Right-wing media’s selective empathy can create disastrous long-term effects on the political climate.
Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY
Even though their party has control over the presidency, both chambers of Congress, and a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court for the foreseeable future, conservative media paint a perpetually dire picture of their movement. Viewers and listeners are bombarded with messages signifying conservatives’ role as scrappy underdogs whose successes come in spite of a system rigged against them.
Looking to a recent example, conservative commentators Diamond & Silk (Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson) have spent the better part of 2018 claiming that Facebook has discriminated against them for their political leanings. What actually happened was that Facebook had briefly marked the duo’s page as violating the company’s then-new monetization policy. Though their page was quickly restored, the narrative had already taken hold: Facebook hated conservatives. In the coming months, the two testified before a House committee about their experience of being persecuted for their political beliefs by a tech company out of control and were given plenty of airtime by Fox News.
Did it matter that there wasn’t an ounce of truth to their claim? Apparently not. It worked, marking the second time since 2016 that Facebook caved under easily debunked claims of anti-conservative bias.This time around, Facebook created a task force headed by then-former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl (he would later return to the Senate to serve out the remainder of John McCain’s term) to study the issue, inviting zero left-of-center groups or individuals.
Yes, publishers saw a pretty massive drop in referral traffic coming from Facebook as a result of changes to its algorithm -- overall, traffic is down nearly 50 percent in the past two years -- but that’s been an across-the-board change, not a targeted decline on the basis of political ideology. In fact, data show that conservative sites are still performing quite well. In September, Fox News ranked as the largest U.S.-based publisher on Facebook (based on likes, shares, comments, and reactions to stories). CNN, The New York Times, and HuffPost took the next three spots, followed by The Daily Wire, The Washington Post, and Breitbart News.
If the story isn't true, then why push it so hard? Because without that underdog status, the anger that fuels conservative media wouldn't exist.
There’s a reason why stories of anti-conservative bias, whether real or not, get played up a whole lot across conservative media. By reinforcing the audience’s idea that they are part of an oppressed minority on the precipice of being wiped out of existence, media can sidestep questions about how effective their party’s actual policies are at improving their lives. A great example of this has been the nonstop hype around a caravan of migrants making its way through Central America and Mexico. There’s no policy, just fear -- which is exactly what the Fox News midterm strategy happens to be.
On Monday, the Twitter account for Fox News’ Fox & Friends First shared the story of a Twitter user going by the name @RealFrankFromFL:
First politicians, now Americans! A man is now claiming that he was denied service at a restaurant just for wearing a Trump t-shirt. Do you think Americans are tired of the Left’s mob mentality & tactics like this?
Frank’s story, in which he claims he and his family were denied service at a Ruby Tuesday restaurant in Roanoke Rapids, NC, because he was wearing a Trump T-shirt, had been picked up by conservative blogs The Gateway Pundit, Conservative Tribune, and BizPac Review. There’s no way to know how much of the story is accurate, but it served the purpose of reinforcing the idea that Trump supporters are a persecuted minority.
You can see this play out on repeat with the way Fox News covers stories about conservatives, members of the Trump administration, Trump supporters, police officers, or members of the military being denied service somewhere.
In October 2017, Fox gave a sympathetic interview to the co-owners of Cup It Up American Grill in Tucson, AZ, after the restaurant closed following backlash to a Facebook post in which they praised Trump and slammed “political correctness.” After three Republican interns were allegedly booted from an Uber for wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, the trio was invited to tell their story on The Ingraham Angle. In December, after a group of MAGA hat-wearing Fordham University students were told to leave their campus coffee shop for intimidating other students, Fox gave their story a little boost, as well. These stories are absolutely fair to report on; it’s in the contrast to how media outlets tend to cover events that paint progressives in a sympathetic light that it becomes clear that the same standards of what is considered newsworthy are not being applied.
And good luck finding conservative sites that provide similarly in-depth, sympathetic coverage to stories about the viral video showing two black women being racially profiled at an Applebee’s (Fox did not cover the story on air); or the gay couple denied service at a Washington flower shop (Fox has actually covered this extensively dating back to 2015, but its framing has been, as it so often is in anti-LGBTQ discrimination cases, that it’s the shop owner who was the wronged party); or the man denied service at a restaurant for wearing an anti-Trump T-shirt. And in the instances in which discrimination against marginalized groups is covered in detail, conservative media outlets tend to side with the people doing the discrimination -- such as in the case of Aaron and Melissa Klein and their fight for the right to discriminate against gay couples at their bakery.
Hyping the idea that the world is rife with discrimination against core conservative constituencies, while simultaneously ignoring the challenges other groups face (often at the hands of members of those core conservative constituencies), helps them build on their “No Country for Old, White, Christian Men” brand -- all the while complaining that people on the left are the ones actually indulging in victimhood culture. I jokingly refer to this tactic as doping at the Oppression Olympics.
When viewers do hear about stories of actual oppression, there's little incentive to care.
In fact, they might even cheer it on. Maybe this is just giving the left “a taste of its own medicine,” or the people being targeted have been so ignored or vilified that they’re not even registering as human beings worthy of rights anymore. I fear that we will soon see just how numb the country and the world, collectively, have become to the plight of others.
On October 21, The New York Times reported on a leaked Trump administration memo proposing a radical redefinition of the terms “sex” and “gender” as they apply to federal nondiscrimination law. The goal, it would seem, would be to eliminate these protections for transgender individuals. According to the Times, the memo would define “sex” as “a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth.” One’s legal sex would be based on someone’s original birth certificate “unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence.”
This is big news with even bigger implications for trans people like myself. For the past several decades, the definition of what’s covered under the federal ban on sex discrimination in employment, housing, education, and public accommodations -- and whether that would include protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity -- has been a hotly debated topic, finding its way to federal court dozens of times with varying outcomes. In recent years, especially, things seemed to be swinging in favor of LGBTQ people being protected under existing law. Should the administration implement this memo as a new rule under the Department of Health and Human Services (the agency where it has been circulating), it would almost certainly invite a quick legal challenge that would likely end up in front of an increasingly Trump-friendly Supreme Court. At stake is trans people’s ability to access health care without being turned away on the basis of their gender identity. If the definition were to spread to other agencies, as it likely would, it could result in trans people no longer being able to access identity documents that match our gender, effectively legalize discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations, and obliterate any expectation of privacy in public.
Conservative media has a time-tested, two-pronged approach to tackling marginalized groups: Ignore and then attack.
After Trump confirmed that the administration was “looking at [defining gender] very seriously,” on October 22, Fox News began covering it on shows like Shepard Smith Reporting, Special Report with Bret Baier, and Fox News @ Night With Shannon Bream. The next day, Camille Paglia appeared on The Story with Martha McCallum for a segment on the move. Paglia has been a critic of what she calls the “transgender wave” and the quest for legal protections. In a 2017 interview with The Weekly Standard, she said, “No one deserves special rights, protections, or privileges on the basis of their eccentricity,” referring to gender identity. Tucker Carlson invited Tammy Bruce to come on his October 23 show. In 2015, Bruce compared being transgender to self-identifying as a dog. Neither Hannity nor The Ingraham Angle mentioned the report, though the hosts of both shows have offered some less-than-enlightened commentary on the topic in the past. While slightly antagonistic, Fox’s coverage of the memo was pretty tame, despite playing host to anti-trans critics.
It was in the realm of conservative websites that the memo received the type of hero’s welcome one may have expected.
“Science Wins — Trump Administration Proposes Transgender Policy Based on Biology,” blared a headline from The Daily Caller. Another article by the outlet, about trans actress Alexandra Billings, seemed to go out of its way to call the Transparent star by masculine pronouns as many times as possible.
In National Review, David French wrongly suggested that the memo would simply be a rollback of an Obama administration overreach (it would actually be much more than that) and praised the policy as “standing athwart a lawless redefinition of biological reality and quite appropriately yelling stop,” while Ben Shapiro said the administration “restored some sense of sanity” to Title IX interpretations.
Meanwhile, Breitbart News reveled in the fear and sadness trans people and our allies expressed in the wake of the news with assertions like “The policy would protect Americans’ civil rights from the transgender ideology” and headlines like “Hollywood Unhinged Over Report Trump Admin May Eliminate Gender Ideology.”
The former story included the bizarre claim that “[transgender] ideology has been loudly supported — and heavily funded — by a small number of men who demand the government force Americans to say they are women, amid criticism that those ‘transgender’ men are heterosexual men who desire to mimic women.” Another author at the site wrote that this “is not the first time that the Trump administration has angered the increasingly powerful transgender lobby.” The first portion of the statement makes sense, as Trump has taken a number of anti-trans steps during his time in office, but if there’s a “powerful transgender lobby,” that’s news to me.
We live in worlds split from reality, with context washed away in the name of a politically agreeable narrative.
It’s hard to build empathy when you’re shielded from the people you’re supposed to be empathizing with. That may actually be part of the strategy. An October 2017 NPR poll found that 55 percent of white American believe that there is anti-white discrimination in the country. Just two months earlier, a Public Religion Research Institute poll reported that while 48 percent of Republicans believe that Christians face “a lot” of discrimination, and 43 percent said that about white people, just 27 percent believe black Americans do. For comparison, for Democrat, those percents were 21, 19, and 82, respectively.
The political divide has become a reality chasm. Consumers of conservative media are shown stories of people being told that there is a 20-minute wait for a table at a local Ruby Tuesday as a grave injustice that proves the world is out to get them. They’re told that anyone wishing them “Happy Holidays” is attacking their religion. They are made to feel that jabs by late-night comedians or awards show hosts are an “all-out attack” on their belief system.
But what of the black child shot and killed for playing with a toy gun? Well, maybe that was his parents’ fault, they might think. Or trans people denied medically necessary treatment on the basis of their gender? Well, that’s for their own good, readers could reasonably conclude. Or stories of Muslims racially profiled, placed on a watch list, or just treated with general suspicion wherever they go? They might have seen a video saying that the majority of Muslims are extremists, so hey, can’t be too careful now.
Political media have, without a doubt, played a huge role in leading ideological factions to their respective places in the world. There’s certainly a sense that along the way, we lost our grip on a shared, objective truth. If there’s hope of undoing the damage, it’s time media make the spread of fair, contextualized news a major part of their mission.