June 3, 2017 / 3:50 PM / 3 months ago

HBO's Bill Maher faces backlash after using racial epithet

NEW YORK, June 3 (Reuters) - Television talk-show host and comedian Bill Maher drew harsh criticism on Saturday for using a racial epithet on his HBO series "Real Time" in an interview with a U.S. senator from Nebraska.

Maher was interviewing Ben Sasse, a Republican, late on Friday when he used the slur in reference to himself, quickly drawing a backlash. The show is aired live.

"Bill Maher decided to get on television last night and sanitize and normalize the n-word," civil-rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton said in his Saturday sermon in New York. "Just because Bill Maher is liberal and our friend, you don’t give him a pass ... you never get the right to use that term."

Sharpton called for a meeting with HBO leaders to request a "correction" on the "Real Time" episode, broadcast from Los Angeles, and to hold Maher accountable.

Maher used the offensive word after Sasse invited him to visit Nebraska and work in the fields. Maher made a distinction between slaves that toiled in fields and slaves that were allowed to work indoors, using the slur to refer to himself as the latter.

Prominent Muslim-Americans chimed in on the controversy, saying Maher had repeatedly made Islamophobic remarks over the years that had been overlooked by many of his liberal viewers.

"I can't believe Bill Maher said something racist, said no Muslim ever," religion scholar Reza Aslan wrote on Twitter.

Maher has not publicly addressed the reaction to his remark. Representatives of HBO, a unit of Time Warner Inc, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Sasse, however, made a series of Twitter posts about the interview early on Saturday.

"Here's what I wish I'd been quick enough to say in the moment: 'Hold up, why would you think it's OK to use that word?'" Sasse wrote. "The history of the n-word is an attack on universal human dignity. It's therefore an attack on the American Creed. Don't use it." (Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Scott Malone and Matthew Lewis)

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