2013: Twelve Months Of Fox News Race-Baiting

Blog ››› ››› BRIAN POWELL

Viewers who spent 2013 absorbed in Fox News might be under the impression that an all-out race war has erupted across the nation this year, thanks to the network's coverage of everything from voter fraud to Santa Claus echoing one common theme: white folks are being victimized in Obama's America.

GEORGE ZIMMERMAN ON TRIAL

Fox became obsessed with black crime rates in the summer of 2013, when Floridian George Zimmerman went on trial for the 2012 murder of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin, whom Zimmerman shot and killed while he was walking home from a convenience store. Zimmerman, identified as white Hispanic, alleged that he shot Martin in self-defense, and was not subsequently arrested or charged with any crime until a significant public outcry made the story national news.

Fox immediately began running defense for Zimmerman in what became a red meat story for the network -- an opportunity to justify right-wing gun culture and stand your ground laws, stoke fears about the dangers of black youth, and paint white-on-black crime as exceedingly rare and usually justified while black crime is exploding.

In 2012, a year before Zimmerman's trial, Fox's Sean Hannity was already trying to connect the case to the New Black Panther Party, while Geraldo Rivera blamed Martin for his own death because Martin was wearing a hoodie. But it was after Zimmerman was found not guilty in 2013 -- and after President Obama weighed in on that outcome -- that Fox's race-baiting sunk to new lows.

Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace spent an entire segment pushing misleading black crime statistics in order to ask whether Obama's remarks about Trayvon Martin were deflecting from the real problem -- black violence. Popular host Bill O'Reilly echoed the deceptive statistics, prompting MSNBC's Chris Hayes to observe that everything O'Reilly was saying on race is "easily debunked with about 20 minutes of Googling."

Weeks later, O'Reilly would revisit the Trayvon Martin tragedy, saying Martin died because he looked "how gangstas look."

"TRAYVON MARTIN IN REVERSE": CHRISTOPHER LANE SHOT DEAD IN OKLAHOMA 

In August of 2013, three teens -- one white, two black -- shot and killed Christopher Lane, a white Australian attending school in Oklahoma, while he was out for a jog.

There was no evidence that the murder was anything but cold-hearted and random - officials investigating and prosecuting the homicide repeatedly rejected suggestions that race played a factor in the crime.

Nevertheless, conservative media immediately began covering the story with a racial lens. Radio host Rush Limbaugh called the murder, "Trayvon Martin in reverse, only worse," and imagined that the teenagers "got bored and said, 'Let's go shoot a white guy!'"

Fox News followed suit. On the Record host van Susteren invited regular Fox guest Pat Buchanan -- who frequently espouses white nationalist ideology -- onto her show to discuss the murder. Buchanan baselessly opined, "My guess ... is that it is racial." Over on The Five, host Eric Bolling channeled this sentiment, saying the murder was "likely motivated by race." Other Fox News segments in the following days questioned why the mainstream media was "ignoring the race issue" in the story, and pundits repeatedly asked why civil rights leaders weren't publicly weighing in on the murder -- a not-so-subtle attempt to tie the crime thematically to the racially-charged killing of Trayvon Martin.

But it was Buchanan who followed up his conjecture with an illustration of where the baseless speculation about racial motivations in crime can lead -- a manipulation of crime statistics to fit preconceived stereotypes about race and crime. Buchanan argued that Lane's death was just the latest symptom of a "black on white" crime spree in America, a conclusion that activist Tim Wise noted was "beyond the scope of the rational mind to comprehend."

SMEARING THE STRUGGLE FOR VOTING RIGHTS

When Fox wasn't fear mongering about black crime, it was busy supporting laws that disenfranchise minorities. 

2013 marked a unique year with regard to free and fair elections in the United States. In June, the conservative bloc of the U.S. Supreme Court disregarded history, legal precedent, and congressional intent in a 5-4 Shelby County decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). Weeks later, thousands of Americans gathered with civil rights leaders in the nation's capital to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington -- a 1963 march that featured Martin Luther King, Jr's "I have a dream" speech and helped lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and aforementioned VRA.

The summer's Shelby County decision paved the way for Republican-controlled state legislatures to continue pushing through voter ID laws, a movement purporting to fight voter fraud that in fact disenfranchises Democratic voting blocs, particularly minorities, by imposing stringent prerequisites to vote that many older and minority voters cannot easily meet. Previously, such measures -- in states with a history of disenfranchising minorities -- required approval from the Justice Department before being implemented.

Fox News applauded the destruction of the voting rights law. The network's legal analyst Andrew Napolitano ignored the VRA's recent success at preventing discriminatory laws from taking effect, instead claiming the VRA "worked so well" that "the procedure is not necessary anymore." He followed up, "No one is seriously complaining today."

Fox host and attorney Megyn Kelly hosted NRO's Andrew McCarthy to argue that race-based voter suppression "has long ago passed to the dustbin of history," calling anyone who thinks otherwise, demagogues and "race hucksters."

The Fox figures' dismissal of the need for the VRA is especially egregious given its prevalence -- according to The Atlanticthe law was "invoked more than 700 times between 1982 and 2006 to block racially discrimination [sic] voting measures." 

Fox continued denigrating the present-day voting rights movement by smearing the original 1963 march. 

In perhaps the most offensive example, contributor Laura Ingraham used her radio program to respond to a speech by Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), the only surviving civil rights leader to speak at both the original march and its 50-year commemoration.  Several seconds into a sound bite of Lewis' 2013 speech, in which Lewis called on Congress to fix and restore the VRA, Ingraham deployed a gunshot sound effect to cut off the recording. As Salon's Joan Walsh noted, even "[a]fter the assassinations of Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King, after the gunning down of so many civil rights workers over the years, Ingraham thought it was funny, or clever, or provocative, to 'symbolically' cut off Lewis' speech with the sound of a gun."

Ingraham appeared on Fox & Friends the next day to continue her attacks on the VRA and its defenders, criticizing General (Ret.) Colin Powell for an interview in which he pointed out that voter fraud -- the purported impetus for passing discriminatory voter ID laws -- is virtually non-existent. The same week, Fox hosts Neil Cavuto and Bret Baier, as well as Fox contributor Charles Krauthammer, continued panning the idea that the laws suppress votes.

Strict voter ID laws, of course, have been repeatedly ruled to be in violation of civil rights law. 

But despite Fox's efforts, the slanted coverage may be having an adverse effect on viewers. A recent study by the University of Delaware found that "perceptions of voter fraud as 'common' are associated with support for voter ID laws," and that Fox News viewers "are particularly likely to support voter ID laws, though no other forms of media use are significantly related to support."

THE KNOCKOUT GAME 

Perhaps the one story that best encapsulates the way Fox News goes out of its way to paint a distorted image of the crossroads of race and crime in America, it's the network's coverage of the so-called "knockout game."

Fox described the knockout game as a violent and spreading trend primarily involving black youths assaulting unsuspecting and primarily white victims on the street for recreation. The network has run numerous segments on the alleged craze, and Fox's Greta Van Susteren has dedicated a recurring segment to the phenomenon.

The primary take-away for viewers: Be afraid of young, black men and women, and don't let yourself be an unsuspecting victim -- black people could assault you at any time for no reason other than the fact that you're white.

Contrary to Fox's knockout game narrative, it's not new, isn't growing, and there's no evidence it has anything to do with race.

New York Times piece on the knockout game cited police officials in several cities where attacks have been reported who concluded that the game "amounted to little more than an urban myth, and that the attacks in question might be nothing more than the sort of random assaults that have always occurred." A USA Today report similarly questioned the game's existence.

Philly Mag's Stephen Silver noted that media consumers are being fed knockout game framing for stories in which no connection to the game has been established:

What we're seeing is, every time there's a mugging or violent assault anywhere, it's attributed in media coverage to the Knockout Game, even when the connection is not confirmed -- every single assault is now suddenly a "possible knockout."

It was the Daily Beast's Jamelle Bouie who struck at the root of this coverage -- race -- noting that this kind of sensationalized media coverage "is almost certain to become tomorrow's excuse for justifying our skepticism and fear of black teenagers":

Race is an obvious element in all of this. In almost every report, the assailants are described as young black men, and many of the victims have been white. It's hard not to see the sensationalized coverage of "knockout"--and before that, "wilding"--as a reflection of our national fear of young black men. Indeed, in the more sinister corners of the Internet, you can find people who argue that these incidents are the opening shots in a "race war" by "feral black youth."

It should be said the same logic drives the racial profiling behind policies such as "stop and frisk." Never mind that the vast majority of young black men don't commit crimes; the behavior of a few turns everyone into a suspect.

"SANTA WAS A WHITE PERSON"

Fox capped a year decorated with race-baiting overtones and racial dog whistles with a comparably absurd ornament for the top of their tree: New Fox megastar Megyn Kelly's unabashed declaration ("for the kids at home") that Santa Claus is white.

"Santa just is white," Kelly told viewers in response to a Slate column by Aisha Harris, an African-American who noted that depictions of a Caucasian Santa Claus can have an alienating effect on minority children. Conservative media rushed to agree with Kelly's assertion, most notably Fox race-baiter-in-chief Bill O'Reilly, who concurred that "Miss Kelly is correct. Santa was a white person."

Reactions to Kelly's comments were widespread, ranging from clinical rebuttals to outright ridicule

Sadly, the Santa story illustrated how harmful race-baiting media coverage can be. Amidst the back and forth over the race of Old St. Nick, a teacher at Cleveland High School in New Mexico reportedly told a black student that he should not be dressed up as Santa because he was the wrong skin color, comments that clinical psychologist Dr. Jeffrey Gardere told CNN can be harmful to children:

CNN's HOWELL: So when a child hears comments like that from Megyn Kelly, or from a teacher who puts his opinion out there, like we heard in New Mexico, what does it do to the child's self-image?

GARDERE: It begins to erode that child's self-image. We are a society that says that we are all equal and we can all participate in something that is generic, as Santa Claus.

The motivation behind Fox's racially-tinged news coverage is anyone's guess -- perhaps it's a strategy to gin up fear amongst an elderly, overwhelmingly white viewership to keep them glued to their televisions. Perhaps it's a political ploy to frame the Democratic Party as the party of the "other" and thus keep some white voters, who would otherwise benefit from Democratic policies, in the GOP fold to perpetuate the network's attempts at power and influence over the party's leaders.

But the race-baiting coverage resembles the strategy of stoking racial fears employed by Fox News CEO Roger Ailes during his political consulting days. While working as a media consultant for high-profile Republican campaigns - including Richard Nixon -- Ailes exploited racial fears and biases for political gain, a method now known as the "Southern Strategy." It's a pattern he's continued to employ year after year at the helm of Fox News.

In any case, the strategy is demonstrably harmful. There are real people suffering real pain in part because of how one of the nation's loudest news networks covers race.

New Year's Day is approaching quickly, but before anyone concludes that perhaps Fox News will turn over a new leaf this year and resolve to be more responsible, think again. There's an election in 2014 -- and if history is any indicator, the money is on Fox ramping up its race war fear machine, not the other way around.

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