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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Arsenio Hall vs. Louis Farrakhan: It's a Rout : Television: The talk-show host's soft-interviewing style proves no match for the smooth Nation of Islam leader.

February 28, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has as much right to the public airwaves as anyone, and Arsenio Hall can book any guest he wants.

If he wishes, Hall can hand over virtually his entire syndicated show to Farrakhan and grovel--as he did, in effect, Friday night. His show, his call.

A number of groups slammed Hall for inviting Farrakhan, and publicly urged him to reconsider. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles was one that strongly protested, its associate dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, questioning both the ability and disposition of the soft-interviewing Hall to get tough with someone as smooth and quick on his feet as Farrakhan. Anyone who has both seen Farrakhan speak and seen Hall's series would appreciate the concern about this hybrid pairing.

Curious, though, that no one complained much publicly when candidate Bill Clinton visited "Arsenio" during the 1992 campaign. Hall that night didn't utter a harsh word even about Clinton's sax playing.

And speaking of double standards, there were no objections when David Letterman--not exactly Ted Koppel himself--traded jokes on his CBS show last year with Vice President Al Gore. And wasn't that President Clinton schmoozing by satellite Saturday night with host Pat O'Brien on the whimsical CBS Sports post-Olympics show. There were plenty of sizzling topics that O'Brien could toss at Clinton.

Pat to Bill: "Next up for us is college basketball. How about those Arkansas Razorbacks, huh?"

And how about that "Arsenio," huh? Just because Hall can do what he wants on his show (airing here on KCOP-TV Channel 13) doesn't mean he shouldn't be held accountable. It was a typical evening for Hall. As a worshipful patsy, he was brilliant. As an interviewer, he stunk.

The difference was that facing the cooing talk-show host this time was a charismatic 60-year-old Muslim minister, at once a significant African American leader and a controversial one, his admirable self-help/black pride message having been partially eclipsed by public statements that at times made him seem prejudiced against Jews.

The most recent case involved his somewhat belated denunciation and suspension of a top aide who had called Jews "bloodsuckers of the black nation," referred to gays as "faggots" and said Pope John Paul II was a "cracker" and "in the palm of the Jewish white man" and all whites in South Africa. Although calling Khalid Abdul Muhammad's manner "repugnant" and "mean-spirited," Farrakhan endorsed "the truths" spoken by his aide. In response to press coverage of the incident after criticism of him by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, among others, Farrakhan wondered aloud if there was "Jewish manipulation of the media."

And there he was Friday night with Arsenio Hall. From Farrakhan's view, it was a great gig: Hall's friendly questions, his own uninterrupted eloquence. "Wow!" Hall exclaimed at one point.

As it turned out, the attempt to bar Farrakhan from "Arsenio" was not only wrong, but a bad strategy that backfired by seeming to support Farrakhan's theory that he is the target of a conspiracy.

Hall, putting one down the middle of the plate: "Why do you think there has been so much resistance to me having you on the show?"

One swing, and out of the park.

Farrakhan said he'd been invited to appear on a bunch of network interview shows. "How about 'Oprah' and Montel (Williams)?" Hall asked about two African American TV hosts.

"No," Farrakhan said. Then he grinned. Then he laughed. Then the friendly studio audience applauded. The implication was that Hall was the only black talk-show host courageous enough to book Farrakhan. More media manipulation by Jews? Oh, this man is good.

"As long as I'm on a show where they think I will be seriously opposed, it's all right," he said, not identifying the ominous "they." He added: "Their fear is that nobody will oppose me, and as a result truth will get out, and people might be made free." Which "they" obviously oppose.

Hall said he'd gotten a call from Whoopi Goldberg "who was very confused about this night. She's black and she's Jewish. I've gotten calls from Irv Rubin (the Jewish Defense League leader). I've talked to many people in the community. I've heard terms like the 'new black Hitler.' " Would Farrakhan respond?

This was classic. Hitler's crimes were so epic--leading to the annihilation of an estimated 13 million innocents--that calling anyone in the U.S. a new Hitler is hyperbole that only someone who is an extremist would engage in. By asking Farrakhan the "new black Hitler" question, Hall was using the fringe to define and discredit the mainstream, as if all of Farrakhan's critics equated him with Hitler.

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