Fox News Channel chatterer Bill O'Reilly's special about kids and the media convinces us of one thing: He doesn't get it when it comes to youth pop culture.
By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2002
The slur flew by so fast, at first I wasn't sure what I'd just heard.
Fox News Channel gasbag Bill O'Reilly was in Los Angeles in January, holding court for an audience of intimidated TV critics, when he let fly with this preview of his upcoming hourlong prime time special, The Corruption of the American Child.
"I've got Marilyn Manson, I've got Insane Clown Posse, I've got all these, you know, all these black rappers, and I just go right after them," O'Reilly said, almost giddily. "I mean, it is a shootout!"
Hold on. Black rappers?
What does that mean? That Eminem is fine for America's youth, but P. Diddy's got to go?
"We'll send you the special, and you can watch it," he said, after I raised the question. "It's not a racial thing."
A viewing of The Corruption of the American Child left me unconvinced O'Reilly wasn't indulging in a little racial profiling, though he does grill white rappers Insane Clown Posse with the same gusto as he does Def Jam records founder Russell Simmons, who is black. (Another white rapper, Eminem -- perhaps the most popular rap artist on the planet last year -- gets off light with about 30 seconds' screen time, however.)
But this special's hidden racism is far from its biggest flaw. The problem with O'Reilly's Corruption is that he just doesn't get it, especially when it comes to youth culture.
"We are polluting (children's) minds with a massive barrage of images that no American child can avoid," he intones at the special's start. "The free enterprise system is robbing children of their childhood."
He then goes on to outline the misdeeds of modern youth pop culture, from explicit sexuality and violence in movies, radio and TV to naughty rock and in-your-face rap music.
As I watched O'Reilly in a suit or button-down denim shirt interviewing the Posse's Violent J and Marilyn Manson, I couldn't help remembering how silly Dick Cavett looked more than 30 years ago, in a suit and tie, trying to interview Jimi Hendrix.
Doesn't he get it? Since the days of Little Richard and Chuck Berry and before, youth pop culture has always had two goals: First, to express the angst of its generation.
Second, to tick off grownups.
So O'Reilly's hourlong rant plays like he's shooting fish in a media barrel. His middle-aged fans will watch, hooked by the same scare tactics that keep them tuning in to his Fox News Channel show. The kids will watch, mostly to laugh at this clueless oldster and to see the barely dressed performers and barely blurred video clips of fans flipping the middle finger salute (O'Reilly does, however, warn preteens to watch with an adult or change the channel -- assuming these kids whose parents can't keep them away from Insane Clown Posse will turn off his TV special if he asks them to).
Still, I couldn't suppress a flash of anger while watching a sanctimonious O'Reilly grill Simmons about so-called "inner-city rap" (even his euphemisms for black people are horribly old school): "Sixty-three percent of black fourth-graders cannot read," he intones, ominously. "Rap music is not going to help those little kids learn how to read."
Forget about Simmons' latest project, a Def poetry slam series for HBO that has already produced a book. I couldn't help wondering if O'Reilly would ask Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger or the Who's Pete Townshend whether they helped any young white people learn to read when they were youth pop icons.
Why would he even assume such a thing would be part of any music artist's responsibility?
O'Reilly does touch a nerve, though, and it's one that critics have struggled with since Elvis' swiveling hips were banished from Ed Sullivan's broadcast and before.
Marilyn Manson and Ol' Dirty Bastard both encourage a lifestyle that can be harmful, if emulated by kids. And certainly, gangsta rappers (that's the term for gangster-oriented rappers of all ethnicities, Bill) can encourage a glorification of materialism and violence that few people want youngsters to copy.
In grilling Motion Picture Association of America head Jack Valenti about the way R-rated movies such as American Pie 2 are purposely marketed to young children, he makes another good point.
But I couldn't help wondering why he wasn't also grilling ticket takers at the theaters who admit underage teens to R-rated movies, or recalling that sexed-up movies such as the Porky's series and slasher flicks such as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films have attracted teens with a potent mix of sex and violence since the mid-'70s.
O'Reilly does best when the topics move from youth culture to more general themes: bad parenting, knuckleheaded TV and radio shows, and the explosion of free pornography on the Internet. Even a hard-core lefty like me had trouble watching an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union defend the North American Man/Boy Love Association -- a group focused on abolishing age-of-consent laws for young boys who can be persuaded to have sex with men.
But those extreme issues aside, if Hendrix and the Beatles and Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and Easy Rider and M*A*S*H have taught us anything, it's that demonizing the most harmful elements of youth culture does nothing but make them stronger.
So let's ditch this disingenuous nonsense about making the world safer for children. Let's admit that pop culture's real problem is knuckleheaded entertainment that fans of all ages consume with abandon -- from the violence of gangsta rap to the misogyny of shock jock radio announcers and pinheaded TV pundits.
Why can't we just demand better, healthier entertainment for everybody?
Listen up, O'Reilly. You want to make the world safe for youngsters? Create a movie, song, poem, TV show or radio program that hooks masses of young people without using sex, violence or drug references -- like artists such as India.Arie and Creed.
Or hand money to counselors who can help the kids who aren't strong enough to deal with today's bruising media culture. Or shame parents, CD merchants and movie theaters into following existing rules limiting the age of those who can buy or view explicit material.
I know why you don't. (In fact, O'Reilly offers few solutions during his hourlong special.)
Because nobody would watch a TV special about that.
Until you're ready to go there, don't dare score ratings and publicity points by wading in the very pop culture degradation you're criticizing. Because that kind of hypocritical spin is really the worst corruption of all.
AT A GLANCE: An O'Reilly Factor Special: The Corruption of the American Child airs at 9 tonight on WTVT-Ch. 13. Grade: C-.
-- To reach Eric Deggans call (727) 893-8521, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.