Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."
(CNN) -- One of the problems with American politics is that it is falling prey to sideshows. Issues that really don't matter -- from the war on Christmas to anything Sarah Palin said recently -- are given headline space above things that really do. And too often the things that don't matter are about semantics; someone says something innocent and the entire media explodes in horror.
Step forward Megyn Kelly, one of those hyper-glamorous Fox anchors who deliver the news dressed for dinner. Kelly hosted a segment in reaction to an article by Aisha Harris on Slate, in which Harris complained that a white Santa is stigmatizing and suggested he be replaced by a race-neutral penguin (at the risk of excluding polar bears).
In the course of the Fox segment, Kelly addressed the audience directly and said, "Santa just is white." She went on to assert, "Jesus was a white man, too. It's like we have, he's a historical figure that's a verifiable fact, as is Santa, I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy in the story and change Santa from white to black?"
The world went mad.
Accusations of Fox starting a race war flew around. MSNBC commentators pointed out that Jesus was certainly not white; one of them even wrote an emotional letter to Santa pleading for more tolerance. Saturday Night Live came up with the inevitable skit of an African-American Santa saying he is "as black as Hell."
All of which needn't have happened if Kelly's critics had watched the video and cut her some slack. The segment is jokey and she opened it by speaking to the kids at home, which is why she repeatedly reassured the audience that Santa is "real" (no one over 10 years old is that naive).
At first she dismissed Harris' argument as unnecessary and odd, but then actually came around to endorsing its sentiments, noting that it must indeed be painful to grow up in a culture surrounded by white idols. As for her assertion that Santa is white, her point was that he is universally depicted that way in popular culture. So, too, is Jesus, although it was ignorant of Kelly to imply that this is historically verifiable. Likewise, I suspect the entire segment would not have drawn such controversy if Fox had bothered to invite a single person of color to appear on the panel. There was a gross lack of sensitivity on display.
All in all, Megyn Kelly is guilty of using lazy language. The debate surrounding her remarks is a classic example of the U.S. media talking to itself, of point scoring against competitors dressed up as serious political debate.
Both the left and the right do it.
For example, Al Sharpton and Bill O'Reilly have a long-running grudge that erupted again last week when Sharpton accused O'Reilly of trying to "disparage" Nelson Mandela. On the right, of course, Fox is no angel -- just take a look at the almost comical imbalance of its coverage of Typhoon Haiyan versus the problems facing Obamacare. Fox regularly obsesses about MSNBC's ratings, what its anchors say, as well as standard "liberals are trying to destroy the world" fare like killing Christmas.
Often, there is an unwillingness to show charity toward opponents.
When Michelle Obama suggested that sometimes it might be best if kids skip dessert, Sarah Palin parodied this as an authoritarian crackdown on liberty and openly fed her children s'mores on TV to make her point. Palin misinterpreted Obama's advice as an order; and much of the media misinterpreted Palin's joke as a serious statement. The original meaning and intent of the words that people used were largely forgotten in pursuit of a frivolous debate.
The reality is that for millions of Americans these issues don't matter one bit. They're too busy worrying about debt, taxes and the war on terror.
The most common reaction to the "controversy" over Santa's skin color would probably be, "I don't care." After all, he is NOT REAL. But unemployment, lack of health care, and terrorism, sadly, are real life issues. Can we discuss something real, please?
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.