The Day Bill O'Reilly Apologized

The Fox News host—like White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer—landed himself in hot water Tuesday for responding to how a woman of color looked, and not to what she said.

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

Tuesday was not a good day for America’s hard-charging white men. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly began his day on the set of Fox & Friends, where he was asked about remarks that Representative Maxine Waters made Monday evening on the floor of Congress about Trump supporters and patriotism. Instead of responding to Waters’s comments, O’Reilly opted to focus on something else. “I didn’t hear a word she said,” O’Reilly said, interrupting his hosts. “I was looking at the James Brown wig.”

In response, there were loud barks of (male) laughter on the set.

O’Reilly continued: “If we have a picture of James—it’s the same one.”

The laughter continued.

Host Ainsley Earhardt interjected, “No, I gotta defend her on that,” she said, “You can’t go after a woman’s looks. I think she’s very attractive.”

“I didn’t say she wasn’t attractive,” O’Reilly responded. “I love James Brown, but it’s the same hair James Brown—the godfather of soul—had.”

Then, quickly, as if sensing the hot water he’d just swan dived into, O’Reilly began to back track (sort of):

You’re all wrong about Maxine Waters—number one, she’s a sincere individual. Whatever she says, she believes. She’s not a phony. And that’s old school. We’re giving Maxine a break here—I love you Maxine, I want to see you on The Factor. And when hell freezes over, I’m sure that’ll happen.

It did not take long—which is to say, it took no time at all—for the blowback to begin.

A Black Lives Matter group called for O’Reilly’s resignation:

Other tweets suggested phone calls to Fox HQ (with a phone number) to encourage his dismissal. By mid afternoon, O’Reilly was offering a statement by way of apology:

As I have said many times, I respect Congresswoman Maxine Waters for being sincere in her beliefs. I said that again today on Fox & Friends calling her ‘old school.’ Unfortunately, I also made a jest about her hair which was dumb. I apologize.

At the same time that O’Reilly was feverishly attempting unwind these peculiar and offensive comments about a prominent black woman, several hundred miles south in Washington D.C., White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was at the podium, scolding April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks—a black, female journalist who’d drawn Spicer’s ire by pressing him on the Trump administration’s alleged collusion with Russia.

“At some point,” said Spicer, “report the facts. The facts are that every single person who has been briefed on this subject has come away with the same conclusion—Republican, Democrat—so I’m sorry that that disgusts you. You’re shaking your head, I appreciate it.”

Though Spicer was spouting demonstrable falsehoods (enough people who have been briefed on the subject of Trump and Russia are concerned about it that there are three separate investigations) it was Ryan he sought to put on the defensive.

“At some point, April,” he lectured the recalcitrant reporter, “you’re going to have to take no for an answer with respect to whether or not there was collusion.”

It was the type of scolding one might expect for an errant teenager, or a tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist. Ryan pushed back.

“April, hold on,” said Spicer. “It seems like you’re hell bent on trying to make sure that whatever image you want to tell about this White House, stays.”

Ryan again protested, as Spicer talked over her:

“You’re asking me a question and I’m gonna answer it, which is—” Spicer stopped. “I’m sorry, please stop shaking your head again.”

Even for Spicer, a notoriously combative press secretary, this dressing-down seemed unusually inappropriate.

Olivia Nuzzi, the Washington correspondent for New York, tweeted:

Maggie Haberman of the New York Times offered:

And then, a few hours later:

The confluence of these two attempts to humiliate prominent women of color did not go unnoticed even by those well outside of the spin room. Speaking in San Francisco Tuesday afternoon, Hillary Clinton weighed in:

Just look at all that’s happened in the last few days to women who were simply doing their jobs: April Ryan, a respected journalist with unrivaled integrity was doing her job just this afternoon in the White House press room when she was patronized and cut off trying to ask a question. One of your own California congresswomen, Maxine Waters, was taunted with a racist joke about her hair. Now too many women, especially women of color, have had a lifetime of practice taking precisely these kinds of indignities in stride. But why should we have to? And any woman who thinks this couldn’t be directed at her is living in a dream world.

I asked MSNBC’s Joy Reid—one of the few black, female television hosts on the air—about these parallel incidents. Reid was incensed, but not, it seemed, particularly surprised: “What both of them said, and this is something that women of color have been dealing with for a long time, is this idea that, ‘We don’t even have to listen to you. What you’re saying doesn’t even matter.’ Maxine Waters was making quite serious commentary. She is an elected official, but [O’Reilly] doesn’t respect her enough to even comment?”

As for Sean Spicer, Reid offered, “Does he ever tell [CNN’s] Jim Acosta to stop shaking his head? It was a bad day to read about how professional black women are treated.”

Clinton and Reid made similar points: Women, and especially women of color, have been the objects of ridicule and shame for far too long—O’Reilly and Spicer simply highlighted that fact. And yet, as problematic as it is, one has to wonder whether this particular form of humiliation is destined to be the status quo for the foreseeable future.

At the same time that these two men were busying themselves belittling Waters and Ryan, several thousand miles west, Uber released its very first diversity report, an attempt to turn the page after several months of very bad press, mostly concerning the company’s founder, Travis Kalanick. (Kalanick in particular has come to represent the quintessential take-no-prisoners white, male executive lately in vogue since the start of the Trump administration.)

But Uber’s strategy was not to defend this type of behavior. Quite the contrary: the report was very nearly self-flagellating. When it comes to “diversity,” Uber remains overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly male. No black or Hispanic employees hold leadership positions on its tech team (which is 75 percent white and 25 percent Asian).  The same is true when it comes to gender: Uber’s global leadership on its tech side is nearly 89 percent male, and only 11 percent female.

With these statistics in mind and the overwhelming public sentiment at hand, the company was forthright in its conclusions. “What has driven Uber to immense success—its aggression, the hard-charging attitude—has toppled over,” said the company’s chief human resources director, Liane Hornsey. “And it needs to be shaved back.”

Translation: The hard-charging attitude of white men must be reined in, if Uber is to survive.

One could not help but evaluate this conclusion amid the day’s news of Spicer and O’Reilly—two decidedly hard-charging, white men running amok. Neither Fox nor the White House offered anything in the way of clarifications (or apologies) for their comments, and a lot can be said for the difference in politics governing these two institutions versus the ones in Silicon Valley. Yet, even in the age of Trump—when so-called “political correctness” is on the downslope and pugnacious behavior is apparently on the upswing —O’Reilly and Spicer did not escape their respective blunders untouched. Both were held in check by their colleagues—colleagues who happen to be women. Earhardt, Nuzzi, and Haberman all work in the same places as O’Reilly and Spicer, and were public in their criticism. While Fox and the White House may be a long way from any Silicon Valley-style mea culpa about “hard-charging” white alpha males, the underlying sentiment—namely, that the denigration of women and minorities will not go unnoticed—has clearly permeated their respective atmospheres.

By way of proof, on Tuesday evening, O’Reilly dedicated the start of his program by addressing—who else?—Maxine Waters. This time, though, he began with an apology:

She deserves a hearing and should not be marginalized by political opponents. In fact I made that mistake this morning on Fox & Friends. I said in a simple jest that the congresswoman’s hair distracted me. Well that was stupid, I apologize. It had no place in the conversation.

And then, O’Reilly went on to do what he probably should have done from the very beginning: He responded not to how Waters looked, but what she said.