Fox News attacks NYC harm reduction effort with racist and anti-migrant tropes

The network freaked out about New York City’s latest effort to reduce overdose deaths

Fox News used racist and anti-migrant rhetoric to attack a new effort by New York City health authorities to reduce opioid overdose deaths in the city, despite having spent years warning of the risks of fentanyl by deceptively attempting to link the issue with immigration. The contrast shows that Fox News’ fentanyl coverage is primarily a tool to demonize migrants, and that the network still relies on racist stereotypes in covering illicit drug use more broadly.

On June 5, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene debuted four new vending machines that provide free harm reduction tools, including the anti-overdose drug naloxone — also known as Narcan — and fentanyl-testing strips, as well as feminine hygiene products and condoms. The machines also dispense safer smoking kits, which include a bubble pipe, mouthpiece, and lip balm, all of which help lower the risks of contracting or spreading HIV and Hepatitis C for people who smoke crack, opioids, methamphetamines, or other drugs. In general, opioids have a lower risk of overdose when smoked as compared to when injected. Studies show that expanding access to naloxone is associated with lowering rates of fatal overdoses and does not have the unintended consequence of increasing opioid use by making heroin or other drugs seem less dangerous.

Despite this mountain of evidence, Fox News reacted to the vending machines by pushing false and predictable tropes about drug use — namely that offering safer ways to use drugs encourages misuse and abuse. Not coincidentally, Fox News took a similar approach last year in attacking President Joe Biden’s harm reduction program. Many of the recent segments were based on reporting from the reactionary New York Post, which published two early stories on the new machines and, like Fox News, is controlled by the Murdoch family.

On June 6, Fox & Friends discussed the Post’s reporting, treating the services as self-evidently preposterous and counterproductive. 

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Citation From the June 6, 2023, edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends

“This is crazy,” co-host Steve Doocy said, by way of introduction, before listing some of the available items. “It's absolutely free. All the user has to do is put in their ZIP code, if they can remember what their ZIP code is.” 

The city placed the four machines in “the most drug-infested neighborhoods,” co-host Ainsley Earhardt responded. 

“You know, here at Fox News we have vending machines,” she added, “And in our vending machines we have candy bars and we have potato chips and we have Coca-Colas. We don't have Narcan. We don’t have free needles. This is unbelievable.” (The machines do not currently dispense syringes but may at some point in the future.)

Co-host Brian Kilmeade jumped in, offering his trademark blend of condescension and ignorance. “Do you give drug addicts the drugs they need to take the drugs safely or so you give them the help they need?” Kilmeade asked. “I don't think it ever works out to the positive to support somebody's addiction in the big picture.”

The segments that followed alternated between paternalistic dismissal of, and racist umbrage at, the efforts at harm reduction, all united by a fact-free gut instinct that the machines were a harbinger of growing disorder.

On America’s Newsroom, border reporter Bill Melugin introduced the topic by asking, “Why are the taxpayers being forced to, essentially, enable addicts?”

Melugin ended the segment by drawing a distinction between deserving and undeserving drug users, mapped along unmentioned but unmistakable racial lines. “I think most people would agree, giving out Narcan, great, right, you want to save lives,” he said. “But I think a lot of people draw the line at taxpayer-funded, free crack pipes.”

This seemingly innocuous sentence, which some may read as an almost progressive impulse, distills 50 years of racist drug policy to its essence, and is worth unpacking in some detail.

In the United States, decades of racist media narratives and government policies have associated crack cocaine with Black people, so-called inner city disorder, and a police-first approach that interprets drug use as evidence of moral failing at the individual or racial-group level. By contrast, over the last several years, popular media reports have turned opioids into a category of drug associated with middle-class white people. Popular narratives about opioid misuse frequently place the blame not at the individual level, but on structural forces like deindustrialization and rapacious, profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies.

Under this dynamic, someone who uses crack — implicitly coded as Black — is thereby rendered undeserving, while someone at risk of opioid overdose — implicitly coded as white — is treated as a victim in need of assistance.

On Outnumbered, co-host Emily Compagno illustrated this paradigm as well. “I understand having Narcan freely flow from every water faucet, fine,” she said. “But the pipe, and everything else? The accoutrements? ‘Let’s make your stay a little more comfortable.’ Why are we not seeking help for these people, rather than augmentation?”

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Citation From the June 6, 2023, edition of Fox News' Outnumbered

Minutes earlier, Compagno also inadvertently highlighted another Fox News editorial choice, namely that the network frames rising fentanyl rates as a result of unauthorized migration at the U.S. southern border.  

“Why, oh why, are we not treating the source of the drugs, through law and order, or stymying the flow across the border,” she said, rhetorically equating the “flow” of human beings and drugs, thereby blaming migrants for the increased supply of fentanyl in the United States. 

As Compagno alluded to, Fox News regularly covers the dangers of fentanyl use, as long as it can be weaponized against migrants or China, where much of the substance originates from. Last fall, in the run-up to the midterm elections, Fox News repeatedly told its viewers that migrants were at fault for the United States’ fentanyl supply, when in fact most people who transport drugs across the southern border are U.S.-born. Over the same period, the network also repeatedly fearmongered about kids getting “rainbow fentanyl,” including blaming production on Mexican cartels. There was no evidence at the time to support those claims, and none has emerged since.

In addition to the vending machines, New York City is also home to the country’s first two overdose prevention centers, making it a relatively progressive municipality by U.S. standards in its approach to drugs. Still, the New York Police Department and other reactionary forces in the city are still committed to drug war logic. A recent report found that 82% of people arrested for minor drug possession were Black or Hispanic.