Fox News foments another violent outbreak: From Cliven Bundy to Jerad Miller, words matter

Five years after I clashed with O’Reilly about his network’s dangerous rhetoric, it's still promoting extremism

Published June 10, 2014 6:59PM (EDT)

Roger Ailes, Cliven Bundy      (Reuters/Fred Prouser/Jim Urquhart/photo collage by Salon)
Roger Ailes, Cliven Bundy (Reuters/Fred Prouser/Jim Urquhart/photo collage by Salon)

Cord Jefferson has a wonderful piece about how hard it is to keep writing about the latest outbreak of virulent racism -- he calls it "the racism beat" -- whether it’s the Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, police official who called President Obama a “fucking n****r,” or Donald Sterling, or Cliven Bundy, or Justin Bieber, or Janelle Ambrosia, the stripper who’s apparently as comfortable with the N-word as with a G-string. Instead of taking on another assignment to explain that the latest outrage is outrageous, Jefferson longs to submit a simple line of text: “Black people are normal people deserving of the same respect afforded to anyone else, but they often aren’t given that respect due to the machinations of white supremacy.”

I sympathize with Jefferson. Today, I’m feeling similarly about the latest gun violence by right-wing maniacs, white supremacists and Cliven Bundy supporters Jerad and Amber Miller, who shot two police officers and an armed civilian and wrapped the officers in the Gadsden flag, which has become the ugly yellow emblem of the anti-Obama resistance, flown at countless Tea Party rallies.

I’m coming to believe we need another bit of boilerplate language to react to these kinds of killings: “Not all Republicans are racist or violent, but increasingly eliminationist rhetoric against President Obama and Democrats is fomenting extremism – and Fox News is making things worse.”

On Thursday it will be five years since my showdown with Bill O’Reilly, after I suggested O’Reilly might consider toning down his extreme rhetoric in the wake of the murder of Dr. George Tiller, the man he famously called “Tiller the baby killer” many times. Our sit-down came after I expressed more general concern, on Salon and MSNBC, about the extremism of right-wing rhetoric in the wake of Obama’s election.

My O’Reilly anniversary may have something to do with the combination of fear and exhaustion I feel reading about the Millers. Wrangling with O’Reilly was bad enough; worse still was the torrent of online abuse from his fans -- thousands of tweets, comments on Salon and personal emails wishing all manner of misfortune on me and my family, along with two personal letters to the Salon office that we shared with our lawyers.  I learned then that a “death threat” requires someone to say they have plans to kill you, not merely that they wish to see you dead.

Back then, I thought it might be worth asking whether Fox’s increasingly shrill attacks on Obama could be contributing to a spike in violent rhetoric, and actual violence. For context, my conversation with O’Reilly wasn’t just about Tiller: an African-American security guard at Washington’s Holocaust museum, Stephen Tyrone Johns, had just been murdered by a white supremacist birther. That came months after a fan of Glenn Beck (then at Fox) murdered four police officers in Pittsburgh. We were heading into a summer of hate that would soon spawn “town hells” trashing Democrats (and moderate Republicans) over healthcare reform, and gun-carrying “patriots” waving Gadsden flags at Obama rallies.  I thought Fox might want to take a look at its role in fomenting an unhinged opposition that was starting to move from rhetoric to violence. Of course, I was wrong.

Five years later, just as Fox promoted anti-Obama extremism in the first months of his presidency, so did it try to turn Cliven Bundy and his armed supporters into the second coming of the American Revolution, rising against the “tyrant” in the White House. Over 12 days in April, Fox spent almost five hours covering the ranch standoff, led by Sean Hannity. (To be fair to O'Reilly, he actually challenged one Bundy backer he interviewed. Some Republican lawmakers joined in: Nevada Sen. Dean Heller called the Bundy Ranch defenders “patriots,” and 2016 contenders like Rand Paul and Texas Gov. Rick Perry also jumped on the Bundy bandwagon – only to disembark when their hero made predictably racist statements about “the Negro.” They never explained – and they never were forced to explain – why they endorsed an armed militia threatening federal agents with violence, merely because those agents were threatening to enforce the law.

And now we have the Millers, who were, to be fair, too extreme for even the Bundy encampment; apparently Jerad Miller was turned away because he had a felony record. But it’s not just the Millers; they were almost upstaged in the past week by “sovereign citizen” Dennis Marx, who shot a sheriff’s deputy and planned to take over the courthouse in Forsyth County, Georgia, before he was killed by police. The sovereign citizen “movement” doesn’t acknowledge the legitimacy of the U.S. government. (Oh, and by the way, Forsyth County was the site of an early 20th century race riot that resulted in 98 percent of its black population moving away. Fun fact.) Meanwhile, the parents of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl are facing what the FBI considers credible death threats for the crime of trying to get their son out of captivity by the Taliban. The beat goes on.

I’m getting tired of writing patient explainers like this one – thanks, Paul Waldman, for taking one for the team this time. I just want to say what Digby said: She quotes Waldman, and earlier pieces by Rick Perlstein and David Neiwert, showing how the election of Democratic presidents so often leads to spikes in violent rhetoric and violence itself. John F. Kennedy’s election was followed by rising hate from the John Birch Society and armed anti-Communist "Minutemen"; Bill Clinton coped with a rising militia movement and the Oklahoma City terrorist attack (along with the NRA's Wayne LaPierre demonizing federal agents as “jack-booted thugs"); Barack Obama begat the paranoid and often racist anti-government Tea Party, abetted by Fox News and, of course, the NRA's LaPierre.

What’s different is that under Obama, the rhetoric from elected Republicans and mainstream conservative pundits has gotten more extreme. One-term congressman and Fox News contributor Allen West has declared, “We have a tyrant in the White House.” As Congress and the White House debated common-sense gun regulation in the wake of the Newtown massacre, Fox’s guests and hosts were warning that Obama was planning massive gun confiscation and comparing him to Hitler. At CPAC this year Sen. Ted Cruz suggested that Obama’s use of executive orders means “you have a president picking and choosing which laws to follow and which laws to ignore,” and therefore “you no longer have a president.”

Which means you have a dictator, or, again, a tyrant; someone whose blood might need to water the “tree of liberty,” to quote from the T-shirt that gun-toting liberty lover William Kostric wore to a 2009 Obama rally in New Hampshire.

Like Digby and Waldman and Perlstein and Neiwert, I’ve written about all of it time and time again. When you have the impulse to simply quote long blocks of your own earlier writings, maybe it’s time to turn your attention elsewhere. And I would, if these killings didn’t keep happening.

This combination of fear and exhaustion, I think, helps explain why I reacted so strongly to Jonathan Chait’s uncharacteristically blinkered piece on racial politics in the age of Obama. I like Chait and generally agree with him, but in his piece he used me as an example of a liberal unfairly maligning Bill O’Reilly as having untoward racial views in his Super Bowl Sunday interview with Obama, when I should have assumed O’Reilly merely has political and policy differences with the president and was criticizing him in good faith.

I don’t see how you can assume O’Reilly does anything in good faith after the last six years. If you doubt that O’Reilly and Fox are playing to the worst impulses of American politics, then I invite you to join O’Reilly and be told you have blood on your hands because you support abortion rights. Oh, and to be a woman, or a person of color, while doing same, because for the far right, our full participation in this society is always conditional on being on their side. To experience that wrath is to know the violence that lurks within the far-right anti-Obama movement – along with perfectly legitimate nonviolent conservatism -- and to fear it. And to know that the reflexive “Both Sides Do It” mainstream media fetish is part of the problem.

But instead of quoting from my earlier pieces about all of this, I’ll give the last word to Paul Waldman, something for Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly and Ted Cruz and Rand Paul to think about before the next killings:

When you broadcast every day that the government of the world’s oldest democracy is a totalitarian beast bent on turning America into a prison of oppression and fear, when you glorify lawbreakers like Cliven Bundy, when you say that your opponents would literally destroy the country if they could, you can’t profess surprise when some people decide that violence is the only means of forestalling the disaster you have warned them about.

DHS Official: Fox News Could Inspire Right-Wing Violence 'Certainly'

By Joan Walsh