Race relations comments spark controversy

NEW YORK — Did he or didn’t he make racist comments about a Harlem restaurant?

Regardless, the debate over what Bill O’Reilly said in a program about race relations on “The Radio Factor” last week is lighting up the increasingly pugilistic cable news wars.

The controversy started Monday when Media Matters posted an excerpt from hour-long discussion about race with Fox News contributor Juan Williams, which originally aired in August, but was rebroadcast Sept. 19.

Recounting a dinner at the famed restaurant Sylvia’s with Rev. Al Sharpton, O’Reilly said: “I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between a Sylvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. It was exactly the same even though it is run by blacks for primarily black patrons. And that’s what our society is all about in the U.S.A. There is no difference.”

Cut, parsed, and repurposed, and according to O’Reilly, taken out of context, the comments have been red meat for liberal groups as well as for O’Reilly’s 8pm rivals, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and CNN substitute host Rick Sanchez. Both have spent two nights keeping the controversy alive.

Williams, who was present during the discussion, called CNN’s coverage of the flap “dishonest.” O’Reilly accused Media Matters of “fabricating a racial controversy where none exists.”

The debate spilled over onto network TV Wednesday morning on “Today” when Matt Lauer moderated a debate between Media Matters’ senior fellow Paul Waldman and MSNBC conservative pundit Joel Watkins.

Watkins argued that O’Reilly was trying to make what he intended to be an uplifting observation about race relations in America by showing there was no difference between a black- and white-run restaurant.

“I do think if Bill O’Reilly were able to have a do-over in the way he phrased some of those paragraphs and be a little more articulate about this I think he would take a do-over,” Lauer said.

The debate continued Wednesday as O’Reilly hosted Sharpton to discuss the flap. MSNBC’s Olbermann booked the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson who argued that the observation was, in itself, racist.

O’Reilly will keep the debate going for at least another night. Rev. Jesse Jackson is scheduled to appear on “The Factor” Thursday night.

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