Former President Barack Obama appeared on a special interview broadcast Monday night with CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. Among a wide array of topics, the two discussed America’s continued reckoning with the problems of racism. Obama also discussed how right-wing media outlets would prefer to fan the flames of those racial tensions, as a means to mobilize a political constituency — and to make money while doing so — rather than being part of making the world better.
And while Obama did not point to any specific media actors by name, it should be very clear that Fox News has long been at the forefront of exactly the sort of bad behavior he was talking about.
“It's hard for the majority in this country of white Americans to recognize that, look, you can be proud of this country and its traditions and its history and our forefathers — and yet, it is also true that this terrible stuff happened and that the vestiges of that linger and continue,” Obama said. “And the truth is — is that when I tried to tell that story, oftentimes my political opponents would deliberately not only block out that story, but try to exploit it for their own political gain.
As an example, Obama referred to how his approval ratings among white voters fell significantly when he publicly criticized police for arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Black professor at Harvard, for entering his own home in 2009. After Obama said the police had acted “stupidly,” then-Fox News host Glenn Beck accused the president of being “a racist” and harboring a “deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” (Beck was subsequently supported by Fox News executives.)
What “critical race theory” actually is — versus the Fox News boogeyman
Explained simply, critical race theory is an academic discipline that seeks to explore how the history of racism in America still has an effect on modern life and society. But as educators and public officials in education across the country have attested, critical race theory is not taught at the K-12 level and is instead the subject of more advanced levels of academic study.
However, Fox News has used the term as part of a set of political buzzwords, amplifying lies and 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 in either historical or modern terms.
And in Fox’s telling for the past year and up through more recent commentary, systemic racism against Black people does not even exist. (However, the network says, the real threat of systemic racism is pointed against white people.) An analysis by Media Matters found that Fox News had covered critical race theory over 550 times in 11 months. Another Media Matters analysis found that Fox News attacked the Black Lives Matter movement over 400 times in a six-month period from November 2020 to April 2021.
A driving force behind this scare campaign is Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the right-wing Manhattan Institute and frequent Fox News guest. Rufo has previously 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 for working with state legislatures to restrict diversity training materials.
Rufo also fully admits that his targeting of “critical race theory” has less to do with the higher academic pursuit itself, but is instead a political branding exercise to “put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.”
In a similar manner, Fox has used the buzzword of “critical race theory” against any discussions of systemic racism, as in its recent campaign against anti-racism training in the U.S. military and other efforts to combat extremism in the wake of the January 6 Capitol insurrection.
Fox is the one “stoking the fear and resentment”
While Obama spoke of media actors taking advantage of people’s fears about “witnessing a changing America and seeing demographic changes,” Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch has given full corporate support to host Tucker Carlson after the network’s prime-time star spread the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, for which Carlson has been praised by white nationalists. The conspiracy theory posits that white people are being systematically “replaced” by people of color through mass immigration at the behest of shadowy elites, often referring to Jews. The theory has also been linked to far-right terrorists who committed mass shootings in both Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso, Texas, in 2019.
Carlson is not alone, either. Fox News host Laura Ingraham has alleged there is a “purposeful repopulation of America,” Fox Business host Stuart Varney has claimed that “America is being changed without our consent,” and Fox host Mark Levin has also accused Democrats of “wanting to brown America, in order to have an effect on the outcome of the elections.”
Fox News has also served as an immediate refuge for former network contributor Rick Santorum, who had previously told a conservative activist group: “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans but candidly there isn't much Native American culture in American culture.” After CNN fired Santorum, the former GOP senator appeared with Fox host Sean Hannity.
And on Tuesday night, Fox’s prime time hosts responded to Obama. Carlson offered this somewhat ironic comment: “That guy’s a hater — for real.”
Hannity accused Obama of “playing the race card,” and said this was “not new” for him by playing back past comments in cases such as the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin — and the arrest of Professor Gates in his own home, exactly proving Obama’s point.
Fox responds to Obama by digging in on its fearmongering campaign for the midterm elections
On Tuesday morning’s edition of Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy and guest Leo Terrell echoed all these themes in discussing Obama’s new interview, highlighting the network’s role in making critical race theory into a political issue.
And on Fox Business’ Varney & Co., Fox & Friends First co-host Todd Piro commented: “You heard in the end of that soundbite Barack Obama say, ‘I thought Republicans would be focusing on the economy.’ Well, they are focusing on the economy — I don't know what channels he is watching.”
Of course, Fox News itself has literally tried to declare that “critical race theory” would be a bigger political issue than the economy.
Fox’s “straight news” side is no different
On Tuesday’s edition of America Reports, co-anchor John Roberts set up a discussion with an entirely conservative political framing: “Former President Barack Obama blasting conservative media outlets for covering the backlash against critical race theory, claiming it stokes, quote, ‘fear and resentment,’ despite parents across the country voicing their increasing concerns over how the liberal theory could revise America's history. He then accused some in the media of capitalizing on the issue.”
Roberts failed to acknowledge either the fact that Fox News has been promoting the panic, or that the “liberal theory” is explored in certain areas of higher education rather than at the K-12 level.
Roberts asked rhetorically: “Obviously the United States is becoming a more diverse country, and certainly it has a troubled past that needs to be taught in school. But is critical race theory the best way to approach that? And is it not OK to have a debate about that?”
However, actual educators are saying that the bills being presented in Republican-controlled state legislatures would make it difficult to discuss historical racism, or could even force a moral equivalency between both sides in discussions of racism in modern events.
Indeed, Fox’s purported “straight news” side has been just as active as any of the network’s opinion hosts in seeking to turn critical race theory into a top-level issue for the midterm elections — openly admitting that other people were not even talking about the subject until the network kicked it up.