Fox News’ fearmongering about critical race theory is all about the midterm campaigns — and now the network is admitting it

The network’s “straight news” coverage tries to elevate a “new hot-button issue on the campaign trail”

Right-wing media and Republican politicians have been railing against the teaching of critical race theory — a broad academic discipline that seeks to explore how the history of racism in America still has an effect on modern life and society — and attempting to depict this simple concept as an imminent threat to the country, and an insidious effort to “warp the minds of American children” and make them feel guilty for “being born white.”

But in Fox News’ own coverage recently, the network has become self-aware that to the extent critical race theory is controversial, it is a controversy that the network itself has pumped up in an attempt to discredit any anti-racist discussions at all.

A recent analysis by Media Matters found that Fox News has covered the topic over 550 times in 11 months, while another Media Matters study found that nearly 90% of Facebook posts on the topic of critical race theory come from right-leaning sources — not from the left — as the conservative movement has sought to whip up a public frenzy.

And all of this has real consequences: Fox News has amplified lies about such discussions of racism — linking them to the very notions of racial superiority that they seek to combat — helping to inspire a wave of new legislation in Republican-controlled states that educators say would have a chilling effect on any classroom discussions about racism.

As Media Matters has previously documented, a driving force behind this scare campaign is Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the right-wing Manhattan Institute and frequent Fox News guest who has taken credit for a Trump-era executive order that restricted federal racial sensitivity trainings — an order that President Joe Biden rescinded upon taking office — as well as working with state legislatures to restrict diversity training materials. In Rufo’s telling, such materials constitute a “cult programming” in which “blackness” and “whiteness” become “the new metaphysics of good and evil.”

Writing at The Bulwark, anti-Trump conservative writer Charlie Sykes highlighted some of Rufo’s tweets from a few months ago, boasting of having turned the critical race theory label “toxic” as part of a larger-scale political plan to “put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.” For example, in one tweet highlighted by Sykes, Rufo declared: “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory,’” thus encompassing an “entire range of cultural constructions” — that is, an entire right-wing culture war beyond even just discussions of racism.

Rufo responded to Sykes on Monday night, gladly taking credit for the project as a political branding exercise: “Yes, I envisioned a strategy—turn the brand ‘critical race theory’ toxic—and, despite having virtually no resources compared to my opponents, willed it into being through writing and persuasion.”

Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page pointed out that many of the loudest voices decrying critical race theory — which is “found mostly in graduate schools and law schools,” anyway, rather than K-12 education — don’t even seem to know what it is, but instead use this sloganeering in order to paper over the complexities of American history and modern society.

New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb also noted that right-wing voices “don’t know what CRT is but don’t need to because their people don’t either … point was to turn an academic school of thought into a catch-all phrase that conjures everything people fear.” This in turn serves to distract from the ongoing threats to America’s democratic order: 

Fox News, meanwhile, has its sights set on the next opportunity: Keeping this as a boogeyman topic for the midterm elections.

On the May 19 edition of Special Report with Bret Baier the anchor announced, “It appears critical race theory is becoming the new hot-button issue on the campaign trail” — though of course, this is largely a hype of Fox and right-wing media’s own making — touting opposition to the issue by Glenn Youngkin, the Republican nominee for governor of Virginia in this year’s state elections.

“The first test will be here in Virginia,” said Fox News chief Washington correspondent Mike Emanuel. “If this issue works in the governor's race in November, it will likely be part of the GOP campaign playbook in the midterm elections next year.”

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Citation From the May 19, 2021, edition of Fox News’ Special Report with Bret Baier

Baier then promoted an interview he would do with Youngkin on the next night’s episode. Of course, Youngkin briefly invoked the network’s buzzword toward the end of that interview segment, decrying school curricula that are supposedly being “dragged into critical race theory to teach our kids what to think instead of how to think.”

And on Monday’s edition of America’s Newsroom, Fox reporter Carley Shimkus may have inadvertently let the cat out of the bag: Nobody was talking about critical race theory until a year ago — when Fox started to hype the threat of “reimagining our history.”

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Citation From the May 24, 2021, edition of Fox News’ America’s Newsroom with Bill Hemmer and Dana Perino

CARLEY SHIMKUS (FOX NEWS REPORTER): I was just thinking, about a year, a year-and-a-half ago, we weren't talking about this. Nobody really knew what critical race theory was, and it — that's because it wasn't really called that. It was called “diversity” or “anti-racism training,” and if you speak out against that, well, then you’re racist.

And then certain things started to happen under the name of diversity and anti-racism training. And it was like getting rid of schools named after our Founding Fathers or silly little things like Dr. Seuss being — no longer being a part of, you know, Read Across America Day. And then more divisive things like reimagining our history and never looking at the positives that America has done to overcome all the racism of our past.

So, it’s definitely become a very big debate, and you can see that the more people — the more parents are opening up to this idea — the more pushback you’re starting to see unfold.

It did not seem to occur to either Shimkus, nor to co-anchors Bill Hemmer and Dana Perino, that the idea of “looking at the positives that America has done to overcome all the racism of our past” must by definition involve acknowledging “the racism of our past” from which the country had to grow — which would then open up the question of how much work might still remain.

Later that day, in a segment warning of schools teaching “Reading, Writing, and Racism,” America Reports co-anchor John Roberts clearly established in an interview with Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) that the goal for congressional Republicans was to “get on the record, lay the groundwork for November 2022.”

“President Biden, he’s reversed almost every good decision that President Trump and his administration did, including defunding critical race theory in our country,” Mace said. “And it's important for Republicans to stand up, have their voices heard in 2022 — we have a lot to run on.”

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Citation From the May 24, 2021, edition of Fox News America Reports with John Roberts & Sandra Smith

And on the Monday night edition of his radio show, Fox News host Mark Levin tied this wave of political opposition to media efforts such as his own, while promoting his upcoming book: “Meanwhile, in more Republican areas, critical race theory is under attack, as it should be. In these various school districts here and there, it’s sporadic — we’re going to help unite these forces, that’s the whole point of the book — well, one of the whole points of the book.”

“And by the way, nobody is saying segregation and slavery shouldn’t be taught,” Levin added. “What we’re saying is, we should not be adopting American Marxism, which uses race to destroy the country. There’s a difference. There’s a big difference. So now we’re going to have ideologically segregated school systems.” (Of course, the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s also faced repeated accusations by white supremacist political forces of being linked to communism.)

Fox News host Mark Levin: “We’re going to help unite these forces” against critical race theory

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Citation From the May 24, 2021, edition of Westwood One’s The Mark Levin Show

And on Tuesday’s edition of The Faulkner Focus, anchor Harris Faulkner helped to promote a letter from a group of Republican state attorneys general opposing Biden administration proposals for “projects that incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning.”

This proposal, the letter declared, was a “thinly veiled attempt at bringing into our states’ classrooms the deeply flawed and controversial teachings of Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project.”

Faulkner interviewed Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, with the anchor declaring that the existence of the Republican attorneys general letter meant this was a serious problem.

“It’s interesting how you began to tie those things together, because at the heart of all of it is a bunch of people who think they know about race more than anybody else,” Faulkner told Brnovich. “And when I see attorneys general getting involved, it tells me that we’re in danger of going some place we don’t want to go.”

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Citation From the May 25, 2021, edition of Fox News’ The Faulkner Focus

On a side point, Brnovich claimed that “the Declaration of Independence listed a whole bunch of grievances, none of them related to slavery, it was all about giving power back to the people.”

Unfortunately, that claim is not actually true — one of the Founders’ listed grievances was indeed an artfully worded protest about slave rebellions in the colonies, while the drafters had deleted proposed language that would have condemned the slave trade itself. Indeed, as The Atlantic has pointed out, this clause of the Declaration “reveals a hard truth recently brought to the public’s attention by The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project.”

But it may well be that neither Faulkner nor Brnovich had learned about this in history class — and they wouldn’t want today’s youth to learn about it, either.