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Jeff Simon: On racism, reality TV and fools

Jeff Simon: On racism, reality TV and fools

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Sharon Osbourne

Sharon Osbourne appeared on "The Talk" for more than a decade.

Semi-Retired Columnist and Critic

Jeff Simon began working at The News as a copyboy 57 years ago. Since that time, he has been closely involved in all aspects of The News' cultural coverage – as critic, columnist and Arts and Books editor for 25 years.

I'm pleading ignorance. I honestly don't know whether Sharon Osbourne is a racist or not. Nor do I know anyone who does.

I suspect she's not – not in any instantly recognizable toxic sense that we'd all have to be blind to miss. You have to remember about some reported instances of her humor that she grew up in the era of Don Rickles' stardom in America.

I suspect her worst sin is the compound sin of being 68 years old and quite accustomed to a life of power and influence on two continents.

She's best known in America as a talk show panelist, a talent show judge, a "Celebrity Apprentice" contestant (she came in third) and Ozzy Osbourne's wife in the droll reality TV hit "The Osbournes." The title of her autobiographical memoir is "Extreme," which ought to tell you about any tendency she might have to forgive herself for public displays of temperament.

The most important biographical fact about her, though, is that she's the daughter of a British talent manager (of Black Sabbath, for instance, Ozzy's old band) and a veteran talent manager herself, of her husband, Motorhead, and Smashing Pumpkins. She is almost as famous for deciding, even after being asked, not to manage Courtney Love.

This is a woman raised inside power and influence and racy showbiz talk. She is accustomed to success and compliance with her wishes.

The events leading up to her firing from CBS' "The Talk" are among the more fascinating and revelatory of recent days. What seems clear from the whole affair are, among other things, the waning influence of Rupert Murdoch's vision of the Western world and renewed indomitably of Oprah Winfrey's influence. Also apparent is the huge difference between what can be comfortably said on British TV as opposed to American TV.

This much I know for sure: The world of reality TV we've been living with is still with us. The whole Osbourne affair is reality TV right down to the episode ending publicly with a version of "you're fired."

In the real world of public matters, a case of horrendous consequences and accusations of racism – a slow death caught in more than eight minutes of video by a phone camera – is happening in Minneapolis, where a trial will determine whether a real (now former) cop will be convicted of second-degree murder.

That crime seems to many of us as contemporary American racism at its ugliest. One obvious part about the horrific death of George Floyd that shouldn't be forgotten: He was a 6-foot-6 club bouncer. If you watch the video, you may agree that the only audience Derek Chauvin cared about were his fellow cops, to whom he was in effect saying by cruelly keeping his knee on Floyd's neck: "Look at this guy. He's huge. I've got him under complete control. He's been totally subjugated."

In the reality TV show world of Sharon Osbourne's firing, on the other hand, the world is asked to surmise what's racism and what isn't and what is therefore justified.

Here, as best I can determine, is a useful chronology of it:

2016: Yes, it goes back that far. Piers Morgan – perennially controversial public figure in Britain and occasional TV presence in America (talent show judge and briefly, a replacement for Larry King on CNN) writes in a column that he liked Meghan Markle in cable-TV's "Suits."

2018: On a TV interview, Morgan said that Markle responded by sending him screeners of the show. The result was that the two of them had an encounter in a pub he characterized as a personal meeting over "dirty martinis and pints."

A subsequent meeting was expected by Morgan but left him waiting. According to him, it was to have happened on the same day she met Prince Harry and, well, we know how that turned out. Morgan's view is that "she ghosted me." And that therefore "she's a social climber."

This is an important element of the whole saga.

March 8: Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry answer Oprah Winfrey's call and reveal their problems as royals, mostly with the British tabloid press (which, by the way, once very significantly employed Morgan). She says she was so depressed she became suicidal. She and Harry both say that members of the royal family worried about the skin tone of their offspring. The globe-rocking revelation of such elemental racism turned out to be the interview's major takeaway.

March 9: On "Good Morning Britain," Morgan continues his public attacks on Markle as being disloyal to the royals. He also says that he doesn't ever believe anything that comes out of her mouth.

He does not, however, have the last word – or even close. Weatherman Alex Beresford then publicly responds to Morgan by chastising Morgan for the tedium of his Markle-bashing and, pointedly, mentions the "ghosting" comment. Says Beresford: "she was entitled to cut you off if she wanted to."

Which opens up the obvious question: Should anyone be allowed to prosecute a personal slight in such a public way? Very few would think so.

But not in Morgan's mind. He might well believe all of his negative complaints about the duchess. They may not be personal at all. What we know is what can be seen – his personal effrontery at being challenged on the air. Morgan walks right off the show while Beresford continues talking. He never returns and is fired the next day.

Morgan's public act is to be a constant public disturbance on the air. Many of those familiar with Morgan's act might describe his public persona in the opinion business as "jackass." I would confess to being of that opinion myself, along with many, many people.

March 10: ON CBS' "The Talk," the juiciness of the subject brings it up even though Osbourne is unprepared to handle such stuff about Morgan, who is her friend. She praises him and defends him against charges of racism from her fellow panelist Sheryl Underwood. She challenges Underwood to tell her something Morgan has "uttered that is racist. ... I respect him for his freedom of speech and he's my friend," she says to her co-host and warns "Don't think of crying. ... if anyone it should be crying it's me."

Underwood tells her that the indicator of racism is the reaction to what is said.

Morgan's bashing of the duchess was excessive and morally suspect to put it mildly, but I'm not sure anything we know indicates blatant racism. Underwood didn't specifically accuse Osbourne of that. And yet Osbourne continues haranguing Underwood after the commercial. After the show ends, stories appear about Osbourne saying racist things backstage and offstage about fellow cast members. Former "Talk" panelist Holly Robinson Peete says one reason she left the show is that Osbourne said she was "too ghetto."

None of this, of course, begins to approach the significance of the events in Minneapolis right now, but they're not irrelevant either. A very real public figure lost her job for defending an embattled friend who walked off his job. It was all defined publicly by people trying to say what is "racist."

Here's the rub: Morgan is famous for giving offense wherever possible and doing it in the most obnoxious way. I don't think, though, that racism enters into it – not in a publicly toxic way.

Two older powerful people lost their jobs after colleagues pressured them to be definitive about their beliefs. Both lost control of themselves on the air – never a good idea (worse by far on this side of the Atlantic).

Racists? I tend to doubt it. Damn fools? Indubitably.

Which, locally, of course, ought to lead anyone to the unquestioned foolish racism of Rob Lederman and 97 Rock parting company when Lederman compared the skin tones of famous Black women to settings on his toaster.

It was so clearly something in imitation of bygone Howard Stern boy's club dunceness that it seemed pathetic to me. One of the women mentioned – Halle Berry – tweeted her virulent disdain for the whole episode. Who on earth could possibly disagree with her?

What I found most interesting: Buffalo has two residents who call themselves professional comedians – Lederman and Airborne Eddie Dobosiewicz.

Both have had prominent media careers shortened in analogous ways by racist utterance, Lederman on the radio, Dobosiewicz on Twitter.

My problem with both preceded their predictable ends. I could never figure out their beginnings. Which is to say I have spent many years hoping that I would hear one of them figure out a way to actually say something funny. Just once.

I've always failed. I doubt I'll keep trying.

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Semi-Retired Columnist and Critic

Jeff Simon began working at The News as a copyboy 57 years ago. Since that time, he has been closely involved in all aspects of The News' cultural coverage – as critic, columnist and Arts and Books editor for 25 years.

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