Fox News' 50-state Southern strategy

The network hypes one "scary black people" and "Obama's a racist" story after another. What's its problem?

Published July 25, 2010 11:26PM (EDT)

CNN's "Reliable Sources" from Sunday is worth watching. American University's Jane Hall has the best quote, in my opinion: The former Fox contributor said Shirley Sherrod was the victim of "virtual world McCarthyism." I wasn't that disciplined or clever in my comments. I was angry at the attempt to make this story about the Obama administration (I've already stated my objections to how Obama handled the mess), to whitewash the role of Fox in the scandal, and to try to turn the tables on Shirley Sherrod and insist she's wrong to call either Fox or Breitbart "racist."

Our conversation quickly devolved into a weird discussion of Fox's timing: Did the right-wing propaganda arm run with the Sherrod story before or after her resignation/firing from her post at the USDA? I'm not entirely sure why that matters: What matters is she was slandered by two alleged news organizations, who didn't bother to try to get to the truth about her inspiring message of racial reconciliation to the NAACP. But I also want to state for the record: Fox ran with the story before Sherrod was fired. It was on during the day on Monday, July 19; it's gone now, so I can't check the exact time it was posted.

But I don't need to: actually bragged about having already hyped the story in a follow-up, after Sherrod was forced to quit. "The Agriculture Department announced Monday, shortly after published its initial report on the video, that Sherrod had resigned." Likewise, Bill O'Reilly taped his performance, calling for Sherrod to resign, before she did so; the fact that the resignation had been reported by the time O'Reilly aired (he can't be bothered to work live at 8, like his competitors do? Poor guy) is meaningless.

But even after Sherrod was gone from USDA, Fox continued to hype Breitbart's false story. (As you can imagine, anti-racist activists Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich had a ball with it that night!) Then CNN and the Atlanta Journal Constitution discovered and disseminated the truth early Tuesday; Fox anchors were blathering about Sherrod's "racism." By Wednesday, Fox had ignored its own role peddling lies, and turned the Sherrod story into a problem for President Obama. How unusual for Roger Ailes' non-news organization.

Matt Lewis of Politics Daily got the job of defending Breitbart on CNN today; you can judge for yourself how well he did in the clip below. Lewis had already run a glowing interview with Breitbart this week; it ended with a breathless "Anything else you want folks to know about Andrew Breitbart?" as though he was talking to some young boy-band star who's new to national attention. And in a segment devoted to checking facts before you report them, Lewis tried to diminish my arguments by claiming I was doing the show from "Netroots Nation" in Las Vegas. Um, I've never been to that great lefty blogosphere convening; maybe next year. I was home. The attempted slur was silly.

The most important point is this: Fox News has, sadly, become the purveyor of a 50-state "Southern strategy," the plan perfected by Richard Nixon to use race to scare Southern Democrats into becoming Republicans by insisting the other party wasn't merely trying to fight racism, but give blacks advantages over whites (Fox News boss Roger Ailes, of course, famously worked for Nixon). Now Fox is using the election of our first black president to scare (mainly older) white people in all 50 states that, again, the Democratic Party is run by corrupt black people trying to give blacks advantages over whites (MSNBC's Rachel Maddow laid out this history last week).

Consider four of the biggest stories the network has peddled since Obama entered the White House:

  • Glenn Beck and others went after "green jobs czar" Van Jones, an African-American, false claiming Jones signed a 9/11 "Truther" petition, correctly noting he'd said some not-nice things about Republicans. Jones resigned.
  • Then the big story was ACORN, the community-organizing group run by a black woman, Bertha Lewis, and known for working in low-income black communities. First, remember, ACORN allegedly committed voter fraud in the 2008 election (in fact, the voter registration problems at ACORN were self-reported, and the fraud was on ACORN, because they paid some scam-artist workers to register voters that ultimately didn't exist – and thus wouldn't vote). Then Fox hyped the big Breitbart video lie: that James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles went into various ACORN offices dressed outlandishly as pimp and prostitute, and got advice on how to beat taxes and set up a child prostitution ring. In fact, once law enforcement officials began examining those charges, they found they were false. Fox owner Rupert Murdoch's New York Post even had to headline its story: "ACORN set up by vidiots: DA."
  • More recently, Fox has been pushing the story of how the Obama administration protected the New Black Panther Party from charges of voter intimidation, stemming from complaints by three Republican poll workers that the "Panthers" were intimidating mainly black voters in Philadelphia in 2008. No intimidated voters were ever found, and conservative Abigail Thernstrom blasted other GOP members of the U.S Civil Rights Commission for trying to use the non-story to "topple" Obama.
  • Then came Shirley Sherrod. I have no doubt that, if CNN hadn't found Roger and Eloise Spooner, the white farmers helped by Sherrod, Fox would have peddled Breitbart's lies all week, to further its paranoid and politically driven narrative that Obama is a "racist" who's out to oppress white folks as "reparations" for the centuries of discrimination blacks have endured.  It's crazy, sure, but Ailes worked for Richard Nixon, who pioneered the "Southern strategy."

Remember that Pat Buchanan has compared the Tea Partiers to "George Wallace voters," and bragged that he won them over to Nixon. Buchanan and Ailes are trying to do it again, and having a black Democrat in the White House makes them think it will be even easier this time.

Honestly, it won't be easier. There are too many people of every race who are genuinely not racist, or open to naked racial appeals. I truly believe the vast majority of American voters will judge Obama on his accomplishments or lack thereof in 2012, not the color of his skin. But older white voters scared by social change are a small but reliable base for Ailes and Buchanan to rely on.

Finally, host Howard Kurtz and poor Matt Lewis ended the segment talking about how Sherrod has now gone too far, calling Fox and Breitbart "racist." I defended Sherrod, and Lewis (and now Brent Bozell's minions at Newsbusters!) claimed I was arguing Sherrod should get a pass to say whatever she likes about race, because her father was murdered by a white man, who was exonerated by white Georgia justice.

Watch the video for yourself, and see what I said. First of all, the idea that any journalist is wasting his or her time policing Shirley Sherrod's rhetoric on race, after what she's been through, is absurd. But what I said was, I think her charges of racism by Fox and Breitbart are justified. Both are peddling a false story of all the nonexistent ways white people are hurt and/or oppressed by blacks; in particular, our black president. In my book, that's racist; others may disagree. I didn't give Sherrod carte blanche to peddle hatred of white people (not that she would if I gave it to her).

It's not my job, either way. Fox and Breitbart are far more powerful, and dangerous, than Shirley Sherrod. They should be ashamed of themselves, but they're shameless.


By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Andrew Breitbart Fox News Shirley Sherrod