Fox News' divisive race strategy: How O'Reilly, Hannity and Coulter intentionally tore America apart

False claims go unchallenged, racial fears are stoked -- and political scientists discover it helps GOP at polls

Published May 17, 2014 3:45PM (EDT)

  (Fox News)
(Fox News)

Excerpted from "The Wrongs of the Right: Race and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama"

Right-wing political figures have often defended the content of Fox News and other right-leaning media. A common ploy is the insinuation that the “mainstream” news establishment is in fact biased in favor of liberal ideological framings of issues or that it is actually antiwhite. For example, Sarah Palin famously blamed the “leftist lamestream media” for allegedly pressuring Newt Gingrich to soften his critique of Republican congressman Paul Ryan (while in fact the disapproval came from Fox News), and Palin again insinuated charges of political targeting when she decried the media as attacking right-wing figures with their brand of unfair “gotcha journalism.” Rush Limbaugh also compared the mainstream press to a “drive by shooter except the microphones are guns.” Limbaugh further asserted that the anti-right, mainstream media attempts to “destroy people’s careers. Then they get in the convertible, head on down the road and do it all over again, while people like you and me are left to clean up the mess with the truth. So I call them the drive-by media.”

The Fox News audience is distinct. Numerous studies have found Fox viewers to be less informed about political and current events than viewers of most other broadcast news and cable networks. This could mean either that Fox News performs less effectively in educating viewers or that Fox News attracts less knowledgeable audiences. Other studies have found that individuals who like news with in-depth interviews tend to watch network news and CNN more than Fox, and that individuals who prefer news that aligns with their already-formed opinions are much more likely to watch Fox News (while no such relationship exists for the CNN or network audiences). More research indicates that ABC, CBS, and NBC all favored their own polling numbers and reported “positive” polls for Bill Clinton and “negative” polls for George W. Bush, while Fox appeared to favor exactly the reverse. This would seem to indicate that Fox is simply on the conservative side of media bias. However, while all media outlets have political leanings, Fox News is exceptional in that Fox was especially willing to cite external polling numbers of Clinton if they were damaging—a practice that other news outlets did not perform.

Fox News also appears to cater to ethnocentric assumptions. This discourse has grown with the election of Obama to the White House. In one study, researchers asked panelists where they obtained their televised news about national and international affairs. Roughly one-quarter of respondents indicated that they received their information from Fox News. At the time of the study, questions of Obama’s birth were being raised. When asked if they believed Obama was born in the United States, only 21 percent of Fox viewers said that Obama was American born. The authors of the study, Michael Tesler and David O. Sears, wrote, “[T]he reinforcing and/or persuasive role of oppositional media outlets like Fox News and conservative talk radio could make it increasingly difficult to disabuse the sizable minority of individuals disposed to accepting invalid assertions designed to paint Obama as the ‘other.’” In the face of such evidence, many Fox apologists, commentators, and guests often defended the views of Birthers and Tea Party activists. While frequent Fox talking head Ann Coulter claimed that that no one on Fox ever mentioned “Birtherism,” research indicates that not only did Fox News mention it; they ramped up coverage of the Birthers leading up to the April 2011 release of the “long form” birth certificate. Moreover, at least 85 percent (forty-four out of fifty-two) of false claims about Obama’s birth went unchallenged on Fox News. Fox segments repeated that Obama never produced a birth certificate, that Obama’s grandmother said he was born in Kenya, and that Obama spent $2 million in legal funds blocking the release of his birth certificate.

As social scientists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson make clear in "The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism," Fox News realized in early 2009 that the Tea Party was a major conservative phenomenon in the making and “moved to become [its] cheerleader-in-chief.” Fox began speaking of major Tea Party events weeks in advance and they became more of an advertiser for the Tea Party than a source of news about them. This coverage glorified the future Tea Party events by creating buzz about the expected large crowds and the political and social effect of the rallies. Having just defected from CNN, Glenn Beck traveled to various cities to interview people days before Tea Party rallies even occurred. Skocpol and Williamson contend,

A week before the first annual April 15th Tea Party rallies in 2009, Fox News promotions kicked into an even higher gear. Glenn Beck told his viewers, “We’re getting ready for next week’s Tax Day tea parties. All across the country, people coming together to let the politicians know, OK, enough spending.” Sean Hannity was even more explicit: “And, of course, April 15th, our big show coming out of Atlanta. It’s Tax Day, our Tax Day tea party show. Don’t forget, we’re going to have ‘Joe the Plumber.’” At times, Fox anchors adopted an almost cajoling tone. On Sean Hannity’s show, viewers were told, “Anybody can come, it’s free,” while Beck fans were warned, “You don’t want to miss it.” . . . [D]uring the first weeks of the Tea Party, Fox News directly linked the network’s brand to these protests and allowed members of the “Fox Nation” to see the Tea Parties as a natural outgrowth of their identity as Fox News viewers.

Simply put, Fox did not simply cover Tea Party events as they transpired, but rather helped to create and sediment support for the fledging movement in its weakest stages.

With the alignment of Birther and Tea Party movements with GOP and other hard-right-wing candidates, Fox News is shown to have a significant effect on voting patterns. In a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan find that

[t]owns with Fox News have a 0.4 to 0.7 percentage point higher Republican vote share in the 2000 Presidential elections, compared to the 1996 elections. A vote shift of this magnitude is likely to have been decisive in the 2000 elections. We also find an effect on vote share in Senate elections which Fox News does not cover, suggesting that the Fox News impact extends to general political beliefs. Finally, we find evidence that Fox News increased turnout to the polls.

Consistent with evidence of media effects on political beliefs and voting, this recent research indicates that exposure to Fox News may very well induce undecided viewers to vote for Republican candidates. Together, these findings demonstrate the unique character of Fox News, its power to influence voting patterns, and the makeup of its audience.

Fox News and associates constantly constructed the average white viewer as a hard-working American who is, at base, frightened by the unfair and racialized agenda of Obama. Characterizing the white viewer as an American under the assault of a dark and dangerous “other” implies a racial conflict in which the white viewer is an innocent bystander in the racial drama directed by the Obama administration.

For example, in July of 2008 Glenn Beck engaged in a pithy race-based fear-mongering remark on his Fox News show. He stated that Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture” and that Obama “is, I believe, a racist.” After other journalists and activists asked him to specify, rationalize, or retract his remarks, Rupert Murdoch defended Beck’s comment. In a November 2009 interview with Australia’s Sky News, Murdoch said,

On the racist thing, that caused a grilling. But he [Obama] did make a very racist comment. Ahhh . . . about, you know, blacks and whites and so on, and which he said in his campaign he would be completely above. And um, that was something which perhaps shouldn’t have been said about the President, but if you actually assess what he was talking about, he was right.

Moreover, Sean Hannity joined Murdoch in defending Beck’s assertion that Obama is a “racist.” In discussing Beck’s comment, Hannity stated, “But wait a minute. Wait, hang on a second. When the president hangs out with Jeremiah Wright for 20 years, I’m—can one conclude that there are issues with the president, black liberation theology?”

Right-wing pundit Mark Levin went so far as to frame Obama as a cult-like figure whom whites should reasonably fear as heralding the opening stages of a fascist social order:

There is a cult-like atmosphere around Barack Obama, which his campaign has carefully and successfully fabricated, which concerns me. The messiah complex. Fainting audience members at rallies. Special Obama flags and an Obama presidential seal. A graphic with the portrayal of the globe and Obama’s name on it, which adorns everything from Obama’s plane to his street literature. Young school children singing songs praising Obama. Teenagers wearing camouflage outfits and marching in military order chanting Obama’s name and the professions he is going to open to them. An Obama world tour, culminating in a speech in Berlin where Obama proclaims we are all citizens of the world. I dare say, this is ominous stuff.

During an October 2008 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Michael Savage stated,

I fear that Obama will stir up a race war. You want to ask me what I fear? I think Obama will empower the racists in this country and stir up a race war in order to seize absolute power. I believe that’s what he will do. It will not be as overt as you may think, but it’ll be a subtle race war on every level imaginable.

As the show went on, Savage took an online caller, who stated,

I absolutely agree with you as far as the race war goes. I think the greatest thing that concerns me about Obama is his resentment toward this country. I feel that him and his wife feel that they have fought very hard against whites, and that everything that they have, they are entitled to versus being thankful and feeling privileged for living in this country, and what this country has provided in terms of opportunities.

To this Savage replied, “Correct. And affirmative action helped both of them, there’s no question about it.”

White viewers of Fox were constantly framed as people who should be frightened and apprehensive about issues pertaining to race. In February 2007 Glenn Beck stated that he doesn’t “have a lot of African-American friends [because] . . . I’m afraid that I would be in an open conversation, and I would say something that somebody would take wrong, and then it would be a nightmare.” In this same vein, Bill O’Reilly stated, “Instead of black and white Americans coming together, white Americans are terrified. They’re terrified. Now we can’t even say you’re articulate? We can’t even give you guys compliments because they may be taken as condescension?” In this way, Fox commentators played up racial fears and anxieties, while painting whites as victims of overly sensitive nonwhites, race-baiters, and political correctness.

Seizing upon this fear, Fox News and right-wing commentators anointed themselves as the real civil rights activists of today’s “anti-white” era. Glenn Beck stated that his Restoring Honor rally was to “reclaim the civil rights movement.” So also, in 2007, Michael Savage stated,

[B]asically, if you’re talking about a day like today, Martin Luther King Junior Day, and you’re gonna understand what civil rights has become, the con it’s become in this country. It’s a whole industry; it’s a racket. It’ s a racket that is used to exploit primarily heterosexual, Christian, white males’ birthright and steal from them what is their birthright and give it to people who didn’t qualify for it. Take a guess out of whose hide all of these rights are coming. They’re not coming out of women’s hides.

Are they? No, there’s only one group that’s targeted, and that group are white, heterosexual males. They are the new witches being hunted by the illiberal left using the guise of civil rights and fairness to women and whatnot.

By stoking racial fears and framing themselves as the true heirs of the Civil Rights Movement, conservative commentators can effectively advance a pro-white agenda that seeks to roll back some of the progressive gains toward equality of the past half-century while mystifying any such overt claim or color-conscious agenda.

These examples illustrate that the white-as-victim narrative both is widely shared and carries resonance across the right-wing media airwaves. Indeed, the story of white victimization is, in our supposedly “post-racial era,” a dominant feature of the media’s obsession with race. The right-wing media calls out to its viewers to identify as racialized white victims. And in competing for audience viewership, networks like Fox attract white viewership by telling them they deserve both social sympathy and a (white) badge of courage for the battle wounds they have received for simply being white. The white audience’s righteous indignation is constructed through a media narrative that tells them they should feel displeasure with the legal initiatives (for example, affirmative action) that are not redressing past discrimination but enacting it upon them in the present. This makes the political quite personal. Such right-wing media discourse reinterprets historical and current patterns into personal attacks in which a black bogey man (today incarnated in the personage of Obama) hates them only because they are white. Importantly, these media messages attempt a paradoxical recovery of white political domination through the discourse of personal white victimization.

“Race-Obsessed” Obama

While a significant talking point of right-wing commentators is that race is declining in significance, this course was frequently reversed when they discussed Obama. That is, Obama was often framed as a racially obsessed man, driven to institute draconian measures that would drive the country into a race war or that would, at least, cause a bevy of unfortunate racial interactions. For example, Glenn Beck has constantly framed Obama’s policies and statements as evidence of a secret plan for black reparations. In July of 2009 Beck stated, “This guy [Obama] is not who he says he is. None of his bills, none of his proposals are about what he says they’re about. The health care bill is reparations. It’s the beginning of reparations. He’s going to give—if you want to go into medical school, the medical schools will get more federal dollars if they have proven that they are putting minorities ahead.” The very next day, Beck returned to the theme:

Everything getting pushed through Congress—including this health care bill—is transforming America. And it’s all driven by President Obama’s thinking on one idea: reparations. “Oh Glenn, you are crazy! President Obama is against reparations. He said so himself.” Yes, he did say that. What the media conveniently ignores is the reason why he is against them. As I warned before the election, he doesn’t think they go far enough: “I fear that reparations would be an excuse for some to say, ‘We’ve paid our debt’ and to avoid the much harder work.” I had forgotten about Obama’s position on reparations until a couple of days ago. It ties everything together. What is that “harder work”?

The notion that Obama would put racial identity politics above the good of the entire country continued to be expressed in right-wing media outlets. Months later on November 5, 2009, a tragic shooting at the Fort Hood military base outside of Killeen, Texas, took place. Obama addressed the nation from a Tribal Nations Conference that was hosted by the Department of the Interior. He began his remarks by acknowledging the US government’s commitment to ensuring that “the first Americans get the best possible chances in life in a way that is consistent with your extraordinary traditions, and culture and values.” Obama then went on to address the “tragic shooting in Fort Hood army base in Texas. . . . My immediate thoughts and prayers are with the wounded and with the families of the fallen and with those that live and serve at Fort Hood.”

In response to Obama’s remarks, Glenn Beck stated on Fox News, “When the president was sitting there, or standing there, and he was talking about Native American rights in the middle of a tragedy, Fort Hood, it didn’t feel right. And it seemed, maybe to me, that he was even promising reparations.”

Beck was not alone in painting Obama as a president obsessed with race. In June 2009, Rush Limbaugh opined,

They want reparations. What they don’t know is that Obama’s entire economic program is reparations! If I were Sharpton, if I’d been guest hosting Sharpton’s show and I got a call like that, somebody complaining, I’d say, “Shhhh. Shhhh. Shhhh. Let me tell you the truth here. Everything in the stimulus plan, every plan he’s got is reparations. He gonna take from the rich. He’s going to take from the rich and he’s going to give it to you. It just can’t happen overnight. Be patient.” It’s redistribution of wealth, reparations, “returning the nation’s wealth to its rightful owners,” whatever you want to call it. It’s reparations.

If not framed as a reparations-obsessed president, Obama has often been painted as either a candidate or a politician pandering to racial interests. In January of 2007 Rush Limbaugh stated, “Hey Barack Obama has picked up another endorsement: ‘Halfrican-American’ actress Halle Berry. As a ‘Halfrican American’ I am honored to have Ms. Berry’s support as well as the support of other ‘Halfrican Americans.’” In February 2008 Ann Coulter said in utter simplicity, “You’re electing a black guy and he only cares about African Americans.”

Obama was also characterized as a racial hypocrite who would exacerbate racial tensions due to his unfair bias toward blacks. In July 2010 Fox Business News’ America’s Nightly Scoreboard host David Asman stated that Obama “is defending racists in . . . letting the Black Panthers off.” Conservative radio host, author, and political commentator Laura Ingraham stated in July 2010 on The O’Reilly Factor that “I believe much of what’s been done in this administration unfortunately has set back race relations in this country, perhaps a generation. I predicted that would happen a year ago on my radio show. And I stand by that today.”

The attacks on Obama and his administration reached a fever pitch in July 2010 when conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart falsely suggested (via a doctored video) that Shirley Sherrod—in her former position with the USDA—had racially discriminated against white farmers. The video was hosted on Breitbart’s website and broadcast on "The O’Reilly Factor," after which Bill O’Reilly called for Sherrod’s resignation. Tea Party organizer Dana Loesch also appeared on "Larry King Live" to frame Sherrod as antiwhite and the Obama administration as soft on black racists. In particular, conservative commentators referenced Sherrod in relation to the Obama administration’s earlier decision to scale back prosecution of allegations that the New Black Panther Party had engaged in voter intimidation. Such comparisons were used to label the Obama administration as racially hypocritical and antiwhite. In the wake of these accusations, Sherrod received numerous demands from government officials to submit her resignation. Days later it was revealed that Breitbart had doctored the video in order to racially defame Sherrod and the Obama administration. In such a racially hostile climate, Washington Post writer Jonathan Capehart suggested that the Obama administration fired Sherrod in order to avoid conservative claims that it was racist. Toward that end, Capehart said that Sherrod was Obama’s “sacrificial lamb.” Princeton professor Imani Perry wrote that the entire spectacle was a conservative manipulation of latent white fears that Obama—and black officials in his administration—would discriminate against whites: “I think many white Americans are fearful that with Obama in the White House, and the diversity in his appointments, that the racial balance of power is shifting. And that’s frightening both because people always are afraid to give up privilege, and because of the prospect of a black-and-brown backlash against a very ugly history.”

Othering Obama

If not engaging in discourse that framed Obama as a man obsessed with racial reparations or with giving black people the upper hand against whites, conservative media pundits caricatured Obama. Through religious, economic, political, nationalist, and racial themes and symbolism, Obama was implicitly and explicitly “othered” as out of place and unbelonging in the United States. For example, in April 2008 Ann Coulter published an article about Obama’s autobiography, "Dreams from My Father." Her essay, entitled “Obama’s Dimestore ‘Mein Kampf,’” stated, “Has anybody read this book? Inasmuch as the book reveals Obama to be a flabbergasting lunatic, I gather the answer is no. Obama is about to be our next president: You might want to take a peek. If only people had read ‘Mein Kampf.’” Here, Obama is painted as a National Socialist and compared to Adolph Hitler. Yet, later that year, in October, Michael Savage framed Obama as a “communist,” an “Afro-Leninist,” and a “noncitizen”:

We’re getting ready for the communist takeover of America with a non-citizen at the helm—I love it. He won’t even produce a birth certificate. Don’t you love that? Something as basic as Obama’s birth certificate now is an issue. I mean, if he’s got nothing to hide, show it to me. Doesn’t exist. It does not exist, they can’t find it in the Hawaii government. It’s never been produced. The one that was produced is a forgery. Go to my website, read the story.

Continuing in the trend of othering, Glenn Beck framed Obama as a non-Western other who would seek US destruction through foreign policy choices. Specifically, Beck stated that Obama’s policy would lead to “the destruction of Israel and . . . the end of the Western way of life, period.”

Sean Hannity took the othering discourse even farther when he explained how Obama would destroy nearly every supposedly cherished aspect of Western culture. In his book "Conservative Victory: Defeating Obama’s Radical Agenda," Hannity wrote, “Obama and his party stand for America’s economic bankruptcy, virtual surrender in the war on terror, and a culture of death, from abortion to embryonic stem cell research to healthcare rationing tantamount to death panels.” Obama is constantly reconstructed as the quintessential anti-American. Ann Coulter (in dialogue with liberal commentator Alan Colmes) stated in 2007, “I do think anyone named B. Hussein Obama should avoid using ‘hijack’ and ‘religion’ in the same sentence.” Colmes replied, “I see. So, in other words, you want to paint him as a terrorist by continuing to use—to highlight that his middle name is Hussein?” Coulter responded, “Just avoid those two together.”

Similarly, in February 2010, Glenn Beck stated, “He chose to use his name, Barack, for a reason. To identify not with America—you don’t take the name Barack to identify with America. You take the name Barack to identify, with what? Your heritage? The heritage, maybe, of your father in Kenya, who is a radical?” Here Beck denies the melting-pot theory and the diversity of America and insinuates that Obama’s first name is a valid window into the soul of a radical Kenyan who refuses to identify with the United States. Moreover, Ann Coulter stated simply, “He has a middle name that sounds like a ‘terrorist’ therefore he’s ‘soft’ on terror and national defense.” The right-wing tactic of drawing audience attention to Obama’s full name as evidence of his quintessential otherness has been continually deployed to the effect of it becoming a slur. As Nathan Thornburgh of Time magazine wrote of Obama’s middle name “Hussein,” “So maybe the H-word is more like the N-word: you can say it, but only if you are an initiate. Blacks can use the N-word; Obama supporters can use the H-word.”

Bill O’Reilly brought the point home in March 2008 in his description of Obama’s supposed hatred for the United States: “How can you be close to a man who hates America that much?” His rhetorical question asks voters how they could in good conscience support, or vote for, Obama, thereby reconstructing the public image of Obama as an evil man, fueled by his hatred of America and bent on destroying the United States. Mark Levin expanded on this trope of hate in terms of Obama’s foreignness in an explicit way in July 2009:

The President, you know, they just put Bernie Madoff away for life; the President’s policies are Bernie Madoff times a thousand. He is taking a wrecking ball to this society. The American people love this country. They love its institutions; they revere the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. What the President is peddling is something utterly foreign.

By reshaping the president’s image into that of a thief (akin to Bernie Madoff) bent on stealing money from the US public, coupled with the portrayal of his tax plan (in which the rich pay more than the current tax rate) as utterly foreign, Levin presents xenophobic messages as objective news.

These examples indicate how right-wing news marries Obama to the already hyper-reactionary Islamophobia and nativism that began anew in the post-9/11 United States. That widespread fear of the “others” in our midst (even the White House) drives public support for not only the GOP but also repressive national security policies, any policy that the Republicans can deem “socialist,” and a juggernaut industrial-military complex, while it also engenders an organized, grass-roots backlash in the form of hyper-conservative Christian groups and anti-immigrant, vigilante, white-supremacist, and nationalist organizations.

In addition to being labeled non-Western, noncitizen, foreign, U.S.-hating, Nazi, Communist, and “Afro-Leninist,” Obama has been consistently constructed as an “affirmative action president.” Right-wing commentators continually tell their audiences that Obama did not achieve any of his successes on his own merit and that his inferior candidacy is thus being forced down their throats. A key talking head in this strategy has been Rush Limbaugh. For example, in May of 2008, Limbaugh stated, “Barack Obama is an affirmative action candidate”; and “[i] If Barack Obama were Caucasian, they would have taken this guy out on the basis of pure ignorance long ago.” Later, in June 2008, Limbaugh stated that the Democratic Party was “go[ing] with a veritable rookie [then Senator Obama] whose only chance of winning is that he’s black.” Returning to this theme in July 2010 Limbaugh stated,

[Obama] wouldn’t have been voted president if he weren’t black. Somebody asked me over the weekend why does somebody earn a lot of money have a lot of money, because she’s black. It was Oprah. No, it can’t be. Yes, it is. There’s a lot of guilt out there, show we’re not racists, we’ll make this person wealthy and big and famous and so forth. . . . If Obama weren’t black he’d be a tour guide in Honolulu or he’d be teaching Saul Alinsky constitutional law or lecturing on it in Chicago.

The tactic of deriding black accomplishment as due to white handouts works to both negate black meritocratic actions and paint the white majority as a group from which resources are being stolen.

Excerpted from "The Wrongs of the Right: Race and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama" by Matthew W. Hughey and Gregory S. Parks. Published by NYU Press. Copyright © 2014 Matthew W. Hughey and Gregory S. Parks. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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