Between the right and racial justice: wedging the movement for media reform

by Malkia A. Cyril and Jen Soriano, Center for Media Justice

Conservative Fox News host Bill O’Reilly has done it again.

Sensationalism, exaggeration, and inaccuracy are the cornerstones of Right-wing punditry- so it wasn't surprising when Bill O’Reilly ripped the 2008 National Conference on Media Reform with ridiculous and unsubstantiated claims that “lunacy”, “danger” and “hatred” dominated the event. His “news” crew clearly didn’t experience what thousands of others did: the amazing speakers, strategic dialogue, and insightful information that predominated the conference.

What was surprising was that while some leaders of the movement for media reform rightly chastised Bill O’Reilly for his bullying, they were strangely silent on his obvious use of racist and homophobic stereotypes to bolster his claims – stereotypes we believe were leveraged to marginalize and divide our movement along lines of race, class, and gender identity.

How exactly did Bill O’Reilly try to use racism and homophobia to marginalize media reform?

During the Fox “news” show that aired on Monday June 9th, 2008, O’Reilly showed a clip of National Hip-Hop Caucus President Rev. Lennox Yearwood speaking passionately against Fox and commented, “Our crew felt they were in physical danger at this conference”. Then Mary Katherine Ham, Bill O’Reilly’s white female commentator, compared Rev. Yearwood to Barack Obama’s controversial former pastor Rev. Wright by saying that media reformers “apparently [have been] studying in the Reverend Wright school of oratory”. Most blatantly, O’Reilly said to Black Fox News correspondent Juan Williams, “Juan, you’re an African-American, you know this much better than I do – the hatred, Juan, at that conference…. was just off the chart.”

Um, why would “hatred” and (the erroneous insinuation of) “violence” be better understood by a black man?

And the homophobia…lawd-a-mercy. O’Reilly stated that in contrast to the so-called “liberal media”, Fox “played it straight” in providing critical coverage of Obama. He then claimed Fox to be a watchdog of media reform activists by touting that Fox is “outing them every time”. This wasn’t the first time that O’Reilly claimed to be “outing” media reform activists. In the lead-in show that appeared the Friday before the main story, O’Reilly referred to “outing” Dan Rather. His commentator answered, “Was he ever in the closet?”

African-Americans and queer communities might disagree with O’Reilly about the degree of their representation at the 2008 Conference on Media Reform, especially after he conjured up enough stereotypes to make his meaning clear: the media activists at the National Conference on Media reform were dangerous black men and closeted gays who represent a serious threat to traditional American values.

Let’s talk about the response.

Instead of directly confronting the bias, thereby increasing the scope and breadth of our movement, Free Press attempted to fight right wing conservatism with liberal conservatism and framed an attack on an entire movement as an attack against the narrowest version of its leadership.

Free Press’ video response to O’Reilly’ depicted Bill Moyers’ demand that O’Reilly appear on his show and stop “pretending to be a journalist”. The written response was similar, echoing the demand for real reporting and correctly claiming that media reform is a “main street” issue that belongs to everybody.

Movements that attempt to win the support of both the right and the left often choose not to confront racism because of the need to move quickly, or because of the challenges posed in moving issues through the legislature. These are real considerations. But whether under attack by Bill O’Reilly or by corporate media consolidation, ignoring blatant bias is un-strategic; it forces our movement into its most centrist position and surrenders rather than shifts the terms of debate.

And when this happens, our movement makes itself much smaller than we truly are. Today’s Main Street is no longer just middle-class white America; it is neglected and rural, targeted and urban, and more diverse than ever before. It is made up of communities structurally adjusted out of political and economic power – people of color, the foreclosed on middle class, poor & working class communities of all races, immigrants, women, queer & trans people, non-English speakers, disabled people, prisoners, progressives. Today’s Main Street requires a bigger vision for media change featuring us. Working together, we can establish compelling media policies that achieve Media Justice, with reform as a strategy on the road to an equitable redistribution of political, economic, and cultural power.

O’Reilly’s attempt to divide this growing movement for media policy change along lines of race, class and gender identity is just the latest example of the age-old tactic of using wedge communications to marginalize progressive fights with the potential to win real change. This strategy only works when elements within the targeted constituencies consent to splintering their own alliances. We won’t let that happen without a fight. We want our movement to do better. And we believe it can.

But we can only do better through broad-based alliances led by the diversity of people who make up the United States today. These alliances can only have integrity when their leadership sees racist, sexist or homophobic attacks for what they are, and chooses to respond. So when you tell O’Reilly that you don’t buy his journalism, tell him you don’t buy his racism either. And when you do, know that the Center for Media Justice and the Media Action Grassroots Network stand with all our constituencies and allies- including Free Press. Including you.

The only road to a truly free press is a movement united from the beltway to the hood against racism, sexism, and economic inequity- and for media accountability and justice for us all.

article originally published at .

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey