After African-American communities in Baltimore and Ferguson, MO came together to demonstrate against the deadly and racially disparate policies of law enforcement, Fox News branded the protests a “war on cops.” But when the story became a mostly white Texas biker gang plotting to kill police with grenades and car bombs, the network took a decidedly less sensationalist approach in its reporting.
Fox host Sean Hannity declared on May 12 that there is a “war on police in America” and tied recent statistics on law enforcement officers' deaths to protestors in Baltimore who took to the streets in response to the unexplained death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.
Earlier in May, Fox host Eric Bolling responded to the killing of NYPD officer Brian Moore by suggesting that liberals waging a “war on cops” were to blame. He said, “The 'anti-cop left' in America seems to be ... fueling some of this hatred and, you know, murderous streak that's going on against cops.”
On March 12, Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs directed viewers to vote in an online poll that asked, “Has the Obama administration's war on law enforcement contributed, in your opinion, to violence in Ferguson and other communities around the country?”
On the December 29, 2014 broadcast of Fox News' Special Report, contributor Charles Krauthammer responded to the pattern of unarmed black men being shot by police officers by saying, “If there's a pattern here, it's the war on police. I don't see a war on young black men.”
But on a major story that involved serious threats against law enforcement, the “people versus the police” warlike rhetoric has been conspicuously absent from Fox's news coverage.
On May 17 in Waco, TX, a shootout between rival biker gangs and law enforcement left nine people dead and more than 190 people in custody. In the immediate aftermath, some gang members issued death threats against uniformed officers. Days later, reports of more violent threats emerged -- members of the Bandidos biker gang who serve in the military were giving their fellow members grenades and C4 explosives, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. CNN reported on the existence of Bandidos “plots targeting high-ranking law enforcement officials and their families with car bombs”:
The Bandidos want to retaliate against police for shooting “their brothers” as they came out of the Twin Peaks restaurant, the bulletin says.
The gang has ordered a hit against Texas troopers and other officers, according to the bulletin. Among the threats are running over officers at traffic stops and the use of grenades and Molotov cocktails and firearms.
Fox News reported the threats, but despite the element of military-grade tactics in the story, has completely refrained from describing the plot as part of its much-hyped “war on cops.” Instead, the network has played it straight, with just-the-facts news reports read on camera with no accompanying pictures or video.
The contrast is noteworthy, and highlights the double-standard that the media in general has exercised when reporting on the biker club shootout versus how it reported on the protests in Baltimore -- something even CNN noticed.
CNN's Sally Kohn observed that, "[I]n much of the coverage of the Waco shootings, the race of the gang members isn't even mentioned. By comparison, the day after Freddie Gray died in the custody of police officers in Baltimore, not only did most coverage mention that Gray was black, but also included a quote from the deputy police commissioner noting Gray was arrested in 'a high-crime area known to have high narcotic incidents,' implicitly smearing Gray and the entire community":
Now there's word that the biker gangs have issued repeated threats against the police in the aftermath of the Waco “melee” as The New York Times headline called it. During the uprisings in Baltimore, I saw a flurry of tweets about black people disrespecting property and throwing rocks at police. Now that these biker gangs have issued actual death threats, why am I not now seeing tons of Twitter posts about white people disrespecting the lives of police?
So why is it that in cases such as Michael Brown and Freddie Gray -- and so many others -- race is made central to the story, even in instances where the black and brown people involved are victims of police violence?
Research shows that implicit bias against black and brown people is real, as is white privilege. And studies show that white people greatly overestimate the share of crimes committed by black people. Is it any wonder, given the racialized nature with which we cover crime? According to one study, television stations covered crimes committed by black people in greater proportion than their actual share of criminal acts in the city.
Vox pointed out that “with the Waco incident, we got just the news - not the racial pathology”:
[T]he key thing to understand is that the criticism here is not really of the coverage of what happened in Waco. It's of the juxtaposition of what happened here with what happens when the people involved are of a different color. The message is not that the conversation about Waco should be overblown, hypercritical of an entire culture, or full of racial subtext. It's despair over the sense that if the gang members were black, it almost certainly would be.
What's more, the discrepancy in Fox's coverage isn't new. When two right-wing shooters killed police officers in Las Vegas in 2014, Fox was slow to cover the story and refrained from using the kind of sensationalist rhetoric the network reserves for protests in the black community or stories about the Muslim community.