Addressing the unfolding story of an unarmed, 17-year-old Florida teen recently killed by a neighborhood watch activist who has not been charged with a crime, Fox News host Jon Scott recently wondered out loud whether the Trayvon Martin case really deserved the national media attention it was receiving. While Fox colleague Jim Pinkerton explained that the coverage stemmed from the fact that the press is "always interested in the cute child that gets murdered" and the "black victim of racism," Scott's query captured the larger Fox News feeling about the mushrooming Martin report, which was to view the story with a mixture of uncertainty and bafflement.
It seemed the Martin story simply did not fit the right-wing's preferred narrative about guns and minorities and how white America is allegedly under physical assault from Obama's violent African-American base. Or, as Rush Limbaugh famously put it, "[I]n Obama's America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering."
The conservative media have spent the last three years utterly obsessed with the topic of race in America, but only when they can frame that issue dishonestly; only when conservatives can use news events for race baiting purposes. So as the Martin story morphed into a national conversation about race and guns and the law, many conservative media voices remained silent early on. (A silence later replaced by attempts to smear the young victim.)
For a snapshot, TVeyes.com indicates that between March 15 and 25, "Trayvon Martin" was mentioned nearly 500 times on CNN, 350 times on MSNBC, but less than 100 times on Fox News. Through the end of last week, for instance, Fox's late afternoon round table discussion show, The Five, had never discussed the Martin shooting, according to a Nexis review.
Last week on Bill O'Reilly's primetime show there were more on-air mentions of "Media Matters" than there were "Trayvon Martin." O'Reilly devoted a Talking Points Memo segment to each.
And when Fox News did wade into the controversy last week the results were somewhat disastrous, like when Geraldo Rivera suggested it was the sweatshirt hoodie the Florida teen was wearing that was responsible for his death; a comment that was widely ridiculed. (His later suggestion that Martin was dressed like a "wannabe gangster" didn't help matters.)
Fox's initial muted response, especially from it's nighttime opinion shows, stood in stark contrast to the channel's previous cheerleading for the "Stand Your Ground" law, which remains at the center of the Martin controversy. Backed by gun advocates, the Florida law puts the burden on prosecutors to disprove claims of self-defense from shooters who use deadly force. When the law was passed in 2005, critics warned about looming citizen confrontations like the one that ended Martin's life.
Yet rather than vigorously defend the law in the wake of the teen's killing, and rather than offering up coherent analysis of the story, Fox opinion makers mostly preferred to look away, reluctant to engage in the debate. Perhaps, as Orlando Sentinel columnist Beth Kassab wrote last week, that's because "There is no good way for gun proponents to spin the death of an unarmed teenager."
Without Fox News to show the way, much of the conservative press seemed adrift and unsure with how to proceed last week.
From the Moderate Voice, March 23:
There was a lot of buzz about Fox News initially ignoring the Trayvon Martin killing. What most people haven't noted is that nearly every major conservative blog is completely ignoring the story. If you search for the word "Trayvon" on Hot Air, Michelle Malkin, Power Line, and Instapundit, you come up with zilch. There's not a single mention on Drudge.
Most of the blogs did eventually weigh in on the Martin story -- in order to condemn Obama for respectfully acknowledging the controversy. ("If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.") Malkin lashed out at the president for being "all too willing to pour gas on the fire." In fact, it was Obama's comments regarding Martin that seemed to free up conservatives and prompt them to treat the story of a dead teenager as a purely partisan one; a contest between the left and right. That's the terrain they feel most comfortable on.
In retrospect, the conservative press would have been better off maintaining its distance from the story since in recent days more and more far-right outlets have veered into the ugly territory of trying to smear a dead teenager in an effort to defuse the story and to shift the blame away from the gunman, George Zimmerman.
Those wholesale attacks on Martin, sadly reminiscent of the right-wing media's sex-based assaults on Sandra Fluke's reputation, have revolved around loaded innuendos about the boy's past, posting bogus photos of him online, retrieving tweets from the slain teenager's closed Twitter account, and pretending the Martin story revolves around a small band of irrelevant New Black Panther Party members. (That's been the Daily Caller specialty.)
Just look at Breitbart blogger Dan Riehl who over the weekend posted a foolish and offensive piece that claimed a photo of Martin widely used by the press has been "altered" and lightened to make him appear less threatening. (It hadn't been altered.)
Riehl also went searching for old Facebook photos of Martin. He suggested he found one that featured a young boy posing in his underwear flashing an obscene hand gesture. He later took the photo down because he could not confirm it was the Martin who was murdered (it wasn't), never bothering to explain what relevance old Facebook pictures had to do with the Florida killing.
Still, Michelle Malkin's new site Twitchy followed the misguided lead and also posted the same Facebook picture, suggesting the press had been hiding it because it made Martin look more menacing.
Malkin's site was then forced to post a correction and apology:
Unable to engage the Martin story on the facts, large portions of the conservative press simply ignored the details until they felt comfortable actively smearing the dead teen. Neither approach reflected well on the movement.