For TV personalities, the most important thing is exposure, even – often especially – if it means controversy. Toss out some outrageous political or cultural tidbit and watch the fur fly as your audience numbers bounce up.
Sometimes the tidbit goes too far, even for cable TV. Martin Bashir got bounced from MSNBC recently for what he admitted had been his “shameful” comments about Sarah Palin. (“America’s resident dunce,” the British broadcaster had called her.)
But anybody who thinks that Fox News host Megyn Kelly was actually shocked – shocked! – that people would react to her comments this week about Santa Claus and Jesus doesn’t understand the way such things work.
The point was to keep her in the news, and her assertion that Santa and Jesus – one a historical figure, the other (don’t tell the kids) a made-up character – were both white, and that "just because it makes you feel uncomfortable it doesn't mean it has to change” certainly did just that.
Response ranged from outrage to ridicule to lengthy serious commentary on the history of both individuals.
African Americans noted that when they were kids, Santa in their neighborhood was often black.
“That this genial, jolly man can only be seen as white – and consequently, that a Santa of any other hue is merely a ‘joke’ or a chance to trudge out racist stereotypes helps perpetuate the whole ‘white-as-default’ notion endemic to American culture,” Slate blogger Aisha Harris had written a few days earlier, which apparently set Kelly off as part of Fox’s annual “war on Christmas” shtick.
Ms. Harris suggested that maybe Santa should be depicted as a North Pole penguin.
Noting that the historical character St. Nicholas was born in what is now Turkey, Jon Stewart said, "My guess is that there'd be no Christmas if he looked like that dude, because he's probably still on the no-fly list.”
As for Jesus, Stewart’s answer to Kelly was, “"You do know that Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, right?"
“Kelly has made a serious error about Jesus,” Jonathan Merritt, senior columnist for Religion News Service and author of “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars,” wrote in the Atlantic. “The scholarly consensus is actually that Jesus was, like most first-century Jews, probably a dark-skinned man. If he were taking the red-eye flight from San Francisco to New York today, Jesus might be profiled for additional security screening by TSA.”
OK, OK, you guys, Kelly responded on Friday. Can’t you recognize tongue-in-cheek when you see it?
"Humor is part of what we try to bring to the show. Sometimes that's lost on the humorless,” she said.
"This would be funny if it were not so telling about our society,” Kelly said. “In particular the knee jerk instinct by so many to race bait and to assume the worst in people, especially people employed by the very powerful Fox News channel.”
She did concede that she had been wrong to assert that “Jesus was a white man.”
The question of Jesus' race is "far from settled,” she acknowledged.