Fox News has spent months featuring incendiary and nonsensical coverage of “critical race theory” that stoked anger against school board members and educators. Now that the Justice Department is responding to reports of an increase in violent threats against those targets, the network’s propagandists are denouncing the DOJ effort and leveraging it to further rile up its viewers by falsely claiming that President Joe Biden’s administration is going after people for simply criticizing education policies.
This is a case study in how the right functions as a perpetual outrage machine. Right-wing operatives and media personalities manufactured a crisis; convinced the Republican base it was in a fight for the future of civilization; provoked them to the point that some started targeting the purported aggressors with violent intimidation; and now are treating attempts to limit the resulting damage as simply more reason for that base to feel aggrieved.
A coordinated and dishonest right-wing campaign has been attempting to turn local debates about school curricula into a polarized national issue Republicans can wield in state and national elections. Its partisans identify, exaggerate, or fabricate discrete local instances of alleged left-wing excesses in discussions of race in schools, deceptively brand them all as “critical race theory,” and encourage local parents to view those debates as part of a national fight.
Fox has played a key role in carrying out this strategy, devoting obsessive coverage to local school disputes. “Critical race theory” was mentioned on the network more than 1,900 times over three and a half months earlier this year. The network has been particularly focused on Loudoun County, Virginia, a bedroom community for camera-ready Republican political operatives. Fox ran nearly 80 segments on “critical race theory” in that school district from March through June.
On Fox, the stakes in the “critical race theory” fight could not be higher. That obscure legal framework has been described on the network as a ”racist theology,” a “neo-marxist religion,” and a “civilization-ending poison” that “threatens to overturn the advances of human civilization over the last 500 years” and could lead to the genocide of white Americans.
The right-wing campaign against “critical race theory” has had serious consequences, according to the National School Boards Association (NSBA), a federation that represents local elected school board officials.
“Many public school officials are also facing physical threats because of propaganda purporting the false inclusion of critical race theory within classroom instruction and curricula,” the association’s leaders wrote in a September 29 letter to Biden. The letter also highlighted “attacks against school board members and educators for approving” mask requirements in schools; such policies have been regularly denounced on Fox. The NSBA described these “acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials” as “a form of domestic terrorism,” warned that they had resulted in some officials resigning or deciding not to seek reelection, and requested a response from the Justice Department.
On Monday, the DOJ announced a modest series of measures, including interagency strategy sessions, the creation of a task force for federal prosecutions, and training sessions for school board members and other potential victims on identifying and reporting illegal threats. The announcement specifically noted that these steps are “designed to address the rise in criminal conduct directed toward school personnel” (emphasis added).
Fox quickly responded in its typically dishonest and overheated fashion, portraying the DOJ’s effort as targeting not specifically “criminal” acts, but any criticism of school board members.
On her Monday prime-time program, Fox host Laura Ingraham lied about the DOJ action to further stoke her audience’s grievances, claiming that the Biden administration was threatening to imprison anyone who criticized school board actions. “The left is demonizing parents who stand up … to the rogue school boards that are destroying the country in the curriculum of our schools,” she said. “And now the Biden Justice Department, maybe they will criminalize the actions of those parents. Really?”
While Ingraham later acknowledged that the DOJ was targeting what she described as “the supposed rise in threats against school board officials,” she went on to start an interview with a Loudoun County parent by saying, “You have gone to school board meetings advocating for your children. You have a right to do so. Now they want to label you a potential domestic terrorist. Unbelievable.”
Fox’s “straight news” coverage of the story was no better. On Tuesday’s America’s Newsroom, co-anchor Dana Perino hosted Ian Prior, a Republican operative who launched a political action committee that supports candidates who oppose “critical race theory” in schools -- or as Perino described him, someone “helping parents get the word out and go to these school board meetings.”
Perino allowed Prior to falsely claim that the Justice Department was targeting not just criminal conduct, but any critical behavior by parents. He claimed that Garland had acted “against our core values as a country,” suggesting the attorney general intends to go after anyone who attends a school board meeting and tells members they plan to hold the board accountable.
“It's really scary how they are putting this out here,” Prior claimed. “I think it has a chilling effect. I think you’re going to see parents that are now going to be concerned if they go to a school board meeting and they say something like, you know, ‘we are going to end your political careers.’ Is that a threat? Of course it's a threat. But it's parents going there and saying we’re going to take part in the election process or we’re going to use legal means where we need to to hold you accountable. So for the attorney general of the United States of America to put out something like this that has such a chilling effect on First Amendment rights of parents who are literally just fighting for their kids' education is absolutely insane.”
Perino then pivoted, asking Prior to talk about how he plans to use education as an issue in November’s Virginia gubernatorial election. After all, winning elections for Republicans is what this whole charade is really all about.