In the March 9 edition of the Los Angeles Times weekly newsletter Boiling Point, reporter Sammy Roth wrote about a recent peer-reviewed study which found that minority communities in Los Angeles face higher levels of vehicular pollution than their white counterparts. The study’s abstract sums up the findings as follows:
Commuters from majority-White tracts disproportionately drive through non-White tracts, compared to the inverse. Decades of racially-motivated freeway infrastructure planning and residential segregation shape today’s disparities in who produces vehicular air pollution and who is exposed to it.
These findings are entirely uncontroversial. For example, studies looking at vehicular pollution in other cities have found similar results. There is a vast body of research showing that lower-income and minority communities in the U.S. face disproportionately higher levels of pollution than whiter and more affluent communities. There is also a well-documented history of racism in urban planning, with highways purposefully built through minority communities.
The study received little fanfare when it was published in February. A March 7 LA Times write-up of the study also received “normal levels of engagement,” per the author of the study. It wasn’t until March 9, when Roth offered some of his personal feelings about the topics of the study — noting that he “benefited from the region’s sordid history” and that he contributed “to the inequitable air pollution that Boeing’s study describes” — that Fox launched its attack on both Roth and the paper.
The following day, Fox News devoted at least 5 segments to attacking Roth and the LA Times
In the early morning hours of March 10, Foxnews.com published an article titled “LA Times writer says ‘White’ drivers are ‘polluting the air’ breathed by LA’s ‘people of color.’” The article listed some of Roth’s claims, gave a brief overview of the study, and then linked to some tweets by right-wing media personalities lambasting the article (none of which actually addressed any data or evidence presented in the study).
The Fox News TV segments on March 10 followed similar framing — making Roth or the LA Times the main targets of their vitriol and acting outraged over the mere notion of environmental racism.
On Outnumbered, co-host Emily Compagno began the segment by claiming that “if you are white and a driver in Los Angeles, then the liberal media thinks that you are racist.” A chyron mentioned the L.A. Times and an image included Roth’s name. Fox News’ liberal political commentator Marie Harf mentioned the study and broadly defended some of the points it made, including the fact that city highways are often built in lower-income areas and that many members of these communities don’t have cars and rely on public transport, though she said she “wouldn’t use the r-word; I wouldn’t use the ‘racist’ word about white people driving on highways.” Harf’s points about the study were generally dismissed by other guests, who instead focused on attacking the idea of environmental racism. For example, Jason Chaffetz scoffed at the idea that “driving on a freeway is somehow a racist act.”
Later that evening on The Five, co-host Brian Kilmeade called the L.A. Times piece “ridiculous,” mocking the idea that “driving can be racist.” A chyron and image again mentioned the L.A. Times and Roth by name, and the study was mentioned only in passing. Co-host Dana Perino tried to reframe the issue, stating that if she was ”in a minority community,” she “would say why are you giving subsidies to rich white people for electric vehicles.” Co-host Jesse Watters then dismissed the idea of racism in this story after saying that “the Chinese are the ones polluting everybody. They are the most racist, statistically.”
On Tucker Carlson Tonight, Carlson went into a tirade over the L.A. Times piece and mocked Roth’s own background. Carlson did not mention that Roth was reporting on a study. Carlson took an absurd position on the piece, insinuating that Roth wrote “that just by breathing, white people are hurting others.” Carlson also claimed that white people are victims of “Rwanda-style race hatred” pushed by the media.
On The Ingraham Angle, Laura Ingraham did mention the study, but her opening monologue centered on attacking both Roth and the L.A. Times. She downplayed the very idea of environmental racism in general, saying, “Making people live near landfills? We're making people live next to polluting facilities? Well, that's obviously ridiculous.” She also dismissed the well-established fact that highways were purposefully built through low-income and minority communities, stating that “what this is really all about is control.” A chyron read “This is all about eliminating your freedoms.”
In the very next segment, guest Chris Bedford stated that the money going toward environmental justice initiatives is useless and that it’s a “completely insane thing” to call carbon a pollutant anyway. Meanwhile, guest Vincent Edward Ellison called Democrats “the evilest people that have ever walked the face of this earth,” adding that “they don't care that these people are suffering.”
On Fox News at Night (airing during the midnight hour of March 11), Trace Gallagher began a segment by stating, “Driving is racist. Says so right in the LA Times, which ran a headline reading, quoting, ‘How white and affluent drivers are polluting the air breathed by L.A.’s people of color.’” He also dismissed the idea of the disproportionate impacts of minority pollution, claiming, “The study says air quality is worse a few blocks from a freeway and common sense says, it's L.A. Almost everyone lives a few blocks from the freeway.”
For his part in writing about a study and simply expressing his own feelings on racist highway practices, Roth was barraged with right-wing and antisemitic hate mail.
Fox News has a history of attacking environmental justice issues
In the aftermath of 2022’s Hurricane Ian, Vice President Kamala Harris correctly pointed out that it’s typically lower-income communities and communities of color that suffer the most from extreme weather events. Fox News personalities lambasted her over this claim, acting outraged that race was brought up at all. Some also falsely accused the administration of planning to deny hurricane aid to white communities. More recently, Fox attacked environmental justice initiatives and pushed racial grievance narratives in the wake of the Ohio train derailment.
In addition to mocking environmental justice initiatives, right-wing media will also downright ignore them, as they did when covering the Jackson, Mississippi, water crisis in 2022.
In addition to these examples, Fox also worked up a storm over environmental justice initiatives in the 2021 version of Biden’s Build Back Better bill, crying foul over modest attempts to rectify decades of racist building practices. At the time, Media Matters wrote that “Fox’s coverage of these programs has not attempted to describe what they entail or what they would accomplish for hundreds of communities. Rather, they have been used as punchlines or set up for cheap shots that reflect Fox’s racist ethos and climate denial.”
This exactly sums up Fox’s coverage of the vehicular pollution study and the resulting L.A. Times report on it. The network downplayed the facts and data surrounding disproportionate minority pollution, and instead loudly complained that it’s all a hoax or that it's actually white people who are being unfairly treated. Boeing, the author of the study, made the same point: Responding on Twitter to the right-wing anger toward his work, he stated that there wasn’t much for him to comment on because “there was no critical engagement with our data or statistical analysis whatsoever, all of which was peer reviewed.”
Promoting climate denial, protecting the wealthy fossil fuel industry, and downplaying the U.S.’ long and sordid history of racism are key themes of Fox News’ right-wing programming. Inconvenient facts like those pointed out in the study — that decades of racist urban planning have contributed to minority populations breathing in more polluted and dangerous air coming from vehicles driven by more affluent people living in other communities — would run up against Fox’s pro-fossil fuel and racial grievance agenda. It thus works for the network to aggressively deny environmental justice issues and reframe the discussion by attacking and manufacturing a backlash in an attempt to intimidate those who even dare to report on them. In this case, the intimidation did not succeed: Roth’s story ended up appearing in the March 13 print edition of the L.A. Times.