When does Fox News' ugly race-baiting become the story?

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Amazing. Bernie Goldberg and I actually agreed. But only for a moment.

The conservative media critic appeared on The O'Reilly Factor this week while the host, like every other Fox News host and anchor, relentlessly pushed the small-time voter intimidation case involving the radical and obscure New Black Panther Party. Despite its two-bit status, at Fox News and across the GOP Noise Machine the NBP story remains a seminal, defining event for the Obama administration as well as for the country.

Given its supposed extraordinary gravity, Bill O'Reilly pressed Goldberg to explain why the mainstream media hadn't followed Fox News' lead and turned the ("small potatoes") NBP case into a blockbuster.

The media don't like to cover stories involving race, Goldberg told the host. And in a weird way, he was right.

It's obvious that the press hasn't shown much enthusiasm for NBP story, but not for the conspiratorial reasons articulated by Goldberg and friends on Fox News. Meaning, it's not some sort of liberal media cabal cover-up. Instead, it's more out of a discomfort with right-wing race baiting and fear mongering.

The press is just too timid to call that stuff out.

First and foremost, journalists probably don't want to waste time on the NBP story because there's no there there. Once reporters get beyond the hysterical far-right cries and look at the facts, the story crumbles. And it crumbles fast.

Beyond that, the press doesn't want to cover the story or even acknowledge it because that would mean journalists would be obligated to debunk the race-based conspiracy that supposedly reaches from the Oval Office to the Department of Justice and centers around allegations that prosecutors went easy on the NBP for political reasons because our black president deemed it so. In other words, Obama is black, his attorney general is black, and NBP members are black, so they must all be in on it, right?

But debunking the loony NPB story would unleash the right-wing wrath, which is never fun. (Newsroom careers have been cut short because of it.)

More importantly though, reporters covering the story on any level would have to acknowledge how Obama's right-wing critics were leveling astonishing, race-baiting charges while trying to prop the story up. (The tale only works on a paranoid, blacks-are-out-to-get-us level.) The press would also have to acknowledge the uncontrollable race baiting that the story seems to have unleashed onto all sorts of unrelated issues. I'm not saying reporters would have to take sides and condemn the comments. But reporters covering the NBP 'controversy' would have to acknowledge the very ugly context and the very ugly rhetoric that's being pumped out by Fox News and other far-right commentators.

There again, that kind of truth-telling would mean igniting more right-wing furor, which the press is loath to do. Let's face it, the press often cowers from the GOP Noise Machine and its ability to make life miserable for journalists who tell the truth about the far-right conservative movement in America today.

It's like last year when reporters often failed to call out Tea Party activists for the at-times radical and offensive rhetoric they employed against Obama at rallies and town hall mob scenes. Too often, for example, protesters were portrayed as mild-mannered grassroots activists. Y'know, the kind of mild-mannered, middle-America activists who march with guns andswastikas. As far as the press was concerned, the GOP mini-mobs last summer were authentic and angry, but never, ever radical.

That same kind of hands-off approach today helps mask the fact that the conservative movement is now wallowing in the kind of open and unapologetic race-baiting that mainstream American politics hasn't seen in decades, if not generations. But the press pretends otherwise.

I was serious last week when I wondered what would happen if the White House were currently occupied by the first Jewish president and his hardcore partisan critics spent their days and nights broadcasting trumped-up allegations about how the president hated Christians. I still think there's no way the Beltway press corps wouldn't considers those kinds of allegations to be newsworthy, not to mention deplorable.

Rather than doing the right thing today, however, the press has taken a pass and pretended the hysterical, relentless race-baiting that's going on in the GOP press isn't newsworthy, let alone unprecedented, or deeply troubling.

The media silence is deafening and depressing. And trust me, the folks at Fox News get the message: Full steam ahead!

Even the few media attempts we've seen to highlight the purposeful racial tension has been timid and off the mark, like whenWashington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, hosting Reliable Sources on CNN, played snippets of Rush Limbaugh's show when the AM talker claimed that if Obama were white he'd be working as a tour guide in Hawaii, not sitting in the Oval Office.

Incredibly, after airing the offensive comments, Kurtz asked whether the right-wing talker hadn't made some sensible points. Thankfully Kurtz's guest, Politico columnist Roger Simon, swiftly labeled the comments for what they were: "racist and repugnant."

But please note the recent race-baiting comments that Kurtz could have highlighted on the same Reliable Sources show -- the ones in which Limbaugh claimed Obama was destroying America on purpose in order to make it pay for its historical sin of slavery and discrimination. Kurtz had nothing to say about the jaw-dropping attack that Limbaugh had made, claiming Obama was some sort of black Manchurian Candidate who ran for office because he hates America and specifically, because he resents white America. I wonder if Kurtz failed to highlight those dark, hateful comments because it would be virtually impossible for anyone to suggest that a case could be made that Limbaugh's race-baiting Obama comments were correct.

Encouragingly, we're finally starting to see some journalists acknowledge the extraordinary racial provocations on display. For instance, when news broke that Yankee owner George Steinbrenner had died, Limbaugh immediately announced the Yankee-owning "cracker" had "made a lot of African-American millionaires."

That was too much for one New York writer:

Rush Limbaugh Is Incapable of Discussing Anything in Non-Racial Terms

Same at the New York Daily News:

Rush Limbaugh's Mind-Boggling Take On George Steinbrenner's Death

But note those tweaks didn't come from the Beltway press corps, which has remained mostly mum about the developing spectacle.

And let's recall, it's not like the political press corps in the past has been reluctant to cover the electric topic of race. Remember back during the 2008 Democratic primary, whenever anyone associated with the Hillary Clinton campaign made a remark that was kinda, sorta, vaguely associated with the topic with race, the press corps went bonkers. OMG, it was Katie-bar-the-door time as reporters and pundits dedicated endless column inches and TV hours to dissecting the comments and what they revealed, we were told, about Clinton's ugly desperation. That's what happened when Democrats allegedly flirted with the topic of race in a political setting.

But today when Fox News (aka the Opposition Party) openly and proudly engages in jaw-dropping episodes of demagogic race-bating, as they depict the president of the United States as a hater of white people who's quietly assembling his progressive army for a "race war," the same press corps that dissected every Clinton camp utterance now sits quietly, watching from a distance, and decides uniformly that there's no story there.

You can practically hear the audible justifications: "Well, it's just Fox being Fox." Or, "It's just Rush being Rush."

I'm sorry, but when the most-watched cable news channel relentlessly depicts the president and his administration as being the home to get-whitey racists, it's news. And having the most listened-to radio talk show host in American claim that our first African-American president purposefully keeps the unemployment rate high in order to exact revenge against white America -- that's news too.

Period.

What Fox News, Limbaugh and the rest of the GOP Noise Machine are doing today in terms of unapologetic race-bating is a disgrace. How the press is handling the unfolding story isn't much better.

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