Fox News' war on Muslims

Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity have stoked Islamophobia -- and encouraged right-wing ignorance

Published September 11, 2012 4:41PM (EDT)

Bill O'Reilly
Bill O'Reilly

Excerpted from "The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims"

As is the case with any industry, advertising is paramount to the success of a product. One need look no further than the Super Bowl to understand the advertising industry’s sheer obsession with reaching a massive number of people; each year, the highest bidders are offered short slots to disseminate catchy clips of their goods, be they Coca-Cola, Nike shoes, or other high-rolling, multi-million-dollar enterprises.

The Islamophobia industry also goes to great lengths to sell its message to the public. The difference, though, is that in many cases the very networks that spread their product are themselves participants in the ruse to whip up public fear of Muslims. This is not a relationship of buyer and seller, where various characters that peddle panic purchase slots on major television networks to plug their merchandise. Rather, it is a relationship of mutual benefit, where ideologies and political proclivities converge to advance the same agenda.

Fox News, the American television station that brands itself as “fair and balanced,” is the epitome of this relationship. It has been, for the better part of the last decade, at the heart of the public scare-mongering about Islam, and has become the home for a slew of right-wing activists who regularly inhabit its airwaves to distort the truth to push stereotypes about Muslims. It was little surprise, then, that a Brookings Institution poll on American values conducted in September 2011 found that approximately two-thirds of Republicans, Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement, and Americans who most trusted Fox agreed that the values of Islam are at odds with the values of the United States. Additionally, nearly six in 10 Republicans who say they trust Fox also say that they believe that American Muslims are trying to establish Islamic law in America. In contrast, the attitudes of Republicans who view other news networks fall in line with the general population.

In December 2009, Fox News host Laura Ingraham interviewed Daisy Khan, the wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who was leading the initial push for the Park51 Islamic community center. At that time, there was little controversy over plans for the proposed building to be located near the ground zero site — so little that Ingraham even admitted that she liked what Khan and her husband were doing. “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it,” she admitted on air. “I know your group takes a moderate approach to Americanizing people, assimilating people, which I applaud. I think that’s fantastic.”

Soon, though, it would not be fantastic. At least not to Laura Ingraham who, in an about-face move, suddenly latched onto the anger and rage being ginned up by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. “I say the terrorists have won with the way this has gone down,” she sneered during an interview with ABC News in August 2010. “Six hundred feet from where thousands of our fellow Americans were incinerated in the name of political Islam, and we’re supposed to be — we’re supposed to be considered intolerant if we’re not cheering this?”

Little more than eight months had passed. That summer, though, had been dominated by the rise of a radical bunch of bloggers who had fashioned a controversy where one did not exist. Pamela Geller’s snarling write-up about the “Ground Zero Mosque” in early May 2010 was picked up by Andrea Peyser of the New York Post, a conservative newspaper owned by the man at the top of Fox News, Rupert Murdoch. Peyser’s regurgitation of Geller’s outrage reached hundreds of thousands of people, turning what was once a conspiracy theory of some unknown right-wing Internet prowlers into a major new story.

Fox News’ Sean Hannity had read Peyser’s piece. He was familiar with Pamela Geller too, and on May 13, 2010, just days after the story made national news, he invited Geller on his show to talk about it. “There is a giant mosque being planned to be built in an area right adjacent to ground zero,” he said. Of course, the Park51 community center’s 13 stories were relatively small compared to the towering skyscrapers that hovered over the streets in midtown Manhattan. But the word “giant” had a certain frightening ring that Hannity and Geller sought to sell. “Andrea Peyser wrote about it in the New York Post today,” he said. “Atlas Shrugs’s Pamela Geller, a blogger and columnist, is hosting a ‘No 9/11 Mosque’ rally at Ground Zero on June 6 to protest the construction and she now joins us on our newsmaker line.”

Media Matters reports that from May 13, 2010, until August 12, 2010 — a period of 91 days — Fox News shows hosted at least 47 different guests to discuss the project, 75 percent of whom opposed it. Nexis transcripts of Fox newscasts during that 13-week period were reviewed showing that just nine out of the 47 guests who appeared during that time favored the center. In some cases, guests expressed their personal opposition to the center but rejected the idea that it could be somehow prevented. Juan Williams, a former reporter for National Public Radio, was one of them. Appearing on Hannity’s show, he said, “I happen to agree with you about the idea that they shouldn’t build the mosque,” he told the Fox host. “But that doesn’t mean that we, as Americans, can say to him [Rauf] ‘No, you can’t build here.’ That’s wrong.” Williams stated his opinion plainly. It was something he did regularly — and something that two months later would cost him his job.

* * *

On Oct. 18, 2010, Williams was a guest at Fox News again. This time, instead of appearing on Sean Hannity’s show, he chatted with Bill O’Reilly. The conversation settled on Park51. As an analyst for NPR, it was familiar turf for Williams. He had navigated the prickliness of political issues before, careful not to reveal his personal opinions. But Fox News and Bill O’Reilly clearly had an agenda and after having ignited a small blaze of controversy earlier in the year by saying “Muslims attacked us on 9/11,” it was clear that O’Reilly was looking for someone to back him up.

“Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality,” Williams said. “I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

The remark did not seem to faze O’Reilly. In fact, it fit precisely into the narrative he was spinning: Muslims are people to be feared, especially Muslims in airplanes. Over at NPR, however, news of the comments was unsettling. As a political analyst, it was not Williams’ responsibility to offer his opinions on such issues. In fact, he was not being paid to offer his opinions at all. And to blatantly level a broad-brush blow at the Muslim community because he felt suspicious of them was not within the keeping of NPR’s journalistic standards. Williams was terminated from his position soon thereafter. Despite his initial shock over his firing, there was some good news for him. The stereotypical remarks were worth a cool $2 million — the amount of money that Fox News offered Williams for an extended three-year contract with its network. “In one arrogant move the NPR exposed itself for the leftist thought police they really are,” read one user’s comment on the radio network’s website. Maybe that was so — but Fox News had, by offering Williams an expanded role, encouraged and even financed Islamophobia.

* * *

Some have argued that Fox News’ viewers may not develop their negative views of Islam as a result of the station’s programming, but rather they flock to those shows that reinforce and confirm an already existing, deeply anti-Muslim bias. Even so, Fox News has propagated a climate that is conducive to such feelings; were objective viewers with no opinion of Islam or Muslims likely to tune in to an episode of Hannity or O’Reilly, they would likely not leave with an impression that was “fair and balanced.” The numbers were proof of that.

In February 2011, the Think Progress website released a study that detailed the specific ways that Fox News manipulates language to insinuate, or in many cases, state explicitly, that Muslims and Islam should be feared. Using three months’ worth of material gathered from various television programs from November 2010 to January 2011, a graph was compiled to show that the network disproportionately deployed terms that reflected a negative view of Muslims, more so than Fox News’ competitors. For example, Fox used the term “Shariah” 58 times over a three-month period, whereas CNN used the term 21 times, and MSNBC 19 times.

Similarly, Fox hosts brought up the phrases “radical Islam” or “extremist Islam” 107 times in three months, while CNN used the term 78 times and MSNBC only 24 times. Still, Fox used the word “jihad” 65 times, while CNN used it 57 and MSNBC used it 13 times.

That Fox News consistently ranked atop the list of networks that deployed these terms was not the real problem. The way in which they used the terms, however, was. They were often part of stories that made a larger point about allegedly nefarious Muslims who had either participated in some act of violence or were thought to be working their way into the political fabric of the United States.

In August 2006, for example, Fox News guest Mike Gallagher suggested an “all Muslims checkpoint line” at American airports. After the Fort Hood shooting in November 2009, for example, Fox host Brian Kilmeade suggested “special screenings” for Muslim U.S. soldiers. In 2010, Bill O’Reilly, host of "The O’Reilly Factor," said bluntly that “There’s no question that there is a Muslim problem in the world.” And Glenn Beck, on an Aug. 10, 2010, episode of "The Glenn Beck Show," said, “Stop with the government Muslim outreach programs, okay? I’m tired of it. I don’t care about the rest of the world. I don’t care.”

So eager was the network to jump on any story that cast Muslims in a strange or negative light, that the network embarrassed itself in March 2011 after it posted an article on its website claiming that an Islamic council in Pakistan had banned the sale of padded bras. As it turned out, the piece was tracked back to its original source, the Onion, revealing that it was a satirical article, one of many that the comedic website routinely posted to poke fun at societal oddities.

Of course, these examples are but a select few from a multitude of anti-Muslim comments on Fox News programs. They are also products of a conservative fear factory run by Fox News president Roger Ailes. The man behind much of the station’s conspiratorial fear-mongering, 71-year-old Ailes allows his own personal phobias to steer the agenda of Fox’s telecasts.

Ailes, a longtime adviser and strategist for the Republican Party, once told President Ronald Reagan to ditch facts and figures during his reelection campaign against Democratic contender Walter Mondale. In an article for Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson relates how Ailes advised the president: “You don’t get elected on details. You get elected on themes.” At Fox, he took his own advice, knowing full well the gripping power of emotion, especially fear. So encumbered with fright was Ailes that he traveled to work each day with a private security detail. He bought up the land surrounding his $1.6 million estate in order to broaden the security perimeter. He is sure that he is on the top of al-Qaida’s hit list. “You know, they’re coming to get me,” he told one friend. “I’m fully prepared and I’ve taken care of it.”

It was unlikely that al-Qaida had set its sights on Ailes, but there was no convincing him otherwise. On one occasion, as Ailes was sitting in his Fox News office monitoring the activity in the hallways on television monitors he had set up, a dark-skinned man in what appeared to be “Muslim garb” walked by. Ailes freaked and put the entire building on lockdown. “What the hell!” he shouted, apparently convinced that terrorists had finally tracked him down.

“This guy could be bombing me,” he said. It turned out that the man was a janitor. “Roger tore up the whole floor,” one source close to Ailes later recalled. “He has a personal paranoia about people who are Muslim — which is consistent with the ideology of his network.” Tim Dickinson of Rolling Stone magazine notes that Ailes is a master propagandist, so tuned in to the demographic makeup of his Fox audiences that he is able to calculate how and where and when to plant a story in the news stream to maximize its impact: The typical viewer of Hannity, to take the most stark example, is a pro-business (86 percent), Christian conservative (78 percent), Tea Party-backer (75 percent) with no college degree (66 percent), who is over age 50 (65 percent), supports the NRA (73 percent), doesn’t back gay rights (78 percent) and thinks government “does too much” (84 percent).

Targeting the show’s content to each group had proven to be a successful strategy. According to one insider, Ailes meets with Fox anchors prior to their broadcasts and feeds them talking points and message strategies. What appears to viewers as a casual conversation is actually a scripted dialogue. During the 2008 president election, Dickinson notes, “References to Obama’s middle name [Hussein] were soon being bandied about on 'Fox & Friends,' the morning happy-talk show that Ailes uses as one of his primary vehicles to inject his venom into the media bloodstream.” It was on that very program that suspicions about Barack Obama being a Muslim and trained in a madrassa were first raised.

Excerpted from "The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims" by Nathan Lean (ISBN: 9780745332536), Pluto Press, Sept. 2012 (Published by Pluto Press and distributed exclusively by Palgrave Macmillan in the U.S.)


By Nathan Lean

Nathan Lean is the research director at Georgetown University's new project on Islamophobia, the Bridge Initiative. He is the author of three books, including, most recently, "The Islamophobia Industry."

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Bill O'reilly Fox News Laura Ingraham Media Criticism Roger Ailes