed to his audience. "Well, if you're a kid who's into rap music, you're getting a steady diet of that." (05/24/02)
In fact, a typical gangsta rap video is sort of a cross between a car commercial and a very tame episode of, say, Dragnet. Four-letter words are edited out; guns can occassionally be seen but there's rarely any violence beyond some especially boisterous arm-waving; the women don hot pants and bikinis that would leave O'Reilly's beloved Playboy bunnies feeling overdressed. F/X's The Shield, Fox's COPS, and local news broadcasts are just a few of the shows that regularly feature much more explicit violence and language than gangsta rap videos, and those out-of-control shampoo sluts in Herbal Essence commercials are far more erotically brazen than the women in rap videos. None of this content is any less accessible to teens or children than rap videos are, so what is it about the latter, really, that O'Reilly finds so disturbing?
According to O'Reilly, one of the reasons he doesn't crusade against The Sopranos in the same way that he crusades against rap music is its inaccessibility. "HBO is a pay-TV service. Adults have to buy it. There is a choice involved with that channel. Any American family can deep-six HBO. But thug rap is heard on the radio, on the Internet, sold in record stores to any kid with the bucks. Its corrupting influence is far more accessible." (09/13/02)
But according to anyone who isn't intent upon demonizing rap music, there's really not that much difference between the accessibilty of The Sopranos (whose profanity matches any rap song, and whose graphic images of sex and violence far surpass any rap video) and the accessibility of rap music. Does O'Reilly truly believe that MTV and BET are available for free? To obtain these channels, some adult must pay for them, just like HBO. Does O'Reilly really believe most radio stations play rap songs in their uncensored forms? If they do, why do rappers go through the trouble of making radio edits?
To get rap music in its uncensored form, you generally have to go to a retail store like Tower Records. And coincidentally enough, Tower Records (along with many other retailers) also carries episodes of The Sopranos in DVD and video format. Of course, while many rap albums are available at retail in either "clean" versions or "explicit" ones, The Sopranos only comes in one version: the one where young teens say "fuck," decapitation is played for laughs, and old white gangsters bang fresh young whores like tambourines. And while most rap CDs come with "parental advisory" disclaimers, The Sopranos bears no such warning: it's simply unrated. (According to Entertainment Weekly, "Nearly all hip-hop albums get stickers, but among more mainstream genres, it's hard to find any standard. Recent albums by Aerosmith, Nelly Furtado, the Dave Matthews Band, Macy Gray, Barenaked Ladies, and Jennifer Lopez all included the F-word, but no advisory." [08/17/01])
It's true htat parental advisory stickers can't stop kids from buying CDs; they're just there to advise. If O'Reilly were really interested in protecting kids, then, he'd be lobbying Congress to pass laws that treated CDs like movies or cigarettes - some would officially become off-limits to minors. To do that, though, he'd have to take on music retailers and the Big Five record labels. So why doesn't he? Because people like Russell Simmons and Ludacris make much more compelling, much less powerful villains.
Retail stores aren't the only place to get uncensored rap, of course - there's the Internet too. But most Internet downloading is still unauthorized at this point - does O'Reilly really think gangsta rappers are deliberately trying to get kids to rip them off? Is he unfamiliar with what might well be the primary tenet of gangsta rap, gettin' paid?
But forget about that. Let's say that millions of inner-city children, who in the words of O'Reilly, "don't have any advantages," are downloading a "steady diet" of uncensored rap via their Internet accounts. To download music from file-sharing services like BearShare and Kazaa, it really helps to have a high-speed connection: otherwise, the process is maddeningly slow. So if there's any truth to O'Reilly's imaginings, then he's stumbled onto a bigger story than the pernicious effects of rap music: the digital divide is a myth, and millions of poor, disadvantaged, inner-city children from one-parent families have high-speed Internet access!
Or maybe O'Reilly's fundamental premise - that gangsta rappers "feast" on inner-city kids - is pure folly. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there's around 6.6 million black children between the ages of 5 and 14 in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau also says that the poverty rate for blacks in America is 22%. Thus, there's probably about 1.45 million black children between the ages of 5 and 14 living in poverty in the U.S.
Even O'Reilly must realize that cable networks, radio conglomerates, record labels, and, last but not least, gangsta rappers, don't rake in billions of dollars each year by catering to a million and a half poverty-stricken black kids. So why does he continue to insist that
gangsta raps deliberately market their work to such children? Because it makes
gangsta rappers seem especially evil. But not as evil as a man who deliberately
distorts reality in a meretricious, journalistically irresponsible effort to earn the ratings points that lead to his multi-million dollar salary.
Little White Lies?
O'REILLY: Who's buying [Puff Daddy's] records? Who made him a millionaire? These inner-city kids did.
ROBERT GEORGE (ASSOCIATE EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR, NY POST): Actually - white kids actually made him a millionaire because they're...
O'REILLY: You think so.
GEORGE: There is more - you can't - I mean, obviously, you know, black kids are buying rap music, but if you look at some of the studies, the - the largest percentage of money is actually coming from...
O'REILLY: All right. Well, that may be a valid point, but who needs the help? Who needs the role models more than anyone? Who does?
-- The O'Reilly Factor, 12/28/99
"It's no longer a black thing; whites purchase roughly 60% of hip-hop records."
-- Alan Hughes, "Hip-hop Economy," Black Enterprise, May 2002
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there's around 25 million white children between the ages of 5 and 14 in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau also says that the poverty rate for whites in America is around 10%. Thus, there's probably around 2.5 million white children between the ages of 5 and 14 living in poverty in the U.S.
And while Bill O'Reilly cares about their welfare, because Bill O'Reilly cares about the welfare of all children in need, he tends to characterize rap music as a much greater threat to their poor black counterparts. Or as he himself puts it, "Who needs the help? Who needs the role models more than anyone? Who does?"
Which is not to say that O'Reilly ignores the role of whites in rap completely.
Eminem, in fact, is one of his favorite targets; once, he even
accused Eminem of child abuse for featuring a soundbite from his
daughter on one of his songs. "That vile rapper Eminem has used his 6-year-old
daughter in a drug-laden rap," O'Reilly huffed. "You know, there's a child
abuse statute that goes into corruption of a child...I think it might fall
under this statute." (06/03/02)
Another favorite target of O'Reilly's is the white rap duo, Insane Clown Posse: "They target disenfranchised white kids, all right? That's their argument...their target audience are white kids who hate everybody, all right? We hate everybody. And, you know, there are a lot of those kids...And my contention is that if you don't have strong parents, if you don't have parents that set guidelines for you, discipline for you, and you take this attitude of Insane Clown Posse...to heart, that's going to hurt you, it's going to hurt you your whole life." (03/28/02)
For O'Reilly, white rappers are a godsend, proof that his demonization of hip-hop isn't based entirely on race. And of course it isn't. It's also based on generational differences, ignorance of the genre, differences in musical taste, O'Reilly's arrogant presumption that his own values are the only valid ones, and the blunt exigencies of the news entertainment business: if O'Reilly can't identify compelling villains, he's out of a job.
But race clearly plays a role too. O'Reilly likes to say he doesn't see people in terms of black and white: "I see us all as Americans," he told rock star Gene Simmons, when Simmons made a reference to O'Reilly's "white man's point of view." (09/25/02)
But if O'Reilly sees us all as Americans, then why does he insist that hip-hop poses a greater evil to poor black kids than poor white kids, even though there's more of the latter, even though whites buy more hip-hop than blacks do, and even though
there are plenty of white rappers and artists with hip-hop influences (Eminem, Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, Insane Clown Posse, Bloodhound Gang, Kottonmouth Kings, etc.) whose lyrics are just as profane and anti-social as those of black artists?
And if race doesn't play a role in O'Reilly's demonization of hip-hop, then why does O'Reilly condemn the black community's failure to criticize gangsta rap so much more frequently than he condemns the white community's failure to criticize gangsta rap?
"The so-called black leadership in this country has been very quiet about the issue," O'Reilly insists. (05/30/01)
"Why haven't we seen Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, some of the other black leaders step up and condemn this kind of glorification of drugs, disrespect of women, vile language, all of this stuff? We don't see the outrage coming out of the inner city saying, This stuff is corrupting our children...I haven't heard a word from Jackson or Sharpton or any of these people. Why?" (03/28/02)
The answer, of course, is simple: Bill O'Reilly hasn't been listening.
While hip-hop's roots go back to the early '70s and the Bronx-based DJ, Kool Herc, gangsta rap didn’t really emerge as a subgenre until the mid-'80s. In 1987, Ice-T released the Ur-text of gangsta rap, "6 'N the Morning." A 7-minute epic about "a self-made monster of the city streets," "6 'N the Morning" cataloged every imminent gangsta rap preoccupation and attitude: guns, profanity, run-ins with the police, blasé misogyny, fancy cars, drugs, nihilistic materialism, promiscuous murder, explicit sex, and, last but not least, an acute awareness that these "hard hip-hop beats" offered these perfect means for aestheticizing real urban grimness into romanticized ghetto dystopia, the hood as Wild West, where all the men were gun-slingers, all the women saloon whores, and life consisted of drinking, fucking, and shooting up the town.
Two years later, N.W.A. exploited this conceit with even blunter force, and gangsta rap hit critical mass - Straight Outta Compton, the group's debut album, went double platinum, and many of those sales were to white kids from the suburbs attracted by the lawless power of these genuine urban cowboys. In the early '90s, gangsta rap reached the pop mainstream via Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg. While critics had been protesting the genre since N.W.A.'s debut, its increasingly high profile led to even more condemnation.
And despite O'Reilly's revisionist efforts to deny their existence, many of gangsta rap's earliest critics were black. In December 1993, for example, several black-owned radio stations, including WBLS-FM in New York and KACE in Los Angeles, banned gangsta rap from their playlists. Six months earlier, Calvin Butts, minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, had registered his disdain for the genre in even more emphatic terms, driving a steamroller over a mound of rap albums.
That same year, C. Delores Tucker, head of an organization called the National Political Congress of Black Women, initiated a campaign against gangsta rap that she continues to this day. "Because this pornographic smut is in the hands of our children, it coerces, influences, encourages and motivates our youth to commit violent behavior - to use drugs and abuse women through demeaning sex acts," she exclaimed in 1994, out-O'Reillying O'Reilly as she testified before Congress. "This kind of entertainment should not be protected by the First Amendment. It's obscene, and those protections should not even apply...It is our moral responsibility to halt the sale of gangsta rap and porno rap." (The Washington Afro-American, 02/19/94)
Tucker's efforts to wipe out gangsta rap kept her in the news throughout the rest of the '90s. In 1995, People magazine named her one its "25 Most Intriguing Personalities" after she made headlines by picketing Time-Warner and passing out leaflets filled with the obscenity-laced lyrics of such Time-Warner acts as 2 Live Crew and Tupac Shakur to Time-Warner shareholders. She has worked side by side with such political luminaries as Bob Dole, Joseph Lieberman, and William Bennett. She has appeared on national talk shows, continued to testify before Congress, and become embroiled in a high-profile series of lawsuits with her hip-hop adversaries.
And yet last year, when one of O'Reilly's guests named her as an example of a black leader who is, in fact, speaking out against gangsta rap, O'Reilly replied, "I don't even know who that is." (05/30/01)
On the other hand, O'Reilly does know who Jesse Jackson is. O'Reilly has repeatedly asserted that Jesse Jackson has not said one word against hip-hop. O'Reilly has a staff of a dozen or so producers and assistants, according to a recent Boston Globe profile. And it's very easy to find references to Jackson's early '90s condemnations of gangsta rap, so either O'Reilly and his staff are the laziest journalists in America, or just dishonest.
Whichever the case may be, consider these excerpts from various newspaper articles:
"Jesse Jackson has called for a new civil rights crusade against those who perpetuate violence and sell drugs, and has said he will boycott record labels that put out songs that celebrate such things." (Newsday, 12/21/93)
"Inner-City Broadcasting chairman, Pierre Sutton, says the decision is not about ratings. He says they're trying to follow the lead of President Clinton, who recently asked film and television executives to curb violent programming. Sutton says his company will work with the Reverend Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition in an attempt to force other radio stations to stop playing music that he says is destroying a generation." (NPR, 12/08/93)
Jesse Jackson, as quoted in the St. Louis Dispatch, 12/14/93: "Through the years, our artists have used music to convey joy, sorrow, pain and protest, but never to promote the degradation of our race and our women or as a promotion for self- destructive violence. Demeaning and degrading each other while on the oppressor's payroll, and while the hearse wheels roll through our communities like jitney cabs, is not defiance. It is fear and cowardice covered up as tough. It is spiritual surrender. It is bowing to the worst, most perverse desires of our enemies."
It's true that in time Jackson's understanding of hip-hop grew more sophisticated. When he realized gangsta rap did not represent the whole of hip-hop, he began to focus less on finger-wagging and more on how the positive elements of hip-hop might inspire activism and community engagement.
But that doesn't mean other prominent black people and institutions have abandoned their criticism of gangsta rap. Others who have spoken out against it include Al Sharpton, Bill Cosby, Danny Glover, Stanley Crouch, Soul Train producer Don Cornelius, Washington Post columnist William Raspberry, and the Members of the Black Leadership Forum (a "consortium of 17 national advocacy and civil rights organizations").
Perhaps more importantly, the hip-hop world itself has consistently criticized the genre. A whole other hip-hop subgenre, conscious rap, exists as implicit (and often explicit) critique of the values and themes that animate gangsta rap. Artists like Common, Jurassic 5, Mos Def, Black Eyed Peas, The Roots, Talib Kweli, and Chuck D., to name just a few, have all questioned the motives, assumptions, and aesthetics of gangsta rap while delivering alternative versions of hip-hop. Hip-hop journalist Ronin Ro has documented and analyzed the excesses and shortcomings of gangsta rap in two books, Gangsta: Merchandizing the Rhymes of Violence and Have Gun Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records. Spike Lee, in his mostly overlooked bombastic masterpiece, Bamboozled, dramatized an analogy that many black critics have made over the years: that gangsta rap is nothing more than minstrelsy with ammunition and a bigger payoff, black experience packaged for the masses as dehumanizing caricature.
But instead of acknowledging this criticism of gangsta rap that comes from the inner city, and the middle class, and the black church, and black academics - this criticism that can be found in the black press and the hip-hop press and the mainstream press, in books, rap music, and in movies, O'Reilly insists that blacks, as a group, condone gangsta rap: "I don't see an outcry against people like Jay-Z and rappers, who are making millions denigrating women, glorifying drugs and violence. I don't see an outcry from the black community against that kind of stuff." (03/05/02)
Every now and then, O'Reilly acknowledges that there's actually little truth to such sentiments. "There are very fine black leaders from coast to coast who are saying just what [former Nation of Islam leader Conrad Muhammed] is saying [about gangsta rap], but they don't have access to the national media," he said on one occasion. (05/30/01) But rather than embrace this truth, O'Reilly prefers to pretend that Jesse Jackson speaks for all black people. And then when Jackson doesn't speak out against hip-hop with the simplistic stridency that O'Reilly demands, he blames Jackson's failure to do so as a failure of the "black community" as a whole.
Or who knows? Maybe O'Reilly really doesn't know about all these other voices.
All that would mean is that he cares so little about an issue he pretends to care so much about that he doesn't even bother to research it.
Bill & Snoop Dogg & Ludacris & Alice
In 1972, when 23-year-old Bill O'Reilly was teaching high school in Florida, rock star Alice Cooper released "School's Out," which includes these lyrics: "School's out for summer/School's out forever/My school's been blown to pieces." Two years later, Cooper penned "Cold Ethyl." Sample lyrics: "Ethyl's frigid as an Eskimo pie/She's cool in bed/Well she oughta be 'cuz Ethyl's dead."
In many respects the '70s were a more permissive decade than our current one, but even then, odes to high-school terrorism and corpse-fucking power-ballads were considered a bit risque: one Cooper critic, a professional prig from England named Mary Whitehouse, even demanded his prosecution on grounds of inciting violence and subversion.
But Bill O'Reilly has only good will for the hard-drinking huckster who built his live act around simulated decapitation. "Alice Cooper is a good example, but I always thought the guy could - wrote pretty good songs, you know," O'Reilly said on his show a few years ago. (05/03/99)
And who knows? Perhaps if Ludacris and Snoop Dogg take up golf and start writing songs about banging dead chicks (but not dead bitches; that would be disrespectful), O'Reilly will think favorably of them too.
In the meantime, O'Reilly deserves credit for his not entirely closed mind: unlike C. Delores Tucker, he's never expressed any interest in eliminating gangsta rap completely: "I'm not advocating censorship at all, so don't get me wrong," he once explained to Def Jam's Russell Simmons.
But if formal censorship isn't the solution to hip-hop "poison," what is? Does O'Reilly want rappers to censor themselves and express only positive thoughts?
Does he want to prohibit the sale of rap music to minors? If he does, then he should be battling music retailers and the Big Five record labels, not rappers and the black community.
And if rap music, or just certain genres of it, were banned or simply regulated somehow, what would that accomplish exactly?
Plenty of critics have suggested that there's a direct correlation between gangsta rap and crime - it glamorizes and normalizes murder, misogyny, and drug-dealing, and so it ultimately causes these things as well. And crime statistics provide a sympathetic backdrop for such theories. "African-Americans are 13 percent of the population but account for 30 percent of all the arrests, according to the FBI," O'Reilly reported to his audience a few years ago. (06/22/99)
But there's another statistic that generally gets less play in the media: black overrepresentation in the armed forces. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, blacks make up 29% of the U.S. Army - and come to think of it, loyalty, bravery, and self-defense are common themes in gangsta rap. But does anyone ever accuse gangsta rappers of inciting a patriotic desire to serve one's country?
While O'Reilly regularly accuses rap of doing "permanent damage," he's never actually said the music itself can make people commit acts of violence. Indeed, O'Reilly appears adamantly opposed to the general idea that violent media can cause actual violence. "In London, a television personality named Jill Dando was shot dead, apparently by a hit man, and I've been taking calls about this all day long," he explained to his viewers in 1999. "That's because my novel, Those Who Trespass, features almost the exact same scenario. It's very, very spooky. Bottom line on this is that neither Marilyn Manson nor I can affect anyone's behavior, and I do hope my creative work has a more positive message than Manson's, but it is not a comfortable position to be in, believe me." (04/27/99)
Personally, I wouldn't go quite as far as O'Reilly, because I do think violent media can influence behavior. It's clear from watching MTV's Cribs, for example, that violent movies often inspire kids to become hip-hop millionaires: pretty much every gangsta rapper who's ever appeared on the show owns a copy of Brian DePalma's Scarface. And while violent media may almost never serve as the sole catalyst of actual violence, I do think it can play a contributory role. But so can guns and alcohol - and if we agree as a culture that banning guns won't stop violence, how will banning songs about violence accomplish that trick? Gang violence, drug-dealing, and prostitution existed long before gangsta rap's arrival; they'd certainly withstand its demise too.
O'Reilly seems to recognize this - but if he doesn't believe hip-hop is much of a factor in inner-city violence, what is the "permanent damage" he insists it causes?
On several occasions, he's decried its impact on the vocabulary of schoolkids: "We're bringing on two grammar school teachers, two grammar school teachers who teach in the inner city, and they're going to tell us, OK, that their little boys, fourth and fifth graders, now call little girls hos and bitches, and the reason they do that is because they listen to people like Ludacris and Eminem and these sleazy thug rappers." (09/05/02)
Another time, he blasted hip-hop's efficacy as a study aid: "Sixty-three percent of black fourth-graders cannot read. Rap music is not going to help those little kids learn how to read, integrate themselves into society, and lift themselves out of the poverty." (05/24/02)
Most recently, he repeated a quote from U.C. Berkeley professor John Ogbu that appeared in a New York Times article about Ogbu's upcoming book about the educational performance of a group of middle-class black kids, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement: "The kids are looking at rappers and ghettos as their role models. They are looking at entertainers. The parents work two, three jobs to give their children everything, but they are not guiding their children."
According to the Times piece, "it was Mr. Ogbu's research that popularized the phrase 'acting white' in the mid-1980s to help explain why black students might disdain behaviors associated with high achievement, like speaking standard grammatical English." O'Reilly found this notion particularly intriguing: "Now acting white, peer pressure among black students not to study, not to do well, because you're acting white - what is that all about?" he asked a guest (not Ogbu) who was on the show to discuss Ogbu's book. (12/02/02)
Worries that hip-hop might keep little black kids from "integrat[ing] themselves into society. The avid interest in the concept of not acting white. For O'Reilly, it appears that hip-hop stands as a disturbing symbol of black independence. In a piece he wrote for his syndicated column, he exclaimed, "If those kids adopt vulgarity in their speech, an anti-white attitude, and an acceptance of dope and violence, the only way they're likely to leave the hood is on a stretcher or in the back of a police cruiser. Hard work and discipline punch the ticket out of poverty. Thinking up rhymes about cocaine is not going to go far on a college admissions application."
On another occasion on his show, he said, "If you want to be successful and you're a black man or any color man or woman, you've got to make an accommodation to the system somehow. You've got to make a linkage. And that's not being encouraged in the poor neighborhoods, black and white." (03/05/02)
That's not the worst advice in the world, but what it fails to acknowledge is that poor people, black and white, may not be particularly eager to make accommodations to a system that mostly isolates and ignores them. Interestingly enough, O'Reilly faced this same dynamic in his own career: his style of journalism was too partisan and egocentric for the objective, detached world of traditional TV news, so he bounced around from gig to gig for most of the first two decades of his career. And, ultimately, instead of making the accommodations that might have helped him advance in that world, he pursued a different path, first anchoring the tabloid show, Inside Edition, then helping to pioneer a new venue that was much better suited to his blustery, opinionated style, Fox News.
The hip-hop industry represents a similar achievement: it's a realm where ghetto dress codes and ghetto speech - the very things that O'Reilly suggests must be purged in order to make it in his world - are attributes. So is it really that hard to see why gangsta rap and other varieties of hip-hop are appealing to the (black and white) underclass? It's pretty much the only form of media that depicts inner-city people who are still readily identifiable as inner-city people (i.e., they haven't started dressing and talking like Bill O'Reilly) as powerful and successful.
In fact, gangsta rappers are such glamorous icons of rugged individualism and defiant achievement that millions of middle-class and wealthy listeners identify with them too. For some reason, though, it's no big deal when such people listen to gangsta rap (except, if like Ogbu's subjects, they're black). But when the people who are most susceptible to the iconography of gangsta rap (i.e., people with little power and little wealth) embrace it, it's a great moral failure.
Which is not to say that gangsta rappers aren't tremendously flawed heroes - in general, they come with more baggage than Winona Ryder on a Beverly Hills shopping spree. But, once again, gangsta rappers don't represent the whole of hip-hop. O'Reilly (and Ogbu apparently) act as is if hip-hop delivers a single, simple message: reject (white) society, reject achievement, embrace criminality. But that's not true at all - many rappers extol the virtues of education, spiritual development, discipline, and most importantly, self-determination. If you look, you can even find these messages within gangsta rap. So why does O'Reilly concentrate on only the most negative aspects of hip-hop? Surely the man who found something worth praising in Alice Cooper's hymns to teenage anarchy and necrophilia can find something of genuine value in hip-hop as well.
DJ O'Reilly's Big Spin
"But I believe that the Reverend - and we're going to run another sound clip when we come back from a break - is trying to say that black people too long have blamed their problems on whites, and if they would take more responsibility for their situations, it would be better for everybody, that the government - that the government can't help them if they don't help themselves."
-- Bill O'Reilly, The O'Reilly Factor, 03/12/99
"We didn't like the way the music biz was treating us. I'm not going to let anyone tell me what to do. It's our music and we're going to do it our way."
-- Damon Dash, CEO, Roc-A-Fella Records, Black Enterprise, May 2002
"Most guys get into this business to be hard-core. I'm in this to show people that we could come from nothing and still be able to deal with corporate America. I don't have to go to Harvard, and still I'm able to get into a boardroom and show people how to make millions of dollars."
-- Master P, CEO, No Limit Enterprises, Black Enterprise, May 2002
In Bill O'Reilly's estimation, all you have to do to make money off hip-hop is "think up rhymes about cocaine." In truth, O'Reilly proves you don't even have to do that: thinking up complaints about thinking up rhymes about cocaine can be pretty lucrative too. All told, O'Reilly's work as television personality, book author, syndicated columnist, radio squawker, and public speaker nets him something on the order of $7 to $10 million a year, according to the Boston Globe.
As much money as that is, however, it's not nearly as much as Roc-A-Fella Enterprises, Rush Communications, Karl Kani Infinity Inc., No Limit Enterprises, Ruff Ryders, Entertainment, FUBU, Bad Boy Records, and many other hip-hop-oriented businesses generate each year. Twenty years ago, the hip-hop economy did not exist; today, according to Black Enterprise, it's a $5 billion a year industry encompassing music production, movie and television production, apparel, advertising, and many other sectors.
By any honest standard, the development of this economy is a major business, cultural, and political story - indeed, any pundit who decries affirmative action and minority set-asides should be seizing upon this story as proof that such policies aren't necessary for black entrepreneurial success. Instead of recognizing this, however, O'Reilly, who preaches the idea that blacks "must take responsibility for their situations," does everything he possibly can to delegitimize the remarkable entrepreneurial achievements of black businessmen like Damon Dash, Jay-Z, Russell Simmons, Master P., Ice Cube, and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. According to O'Reilly, "hard work and discipline" have nothing to do with the fact that they've all managed to build diverse business empires that generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year.
"The fatal flaw of the rap world is that it doesn't harness the legitimate rage that exists in the bottom end of our economic system in any positive way. Rap doesn't provide solutions; it provides excuses," O'Reilly writes. In fact, it provides a fair number of jobs - and not just to a few platinum-selling rappers. The hip-hop economy employs accountants too, along with recording engineers, publicists, video editors, marketing directors, copywriters, sports agents, and myriad other kinds of employees. Russell Simmons has branched out into magazine publishing, advertising, TV production, live theater, apparel manufacture, and financial services. Combs owns a growing restaurant chain and a market research firm. Master P. has bankrolled a movie production company, a sports agency, plus numerous small, local businesses.
But O'Reilly has never reported on any of these endeavours.
And in the same way that he dismisses the entrepreneurial achievement of hip-hop, he dismisses its artistic achievement as well. No matter that it's been one of the most consistently creative forms of pop culture over the last 25 years, no matter its constant musical innovation and literary ingenuity. To O'Reilly, it all reduces to some guy rhyming about cocaine.
O'Reilly apologists explain that his approach to hip-hop isn't any different than his approach to any other subject: he always seeks out the most controversial, most negative news he can find. But this explanation just damns him even further, because it's exactly that approach that makes him such a terrible journalist in general. In his endless quest for controversy, he crushes the complexity out of every issue he touches, distorting the news, lying by omission, and presenting an exaggerated, highly selective vision of reality - not because there's some essential quality to negative news that makes it more newsworthy than positive news, but simply because it sells best.
In other words, he's a lot like a gangsta rapper.
The True Power of Bill O'Reilly
In the world of talk radio, morning-zoo DJs make a lot more money than news anchors. But in March 2002, Felicia Middlebrooks, the long-time morning co-anchor for CBS news radio station WBBM-AM, demanded a raise. Her salary was already $350,000, which according to the Chicago Sun-Times
, made her "the highest paid anchor on any all-news radio station in the country." But WBBM-AM had recently claimed the #1 spot in Chicago ratings charts, and in the wake of that success, Middlebrooks was negotiating for a salary in the $600,000 range. That figure is closer to what non-news radio personalities in Chicago earn.
After WBBM-AM rejected Middlebrooks' demand for a raise, Middlebrooks, who is black, sent out an email to 40 people. In it, she urged them to contact WBBM-AM (without revealing that she had encouraged them to do so) and "tell them you won't listen to WBBM anymore if I don't return!" She also wrote the following: "I am the first woman ever to anchor morning-drive radio for WBBM. I am also the first minority in that coveted position, which I have held for 18 years. WBBM is Chicago's No. 1 station. It is important that I get a fair and equitable contract--or this could have very serious and negative long-term ramifications for women and/or minorities who want to succeed me."
Middlebrooks wrote this email on March 5th, 2002, the day her contract with WBBM-AM expired. On March 15th, after negotiations between Middlebrooks' agent and WBBM-AM broke down completely, Jesse Jackson (whose Rainbow/PUSH Coalition is based in Chicago) stepped in to help negotiate a deal between the two parties. According to the Chicago Tribune, Middlebrooks ended up receiving a "modest raise."
O'Reilly's take on the story?
"This smacks of extortion," he exclaimed on his show. (03/19/02). "If you don't give me the raise, then I'm going to call in Jesse Jackson and boycott your radio station."
Since there's nothing illegal about asking 40 people to write a letter, even if you heavy-handedly invoke matters of race and gender, it's unclear why O'Reilly sees "extortion" here. And, of course, there's also nothing illegal about organizing larger-scale boycotts, though it's not clear that Jackson (who didn't get involved in Middlebrooks' contract negotiations until after she wrote her email) was planning to do that.
But O'Reilly doesn't always let logic or consistency dictate his outbursts - if it's convenient to see extortion where none exists, he will gladly conjure a case for it. Similarly, when a guest on his show opined that "if listeners really, really wanted [Middlebrooks to stay on WBBM-AM], then they'd call on their own," O'Reilly replied, "That's right, that's right."
Five months later, however, O'Reilly wasn't waiting for his viewers to boycott Pepsi on their own. Instead, he emphatically encouraged them to shun Pepsi for hiring Ludacris as a commercial pitchman. "I'm calling for all responsible Americans to fight back and punish Pepsi," he declared. (08/27/02) A day later, he announced that "because of pressure by FACTOR viewers, Pepsi-Cola late today capitulated. Ludacris has been fired." (08/28/02)
In October 2002, after VH-1 aired a show called Music Behind Bars that featured performances by convicts (including two murderers), O'Reilly railed at networks that "push it, push it, push it" and warned about the consequences facing advertisers who choose to buy air-time on these shows. "If you buy VH-1 or MTV, you could show up on some appalling, abominable spectacle," he exclaimed, and of course, there was one network that he carefully left out of his diatribe: the one that has brought us nude law enforcement verite, fake law enforcement verite, soft-core animal snuff, and The Chevy Chase Show. "The American people…demonstrated they're angry," O'Reilly continued. "They're going to hold sponsors accountable for what they do."
On March 28, 2002, Fox (not Fox News) aired a special edition of The O'Reilly Factor entitled "The Corruption of the American Child." A sensationalistic spectacle that consisted of as many appalling, abominable pop cultures icons and clips that O'Reilly could wag his finger at in sixty minutes, it also featured several advertisements that at least one viewer found somewhat incongruous. "Great example, Bill," wrote Mark Brooks of Middletown, Ohio. "As you were crusading for less violence, sex and alcohol in the media, you had a violent movies and a liquor ad as commercials. Defend that!"
O'Reilly's response? "Hey, I have no power over the ads, Mr. Brooks. Come on, you should know that. Whatever happens outside the special has nothing to do with me." (04/01/02)
-- G. Beato
Copyright © 2003 G. Beato