Fox News has its own civil rights struggle

While the nation discusses racial and economic equality, the cable network is covering a totally different story

By Ellen Brodsky
Published August 28, 2013 11:43AM (EDT)
George Zimmerman and Sean Hannity, during a 2012 Fox News interview.                (Fox News, screenshot composite by Salon)
George Zimmerman and Sean Hannity, during a 2012 Fox News interview. (Fox News, screenshot composite by Salon)

On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream" speech and as the country takes stock of where we have progressed (or not) since then, President Obama is poised to make a historic speech of his own today. Fox News, however, seems determined to persuade America that civil rights have gone too far and even suggest that whites are the real racial victims now.

It’s been widely reported how Fox News has been so obsessed with black crime and white victims of late that it's pounced on the horrific murder of Australian college student Christopher Lane in Oklahoma and painted him as the white person’s Trayvon Martin. Never mind that the analogy could not be further off or that Fox insisted the (liberal) media wrongly brought race into the Martin shooting in the first place. The Oklahoma district attorney has announced that the evidence does not indicate that a racial hate crime was committed. But that has not stopped Fox from playing the race card anyway. Apparently, if they think they have a good pretext to screech “double standard!” at President Obama, the media and African-American leaders, the facts don’t need to be taken into consideration.

The same thing happened with a beating on a Florida bus a few weeks ago. After a white teenager was beaten up by three black teens, Fox News talking heads were in lockstep accusing African-Americans of hypocrisy despite Sean Hannity’s admission, “We don’t really know what’s behind this.” Just pay no attention to how the prosecutor said the motive was revenge for the white teen reporting the black kids for dealing drugs. Fox certainly didn’t.

But as ugly and pernicious as that behavior is, there’s something even worse afoot: the not-so-subtle demonization of African-Americans as anti-white hustlers. Fox has never been friendly to African-Americans unless they’re the conservative, liberal-hating kind. But they’ve really kicked it up several notches in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict. In addition to its relentless focus on black crime, Fox also seems to have all hands on deck looking for opportunities to portray African-Americans who speak out about race as greedy con artists. Hence, as soon as the news arose about the racially tinged antics of an “Obama” rodeo clown, Fox News pundits did not just defend the stunt but accused those who were offended of “overreaction,” stifling free speech and hypocrisy.

And then there is the war on Oprah. In case you missed it, Oprah Winfrey had the audacity to opine that “in my mind” the Trayvon Martin case was the “same thing” as Emmett Till. In reality, Oprah was talking up the racial progress of the U.S. and how, while it was “so easy” to “get stuck” on Trayvon, we really need to “see how far we’ve come” and “give ourselves a round of applause.” But Fox seized on those comments as some kind of “proof” that Winfrey was being racially divisive and engaging in “racial poison.” Even worse, after a store clerk disputed Winfrey’s claim of being racially profiled, Fox News’ (white) Martha MacCallum and her white Republican guest instantly assumed Winfrey was the one in the wrong and scolded her for damaging race relations. Bill O’Reilly lectured Winfrey for playing the “victimhood card” and Sean Hannity appeared in front of a large graphic blaring “OPRAH OUTRAGE” as he tried (but failed) to use the news of her upcoming Presidential Medal of Freedom Award to insinuate that President Obama was rewarding her supposed racial animosity.

And now, as we all gasp over the latest racial “outrage,” an African-American Immigration and Customs Enforcement employee who “spends spare time promoting race war against whites” (because his website slipped through the cracks of a government check), Fox is using the anniversary of Dr. King’s speech as a new excuse to gin up racial hostility.

Chris Wallace sent a clear message on Fox News Sunday when he “asked,” in anticipation of President Obama’s speech: (A)t what point have we gone as far as the country, as the government needs to go in putting a thumb on the scale if you will? … (A)t what point do we in effect say, you're on your own? Obviously there'll be government programs to help poor people or education in the inner city, but not this kind of special preference affirmative action.”

The question speaks volumes about Fox News' attitudes toward civil rights in the 21st century: There’s a “thumb on the scale” to ensure “special preference” for African-Americans. And like a 4-year-old during a tiresome car trip, whining, “Are we there yet?” Wallace is really signaling, “I’ve had enough of this whether we’re there yet or not.”

Bill O’Reilly took it a step further in his Talking Points commentary Monday night. He implied that the vision of Dr. King had been corrupted by modern-day African-Americans. Insisting that King would have been “appalled” at “the violent crime wave caused by young black men,” as well as the high rate of unwed pregnancies in the black community, rap music and “other pernicious entertainment,” O’Reilly attacked the “civil rights industry, teachers unions, far left media and apathetic Americans” for “working together to block any kind of meaningful problem solving or cultural reform in this country.”  He concluded, “In the end, it is indeed about the content of character. When will the civil rights industry get back to that?”

Or to put it another way, in O’Reilly’s world, Dr. King would agree with him that the content of the character of modern-day African-Americans is quite lacking.

But in the real world, not so much. O’Reilly chastised the speakers at the 50th anniversary commemoration held in Washington on Saturday for being “heavy on grievance, light on problem solving.” He complained there had been “a lot” about racial profiling, voter identification requirements and “questionable comparisons of Trayvon Martin to Emmett Till.”

In doing so, O’Reilly conveniently ignored the actual words of Dr. King 50 years ago and those of King's son that weekend. Dr. King’s iconic speech directly addressed voting rights, saying, “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ … We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote.” Martin Luther King III, someone who would almost certainly know more about what his father thought than O’Reilly, spoke about how the Trayvon Martin shooting is a reminder that King’s vision is “not complete,” that “the color of one's skin remains a license to profile, to arrest and to even murder with no regard for the content of one's character.”

Given Fox’s symbiosis with the Republican Party and given the GOP’s supposed desire to win back minority voters, it’s hard to understand what Fox thinks is to be gained from this outpouring of antipathy. But chances are that today, O’Reilly’s colleagues will join him in usurping the message of Dr. King – even as they deliberately work to undermine it.

Ellen Brodsky

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