The exceptional thing about Bill O’Reilly is that he’s the master of blurring the line between sincerity and self-parody. Glenn Beck has an element of conscious self-parody in his work; he’s sometimes trying to be funny. (His show makes a clear distinction between “comedy” moments and the “sincere” moments when the audience is supposed to take his apocalyptic warnings with absolute seriousness.) Sean Hannity comes off as totally sincere and totally dumb (his persona is that of the good-looking, straight-talking Real American who destroys effete elite liberals with their fancy book-learnin’). O’Reilly doesn’t cross the line into obvious silliness, yet he always leaves room for us to wonder whether he really means what he says.
And so it is with this segment, where he lectures an African-American “Fox News Contributor” (for God’s sake, man, I don’t care what they’re paying you, have some pride and stay off this network) on why Michael Jackson wasn’t really black and therefore the black community should not consider him an icon, and that “there’s no racial component here” even though he won’t stop talking about race. Is he serious? For that matter, is he serious when he uses the trademark strategy that he uses in every episode: saying one thing and then, when he is called on it, denying that he ever said anything of the kind. (You can pick any random episode and you’ll find O’Reilly claiming he “never said” a type of statement he was making a few minutes earlier, or possibly even a few seconds earlier.) We just don’t know. All the Fox News shoutfests are performance art, but O’Reilly’s is — I can’t believe I’m saying this — the subtlest, because you’re wondering from moment to moment whether this is real or a put-on. No wonder Colbert’s show has de-emphasized the direct parodies of O’Reilly; you can parody Beck or Hannity, but it’s difficult to parody a show that is so surreal.