Just two weeks ago, right-wing media outlets worked themselves into a frothy rage over a 2018 interview between journalist Mehdi Hasan and then-Democratic congressional candidate Ilhan Omar on Al Jazeera’s UpFront.
Hasan asked Omar about conservatives who justify Islamophobia by saying their concerns are based in fear, not hatred. Omar responded: “I would say our country should be more fearful of white man across our country because they are actually causing most of the deaths within this country. And so if fear was the driving force of policies to keep America safe -- Americans safe inside of this country -- we should be profiling, monitoring, and creating policies to fight the radicalization of white men.”
Though the angry reaction from conservatives was based on a misleading, edited version of the clip, the underlying point they took issue with -- that white men pose an equal or greater terrorist threat as Muslims do -- was true. And emerging from a weekend in which in which a young white man, reportedly motivated by white supremacist beliefs, killed 22 people in a Walmart in El Paso, TX, Omar’s point looks as reasonable as ever.
For decades, conservative media have avoided grappling with the idea that right-wing extremists and white men pose a significant threat to American citizens.
A report released by the Anti-Defamation League concluded that between 2009 and 2018, “right-wing extremists” were “responsible for the vast majority of extremist-related murder over the last decade.” (According to the ADL, right-wing extremists were responsible for 73.3% of relevant murders, compared to 3.2% for left-wing extremists and 23.4% for Islamist extremists.)
But right-wing media outlets can’t seem to come to terms with the fact that right-wing attacks are not the exception anymore -- if they ever were at all. The El Paso shooter’s reported manifesto refers to the need to fight back against the “Hispanic invasion of Texas” -- language that’s nearly identical to that of some conservative politicians and Fox News commentators -- and yet Fox has already dedicated multiple segments to placing blame on video games, something mentioned in the document only once in passing. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee even stopped by the network to suggest that these attacks happen because we’re not religious enough as a country.
The man who killed 51 at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March also posted an online manifesto, in which he referred to President Donald Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity.” But when Trump was asked on March 15 whether he thought white supremacist-fueled violence was a growing global threat, he shrugged the question off. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess,” Trump said. “If you look at what happened in New Zealand, perhaps that’s the case. I don’t know enough about it yet. But it’s certainly a terrible thing.”
It was an embarrassing statement that made Trump seem either uninformed or apathetic. Fortunately for the president, he has right-wing media there to run interference for him.
Rush Limbaugh theorized that the Christchurch attack might have actually just been a false flag carried out by the left to make conservatives look bad. On Fox, Tucker Carlson blamed the Christchurch attack on “fatherlessness, addiction, mental illness, evaporating social trust, and the widespread nihilism.” Then-NRATV host Grant Stinchfield took offense at the very suggestion that the shooter’s motivation -- the anti-Muslim, openly white supremacist “great replacement” conspiracy theory -- was being called “right-wing.” Each of these comments served its purpose of clouding people’s perceptions of the attack to the point that everyone simply moved on, largely ignoring the president’s statement that he didn’t consider this ideology a threat.
The fact that we are still debating whether white nationalism is a threat worth taking seriously in 2019 demonstrates the efficacy of right-wing media.
In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security released a report titled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.” The report’s general idea was that DHS analysts had started to notice a rise in right-wing militias and other extremist groups, so they devoted time to studying and trying to understand the driving forces and what (if anything) needed to be done. One worrying trend DHS cited, pointing to a 2008 FBI study, was that white supremacist groups had already recruited more than 200 military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
It should be noted that months earlier, DHS had released a report titled “Leftwing Extremists Likely to Increase Use of Cyber Attacks over the Coming Decade.” Both documents were fairly standard and uncontroversial. The report on threats from the left was released with little fanfare, but chaos ensued upon publication of the right-wing report.
Right-wing commentators eagerly wrapped themselves in a blanket of victimhood while they furiously typed away at blog posts decrying the document’s release. Michelle Malkin called the “piece of crap report” “one of the most embarrassingly shoddy pieces of propaganda I’d ever read out of DHS.” MSNBC host Joe Scarborough used his Morning Joe platform to claim that the Obama administration was “going after conservatives first” by “targeting soldiers for surveillance,” laughing at the idea that right-wing extremism could be on the rise. On Fox, Sean Hannity said, “Now if you disagree with that liberal path that President Obama's taken the country down, you may soon catch the attention of the Department of Homeland Security.”
DHS eventually rescinded the report amid the right-wing backlash. In 2017, Daryl Johnson, former senior analyst for domestic terrorism at DHS and author of the 2009 report, published an op-ed in The Washington Post saying that while “the body count from numerous acts of violent right-wing terrorism” has risen, the “government has not only failed to implement an effective strategy to combat right-wing terrorism; it is afraid to even raise the subject in public for fear of political backlash or contradicting its narrow-minded terrorism narrative (e.g., terrorism only comes from Muslims).”
In November 2018, The New York Times ran a lengthy feature showing how political pressure and poor messaging led the government to dial back what little resources it had dedicated to fighting right-wing domestic terrorism. Once Trump took office, those resources went from few to nonexistent.
This was a government failure, but it came with the help of a right-wing press eager to obfuscate the truth in favor of partisan messaging. As the ordeal stemming from the 2009 report on right-wing extremists demonstrates, highlighting the threat posed by an in-group -- in this case, people who adhere to far-right ideologies -- comes with the risk of causing offense. In his Washington Post op-ed, Johnson explained why this is the case:
The Islamist militants who brought down the World Trade Center’s twin towers 16 years ago (or the ones who rammed their vehicles into pedestrians in London, Paris and Barcelona recently) had no domestic constituency. Their acts weren’t enshrined instantly on social media or obliquely heralded by the president, duly elected representatives or rationalized by media ideologues dead set on preventing a political backlash. The terrorists I have dedicated my life to stopping have had all that going in their favor. This is more than a formula for disaster. It virtually invites the disaster upon us.
For instance, there’s little potential for political fallout from a U.S. reporter discussing the actions of a terrorist on the other side of the world, but what about an Oregon-based anti-government militia found guilty of taking over a government facility and later pardoned by the president? If these considerations are having an impact on law enforcement, it's not much of a leap to think they could be influencing reporting decisions as media figures fear the now-inevitable backlash from reporting on right-wing extremists.
These considerations likely play into overall coverage considerations. A study published in the journal Justice Quarterly found that terrorist attacks with Muslim perpetrators get on average 357% more media coverage than those carried out by others. The effect is a misguided belief that Muslims commit more acts of terrorism than they actually do, and that right-wing groups carry out fewer attacks than is the case, reinforcing the harmful association between Muslims and terrorists in the eyes of the public. This failure of the press makes us all less safe and provides cover for a government apparently uninterested in addressing the issue of right-wing terrorism.
Beyond just providing cover for right-wing extremists, conservative media figures may play a role in the radicalization process.
After allegedly shooting up a Colorado Planned Parenthood location in November 2015, killing three and wounding nine, Robert Lewis Dear Jr. reportedly said the words “no more baby parts.” Dear was referring to a right-wing talking point based on deceptive videos designed to smear Planned Parenthood. When faced with the suggestion that perhaps this rhetoric contributed to Dear’s actions, commentator Erick Erickson and others on the right took offense.
This scenario plays out over and over, with some of the most persuasive political commentators in the world suddenly claiming that their words couldn’t possibly have played a role in inspiring terror. After a man shot up a Quebec mosque, citing a fear of Muslims, Ben Shapiro bristled at the idea that this shooter (who was apparently a fan of his) was at all inspired by his work. Shapiro had famously produced a video falsely claiming that more than half of the world’s Muslims are “radicalized” and that ignoring the issue will “get a lot of civilized people killed.”
Earlier this month, Yahoo News reported that the FBI published a document warning of the threat posed by fringe conspiracy groups. Specifically, the document highlighted the far-right pro-Trump QAnon and Pizzagate conspiracy theories, pointing to a concern that these movements may be “occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts,” especially as the 2020 election draws closer. The QAnon conspiracy theory has already been linked to two killings.
On Twitter, Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton wrote in response to the story, “FBI targets conservatives. Again.” His statement and immediate embrace of victimhood echoed the claims that sunk the 2009 DHS report. Luckily, other notable figures on the right haven’t joined him -- at least not yet.
Anyone hoping that El Paso would at the very least mark some sort of turning point on inciting rhetoric will be disappointed. Since the attack, multiple Fox anchors have signaled that they have no plans to stop calling the arrival of migrants an “invasion.” Tucker Carlson went so far as to dismiss the very premise of the problem itself, calling the idea that white supremacy is dangerous “a hoax” and “a conspiracy theory used to divide the country and keep a hold on power.”
It’s time to stop denying the existence of right-wing extremism and to set aside needlessly inflammatory rhetoric. How many more people will die before right-wing media outlets realize the role they played in protecting the attackers?